When did computer-based weather forecasts begin?

Numerous computers and monitors enable National Weather Service operations.
(Photo Credit: NWS Green Bay)

Immediately after World War II, it became fashionable to imagine technologies that might allow human beings to control the weather. In fact, one goal advocated by influential scientists was actually to explode nuclear bombs in the right locations and in the right quantity to alter the weather in favorable ways.

Such an enterprise would require accurate forecasts of the weather thought possible by using brand new computer technology to make the millions of requisite calculations.

The drive to use computer models for weather forecasting was initiated at a secret meeting at U.S. Weather Bureau headquarters on the rainy morning of Jan. 6, 1946. After a series of successes and setbacks that mostly discouraged the broad meteorological community, the first operational computer-generated forecasts were issued on the afternoon of May 6, 1955. Thus, in less than 10 years the notion of computer-based forecasting went from dream to reality.

In the intervening 65 years, the combination of increased theoretical understanding both of meteorology and computational science, increased observational capacity (a good deal of which stems from satellite data), and sheer hard work on the part of a legion of dedicated scientists has resulted in our current forecasting capability.

The fact that our ubiquitous smart phones give everyone access to quite reasonable forecasts several days in advance is the end result of a what might be considered the greatest scientific advance of the second-half of the 20th century. So, as you consult your phone for the forecast, remember that one of the first baby steps in numerical weather prediction was taken 65 years ago Wednesday.

Category: Meteorology

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