Predicting the Unpredictable

Inspiration for today's forecasting needs.

The first thing many of us did today - even before brewing a cup of coffee - was to pick up our smartphone and check the weather. Within a few seconds, it was clear if we would need an umbrella and/or a warm coat if we stepped outside for a lunch-time walk to the shops.

This easy access to accurate weather forecasts belies how complicated they actually are to assemble. Continuous measurements of temperature, wind, humidity and air-pressure from all over the world are needed to feed data into simulations of our planet’s atmosphere that run on supercomputers. Knowing the precise state of the atmosphere today helps forecast the weather for tomorrow (and beyond).

The idea that anyone could predict the weather began in the mind of Robert FitzRoy, a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy and founder of the Meteorological Office. By the early 1850s, he had already spent years mapping wind directions from around the British coastline and collating endless barometer readings. In 1861 he made the leap to prediction, publishing his first weather forecast - a term he invented - in The Times. It was, unfortunately, almost entirely useless and prompted a barrage of complaints, reports The Economist.

It took a century before weather forecasting would begin to turn into a numerical, and then computational, science. But it was FitzRoy who planted the seed that, if you could collect the right data and analyse it with the right techniques, even an impossibly complex system would become predictable.

In 2021, as the world grapples with another year of covid-19, FitzRoy’s story resonates with scientists who are looking for ways to ensure that something as devastating as this pandemic never happens again. They’re daring to ask the question: could we forecast outbreaks of disease and prevent future pandemics?

Whilst it's horrible to think that another pandemic may strike, we all know that it's inevitable. Wouldn't it be good news if Robert FitzRoy could be the inspiration for forecasting it - and, therefore, preparing for it - before it arrived?