Lewis Fry Richardson and the accurate Weather Forecast

Weather map of Europe, 10 December 1887.

Weather map of Europe, 10 December 1887.

On October 11, 1811English mathematician, physicist, meteorologist, psychologist and pacifist Lewis Fry Richardsen was born. Richardson pioneered modern mathematical techniques of weather forecasting, and the application of similar techniques to studying the causes of wars and how to prevent them. He is also noted for his pioneering work concerning fractals and a method for solving a system of linear equations known as modified Richardson iteration.

Lewis Fry Richardson attended Durham College of Science, studying mathematical physics, chemistry, botany, and zoology. At King’s College at the University of CambridgeRichardson was taught physics in the natural sciences tripos, for instance by Professor JJ Thomson. Lewis Fry Richardson received the doctorate in mathematical psychology from the University of London.

Weather forecasting dates back to the Babylonians, predicting weather from cloud patterns and astrology around 650 BC. Aristotle wrote about weather patterns in Meteorologica and later on, Theophrastus compiled a book on weather forecasting, called the Book of Signs. In 904 AD, Ibn Wahshiyya’s Nabatean Agriculture discussed the weather forecasting of atmospheric changes and signs from the planetary astral alterations, signs of rain based on observation of the lunar phases, and weather forecasts based on the movement of winds.

The age of modern weather forecasting began around the time of the invention of the electric telegraph in 1835. The reason is probably that the telegraph technology allowed reports of weather conditions from a wide area to be received almost instantaneously. The field of scientifically forcasting weather was first researched by Royal Navy Officer Francis Beaufort and his protégé Robert FitzRoy. In 1859 the loss of the Royal Charter due to a storm inspired Robert FitzRoy to develop charts to allow predictions to be made, which he called “forecasting the weather“, thus coining the term “weather forecast“. Daily weather forcasting started in 1861 in The Times.

Sooner or later, it became necessary to develop a standard vocabulary describing the clouds. It was Luke Howard who, in 1802, classified and described clouds. Weather prediction was further enhanced with the increasing knowledge of atmospheric physics.

In 1922, Lewis Fry Richardson published his influencing work “Weather Prediction By Numerical Process “. Richardson described how small terms in the prognostic fluid dynamics equations governing atmospheric flow could be neglected, and a finite differencing scheme in time and space could be devised, to allow numerical prediction solutions to be found. Richardson further envisioned a large auditorium of thousands of people performing the calculations and passing them to others. However, the huge amount of calculations required was too large to be completed without the use of computers, and the size of the grid and time steps led to unrealistic results in deepening systems. In later research, it was found, through numerical analysis, that this was due to numerical instability. The first computerised weather forecast was performed by a team led by the mathematician John von Neumann and resulted in the paper Numerical Integration of the Barotropic Vorticity Equation, published in 1950. Five years later, the practical use of numerical weather prediction began in 1955, spurred by the development of programmable electronic computers.

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