BEN BOVA: Through science forecast calls for even better weather predicting

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“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

That line is often attributed to Mark Twain, but actually it was written by Charles Dudley Warner in an editorial in the Hartford Courant on Aug. 24, 1897.

It must have been a hot August.

We’ve been having some hot months lately — all around the world.

Despite a brutally cold winter in much of the United States, global temperatures for the first half of this year averaged 57.5 degrees Fahrenheit, the warmest since temperature records started to be officially kept, in 1880. This global high temperature breaks the old record, which was set just last year.

Planet Earth is indeed getting warmer.

But Warner (or Twain, if you prefer) wasn’t exactly right. People don’t merely talk about the weather, they actually do something about it.

We don’t passively accept the weather. We take steps to protect ourselves against it. We tamed fire to keep ourselves warm. We moved into caves to get out of the rain. We invented the umbrella — a word of Italian derivation, meaning “little shadow” — and the parasol (“against the sun”).

Over many, many generations we learned to build tight, sturdy homes that keep out the wind and rain. Of course, some people leave their tight, sturdy homes and travel great distances so that they can go sliding down snow-covered mountains. It makes you wonder.

More recently we invented air-conditioning, which has caused great changes in the way we live. In 1960 only 12 percent of homes in the U.S. had air-conditioning. As home air-conditioning became more commonplace, the population of our Southern states grew by 96 percent, and the population of Western states increased by a whopping 143 percent.

We don’t just swelter in the summer heat; we turn on the air-conditioning. The growth of industries from aerospace to tourism in the “Sun Belt” across our nation’s South and West would not have happened if there had been no air-conditioners.

And we’ve learned to predict the weather. I admit, weather forecasts aren’t as precise as we’d like them to be, but they are pretty reliable for 24 to 48 hours ahead.

A great part of this reliability is due to artificial satellites. Before the Space Age, less than 20 percent of the Earth’s surface was under constant weather surveillance. The vast ocean areas were especially unobserved, and that’s where most storms originate.

Back in Warner’s (or Twain’s) time, hurricanes could blow in out of nowhere and take people by deadly surprise. Many lives and much property was lost.

With satellites watching weather patterns all over the globe, we can track storms from their inception and give warnings that save lives and property. Yes, there’s a good deal of uncertainty in the storm warnings, but it’s better to be prepared than to be surprised.

The uncertainties in weather forecasts stem from the fact that weather is a chaotic phenomenon; that is, a small change in one place can result in a major change somewhere else. A butterfly’s flapping wings in Brazil might help to whip up a major storm a few days later in New England.

Meteorologists just don’t know how to account for all the possible causes that lead to the effects we call weather.

But that may change, or at least improve a great deal.

Weather is the result of turbulent flow in the lower atmosphere. In turbulent flow, the air doesn’t merely move smoothly across the Earth’s surface: masses of air weave up and down, burble and bubble and rise and fall.

Mathematics can predict with some precision how air will move in smooth, laminar flow, but it’s been impossible to predict the movements of air in turbulent flow.

Until now.

A team of fluid dynamicists from Princeton University and the University of Melbourne, Australia, have developed a new way to calculate the motions of air in turbulent flow. Their new model isn’t perfect, but it points the way to much more detailed and accurate weather forecasts.

In the third novel I ever wrote, “The Weathermakers” (1967), I speculated that a mathematical model of turbulent flow would allow pinpoint, long-range weather predictions.

We’re getting closer!

Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Hittite,” his first historical novel. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.

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