The crazy plan to predict the weather with great precision

The crazy plan to predict the weather with great precision

The English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson was one of the first people to consider using computers (human beings dedicated to making calculations) for weather forecasting.

His plan was certainly ambitious, because anticipating such a dynamic system was far from easy. Not surprisingly, Richardson estimated that 64,000 computers (people) would be needed to provide real-time forecasts.

Sphere dome

Richardson’s plan was to build a kind of spherical dome several stories high within which the computers would sit in rows.


Yes, here the term "computer" is not that of a computer, but that of a person calculating, because we are at the beginning of the 20th century. Here’s what the dome would look like, as described by Sam Kean in his book The Last Breath of Caesar :

The inner surface of the dome would be painted with a map of the world, with the Arctic at the top and Antarctica at the bottom, and day after day Richardson’s computers would scan lists of numbers and calculate data. The calculations would be based on seven equations that Richardson used to model the atmosphere, and each worker would focus on a particular aspect of the weather in some specific part of the world, for example by following fluctuations in humidity in Inner Mongolia over and over again.

All the data from the computers would be sent through pneumatic tubes to a master controller in the center of the sphere, which would synthesize it all. It was a crazy plan, no doubt, but Richardson ran a pilot test in 1916 of his calculations to make forecasts … but it was a complete failure .

With the advent of digital computers, however, attempts to predict the weather again became a central concern. One of its main researchers was Edward Lorenz , who worked tirelessly on a device called the Royal McBee LGP-30 and which occupied an entire office with vacuum tubes that pumped large amounts of heat.

Lgp30 Agr

But Lorenz also had to assume that predicting the weather was a daunting task: any slight deviation in one piece of data produced totally different end results. It is what has come to be called the butterfly effect : the flapping of a butterfly in the Amazon can produce a typhoon in the Pacific. That and that the initial data that is entered to perform the calculations cannot be totally accurate, since the measurement instruments reach a certain level of precision, in addition to other possible errors.

Little by little, it was accepted that there were too many variables to compute, and that unpredictability was an intrinsic characteristic of the atmosphere . Consequently, the accuracy of weather forecasts is relative, and depends on the criteria used to estimate the accuracy of a forecast. Chaos Theory through , to the point that to make a prediction of the weather for two months from now (it is an estimate), it would be necessary to know the initial conditions with a precision about 100,000 times higher than the precision obtained by said prediction.