Tom Skilling on Computer Models in Weather Forecasting

Computer models have revolutionized weather forecasting-but where did they come from? A look at the development of the first digital computer at Princeton University in the 1930s and 1940s and its first tasks: Aiding atomic bomb development and forecasting the weather

Tom Skilling, Chief Meteorologist, WGN-TV and Radio and the Chicago Tribune

Those of us who bring you the weather through various media and my colleagues who produce forecasts for the public and the military are often heard making references to “computer models” and what they’re telling us about coming weather developments.   Computer models are sets of mathematical equations which describe the evolution and movement of our weather. They’re the product of centuries of studies aimed at understanding how our atmosphere works. The advent of these models has been referred to by NWS Director Dr. Louis Uccellini as one of science’s most important advances of the 20th century. It’s a characterization which couldn’t be more astute.

Computer models play an absolutely essential role in identifying–at times a week or more ahead of time–the volatile combination of meteorological variables which lead to deadly severe weather outbreaks, making the discussion of computer models quite relevant in any program or seminar tackling the subject of severe weather.  But where did computer models come from?  How were they developed and where?

A team of brilliant engineers and mathematicians took on the challenge of developing the world’s first digital computer in the 1930s and 1940s on the Princeton University campus in New Jersey. Though weather forecasting wasn’t the first purpose to which these early Princeton computers developed were directed–interestingly perfecting the devastating power of the atomic bomb was–forecasting the weather did end up being AMONG the first applications of the computer.

The advent of computer modeling of our weather is a story of genius and perseverance and the body of theoretical meteorological research and work which preceded the machine’s development. It’s a story of brilliant Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann, English mathematical genius and code-breaker Alan Turing and a group of brilliant meteorologists–among them MIT’s Joseph Smagorinsky and Joseph Lorenz, UCLA’s Jule Charney, the University of Chicago’s George Platzman and so many others who laid the groundwork for today’s ever more complex computer models, increasing forecasting accuracy dramatically in the process.

We’ll explore the origins of modern computer models this year at our Fermilab seminars on April 6.

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