Weather Almanac for December 2004
BUILDING THE FORECAST FACTORY
"Imagine a large hall like a theater except that the circles and galleries go right round through the space usually occupied by the stage. The walls of this chamber are painted to form a map of the globe. . . . From the floor of the pit a tall pillar rises to half the height of the hall. It carries a large pulpit on its top. In this sits the man in charge of the whole theatre." (Weather Prediction by Numerical Process)
The room described in this quote from Lewis Fry Richardson's Weather Prediction by Numerical Process, the most famous book in modern meteorology, was his dream fantasy of the work environment where 64,000 computers would turn out numerical weather forecasts. Richardson's computers are not the silicon chip machines of today but humans using slide rules and tables to undertake the task of making calculations for a weather forecast. Richardson's dream did not come to reality until the 64,000 humans were replaced by fast electronic computers in the later half of the Twentieth Century. But in laying the groundwork for this forecasting process, Richardson became the acknowledged grandfather of numerical weather prediction.
I first encountered Richardson's name in quite a different venue: the study of micrometeorology, the weather on the smallest scale. In my graduate research, we regularly used the Richardson Number as a non-dimensional measure of atmospheric stability (or instability) in the study of atmospheric turbulence. Richardson not only developed a system of mathematical equations to forecast weather, but he also delved in the early research into atmospheric dispersion. In recent years the topic has been dominated by concerns over effluents of polluting gases and dusts from industrial sources. But in Richardson's day, it focused more on concerns over gas warfare, pushed to prominence by the horrors of mustard gas and other similar weapons in the trenches of World War I. That war is pivotal in the story of Lewis Fry Richardson.
L.F. Richardson was born 11 October 1881 in Newcastle upon Tyne, an industrial port in the far north of England. His prosperous Quaker family sent him to Bootham, a distinguished Quaker boarding school where he developed interests in science and natural history. At nineteen, Richardson entered King's College, Cambridge gaining a B.A. degree in natural science in 1903. Specializing in physics and mathematics, he studied under famed Cavendish professor of physics J. J. Thompson (a Nobel-laureate in physics for discovery of the electron).
Following graduation, Richardson worked for the British National Physical Laboratory taught at University College Aberystwith (Wales), worked in industry, and later taught at Manchester College of Technology. During this decade, he developed finite difference methods to approximate solutions to differential equations, techniques Richardson hoped could lead to numerical weather prediction. (Numerical weather prediction is distinguished from synoptic weather prediction methods in that it uses collected data to solve a series of equations describing the physics of the atmosphere rather than use drawn maps to assess future weather conditions.)
In 1913, Richardson moved to the Eskdalemuir Observatory in the Scottish Southern Uplands to become superintendent of the meteorological and magnetic observatory, a part of the British Meteorological Office. There he further developed his numerical techniques and ideas about using them for weather prediction. But the following, a great war broke out on the European continent. As a Quaker opposed to war, Richardson eventually joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit serving in France in 1916.
The Birth of a Concept
While driving an ambulance at the Western Front, Richardson began making his indelible mark on meteorology, working in the most unlikely circumstances for a scientific advance. During lulls between transporting wounded French soldiers, Richardson developed forecasting techniques for solving the equations of atmospheric motion, using only pencils, paper, slide rule and logarithm tables. "My office," he later confided, "was a heap of hay in a cold rest billet." During his breaks from transporting wounded soldiers, Richardson manually computed changes in the pressure and wind at two points, starting from an analysis of the condition of the atmosphere at 0700 GMT on 20 May 1910. To guard against careless mistakes he repeated every calculation.
At one point, Richardson lost the manuscript of his work amid the confusion of the war front. Fortunately, he recalled, the manuscript was recovered several months later. It had been hidden by a pile of coal. His method of solving the equations of atmospheric motion, the calculations, and his sample forecast would later be described in Weather Prediction by Numerical Process published by Cambridge University Press in 1922.
Returning to England in 1919, Richardson again joined the Meteorological Office at an experimental research station outside Oxford. Here his studies of air turbulence lead to the development of the Richardson criterion or the Richardson number which expressed the ratio of buoyant to mechanical turbulence. Richardson summed up his thoughts on turbulent eddies with a witty rhyme: "Big whorls have little whorls that feed on their velocity, and little whorls have lesser whorls and so on to viscosity." ("The supply of energy from and to atmospheric eddies," 1920). [The rhyme is a play on a famous Jonathan Swift poem on fleas and the parody of Swift by Augustus De Morgan: "A Budget of Paradoxes."]
However, when the British Meteorological Office was moved under the Air Ministry, a department of war and defense, Richardson's Quaker beliefs raised "doubts so intense as to be distressing" over the nature of his work. He resigned his position and took work as head of the physics department at Westminster Training College.
The Forecast Factor: Weather Prediction by Numerical Process
At Westminster, Richardson continued his work on the numerical weather prediction problem that resulted in the publishing of his ground-breaking tome in 1922. I will not go into the details of the science here nor the problems in its application. Instead, I will relate the Richardson's daydream vision for applying his forecasting scheme to real-time weather forecasts, in the days before electronic computers as outlined in the final chapter of Weather Prediction by Numerical Process.
Richardson's initial calculations in the rest billets and hay barns of wartime France, he admits, took the best part of six weeks to draw up the computing forms and work out the distribution for two vertical columns. (Others, notably Peter Lynch, suggest this was an underestimation of his time.) He imagined that for time steps of three hours, it would take 32 individuals, whom he called computers, to complete two calculations for each map points (one for pressure, the other for momentum) in order to keep up with the changing weather.
Richardson's map grid for his sample calculation (from Weather Prediction by Numerical Process).
Richardson envisioned a global calculation of points at the intersections of a grid 200 km square, five layers deep. Thus, there would be 32,000 columns on the complete map of the globe, assuming the equations in tropics need not be calculated with frequency. Richardson estimated 2000 active calculation columns for the planet. This would thus take 32 x 2000 = 64,000 individual computers! (Later "computer-power" estimates by Sidney Chapman and Peter Lynch up that number of needed staff to 256,000 and 204,800, respectively. Per shift! Richardson's figure, according to Lynch, would better apply to the number needed for the extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere.)
"That is a staggering figure," wrote Richardson of his computing staff estimate, "Let us hope for their sakes that they [the computers] are moved on from time to time to new operations." Richardson continued: "After so much hard reasoning, may one play with a fantasy?" He followed this rhetorical question with his vision of the great forecast factory:
"Imagine a large hall like a theater except that the circles and galleries go right round through the space usually occupied by the stage. The walls of this chamber are painted to form a map of the globe. The ceiling represents the north polar regions, England is in the gallery, the tropics in the upper circle, Australia on the dress circle and the antarctic in the pit. A [sic] myriad computers are at work upon the weather of the part of the map where each sits, but each computer attends only to one equation or part of an equation. The work of each region is coordinated by an official of higher rank. Numerous little ‘night signs' display the instantaneous values so that neighbouring computers can read them. . . . From the floor of the pit a tall pillar rises to half the height of the hall. It carries a large pulpit on its top. In this sits the man in charge of the whole theatre; he is surrounded by several assistants and messengers. One of his duties is to maintain a uniform speed of progress in all parts of the globe. In this respect he is like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines. But instead of waving a baton he turns a beam of rosy light upon any region that is running ahead of the rest, and a beam of blue light upon those who are behindhand. "(Weather Prediction by Numerical Process)
Senior clerks collect the forecast information as soon as computations are completed and send it to a room where it is coded and transmitted to relevant parts of the globe, hoping it will reach the destination before its predicted weather.
Richardson envisioned the great hall as one component of the forecast factory. A research division invents and tests improvements in another building. Administrative, financial, and correspondence offices and archives complete the working campus. Outside the factory are "playing fields, houses, mountains and lakes, for it was thought that those who compute the weather should breathe of it freely."
Richardson's technique had errors. His initial forecast, unfortunately, was a bust. While the actual weather changed slightly over the forecast period, his calculations predicted barometric pressure rising fast enough to make ears pop a 145 mb rise in six hours to 1,108 mb. He had not the proper technical computational procedure, raw data, nor the computing power to complete an adequate forecast by numerical means.
His scheme was not the final solution, but the beginning of work that would come to fruition with the advent of electronic computers decades later. The need for greater computing power was also recognized by Richardson. In the book's Preface, he wrote: "Perhaps some day in the dim future it will be possible to advance the computations faster than the weather advances and at a cost less than the saving to mankind due to the information gained. But that is a dream." Although his weather forecast failed, Richardson foresaw the future of weather prediction. For that we honour him as the "Grandfather of Numerical Weather Prediction." In 1972, the British Meteorological Office honoured his work by naming a new portion of its headquarters, the Richardson Wing.
When Richardson saw the field of meteorology move toward applications that conflicted with his Quaker beliefs, he turned away from his meteorological work after the mid-1920s. Family members believe his pacifist principles also cost him university appointments. Some recall an anguished moment when he destroyed his research on atmospheric turbulence because it attracted attention from "the ‘poison gas' experts."
Following his deep Quaker convictions, Richardson turned to the study of the dynamics, statistics, and reasons for the onset of war. His first book on the topic Mathematical Psychology of War was dedicated to his wartime ambulance colleagues. Unable to find a commercial publisher, despite the recommendations of the famed philosopher Bertrand Russell (also a pacifist), Richardson privately published the title in 1919.
Beginning in 1926, he collected vast amounts of data on what he termed “deadly quarrels,” which ranged in size from World War I to gang wars in Chicago.
Though he had many accomplishments in science a Fellow of the Royal Society; secretary of the Royal Meteorological Society; and author of well over 100 scholarly publications Richardson changed direction and pursued a degree in psychology, which he received at age 48. He took the administrative post of Principal of Paisley Technical College (now University of Paisley) in 1929 and began his work on international conflicts. For the remaining years of his life, he focused on the study of war and its prevention, although in his final years (1948-53) he again looked into the topic of turbulence in air and sea. Richardson died the final day of September 1953 in Argyll, Scotland.
Richardson received very little recognition for his work on conflict research during his life. In fact, his two main works Arms and Insecurity and Statistics of Deadly Quarrels were not published until years after his death. His legacy, however, was not forgotten. Several institutes including the Richardson Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution at the University of Lancaster recognize his important work in this realm.
Richardson Portrait courtesy University of Paisley
Learn More From These Relevant Books
Chosen by The Weather Doctor
- Monmonier, Mark:
Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict and Dramatize Weather 1999, The University of Chicago Press, paperback, Hardcover edition, ISBN 0-226-53422-7.
- Vasquez, Tim: Weather Forecasting Handbook (5th Edition), 2002, Weather Graphics Technologies, Austin, TX, ISBN 0970684029.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, THE WEATHER DOCTOR,
December 1, 2004
The Weather Doctor's Weather Almanac L.F. Richardson: Building The Forecast Factory
©2004, Keith C. Heidorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved.
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