« 99% Invisible

392- The Weather Machine

2020-03-03 | 🔗

The weather can be a simple word or loaded with meaning depending on the context -- a humdrum subject of everyday small talk or a stark climactic reality full of existential associations with serious disasters. In his book The Weather Machine, author Andrew Blum discusses these extremes and much in between, taking readers back in time to early weather-predicting aspirations and forward with speculation about the future of forecasting, including potentially dark clouds on the horizon.

The Weather Machine

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is ninety nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars. Andrew Bloom is a journalist who writes about some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the world. A specialty is revealing how systems we think of as intangible when the internet are actually made up. A very wheeled stuff internet Eliza, cables and wires data centres, which are maintained by actual people who keep all things running a few years, Andrew got interested in the weather forecast it's. This mundane everyday service that, like the internet, is made possible by a vast an interconnected global machine that took decades to build this system is a huge scientific project, but it's also a diplomatic one, the atmosphere crosses all political boundaries, and so knowing the weather requires international collaboration. As whether becomes more extreme. The forecast become increasingly important, but ironically,
as of its growing value, there are forces threatening to undermine the global That makes it possible. It is fascinating, stuff, I talked to Andrew about his book, the weather machine, and he told me He first got interested in the forecast back in twenties. Well, it was and I'm busy season. For me, my first book had come out. My dog had died. My son was born at all, can happen at once, and there was a weekend afternoon as can of Sunday in October. When I had my and of new born in one hand and my phone and the other, and I was on twitter and all of a sudden, the meteorologists who I followed kind of went into a dizzy. They I'll just kind of erupt it all at once, based on the output of their model and what they were seeing was a storm that they had kind of been watching out in the Atlantic and the southern dick. But suddenly it was going to turn left towards New York where I live and
It was remarkable because this was eight days ahead on this was a big storm potentially and they all kind of trusted the output of this model they weren't here they were saying this is definitely to happen, but it was so far ahead of sort of what I understood as the work meteorologists, especially kind of hurricane forecasters now and this storm that you could see eight days out eventually became Hurricane Sandy pay off along the Jersey Shore. A super storm already stretching across one third of this country from floor. That can we see news. I cover New York, whether for twenty five years, I have never seen water, lower Manhattan. There is water now on the streets in lower Manhattan over a feeling when the storm actually came was that our kind of luck had run out that New York City heads have finally begun to reckon with what the storms of the future might be like with the subways flooded and shut down your nobody do anything for that weak along the coast. It was
the months and years, and if you live on the EL train, the still being next you these are the consequence of it was really clear, mean a hundred forty seven people were killed, but when it came for me, was a recognition that that forecast eight days ago, rights that NATO forecast is not stuff of science fiction, but had just happened in the most consequential way in the real difference here between the idea. Of knowing a thing. That's coming in the way that, knowing in the cold front Knowing that a twenty those coming is hurricanes in he didn't exist eight days before it was just parted? the atmosphere moving around It was a mathematical model that predicted that would form into this thing. That would affect people so dramatic, I mean the experience of Sandy me in me want to know not only what the weather models were, but where they came from me, sort of who built them how they had evolved over time
I I recognise them as this kind of complex global infrastructure, but, as is often the case with complex global infrastructures, their authorship was really vague and long standing right, and so you You ve spent a lot of time thinking about physical infrastructure. There's something about the weather forecast that it can have this line of his spouse. Michael models and in physics. Suddenly air it still really is rooted in infrastructure Qana dovetail with a thing that you already care about so like what the modern whether machine actually physically, look like well to kind of see it like that you kind of have to have the solicitation about universal planetary scale. We know it's made, of so many gonna tens of thousands of tiny, tiny little pieces, I'm always like got nine you're flying out of the Guardia put in New York. I, if you're lucky kind of pass by the weather station there by the runway, and you know it looks like a kind of jumble of equipment and that's one piece of the weather machine
you owe see the satellite pictures made of the kind of familiar whether satellites it's kind of another piece of the weather machine and then that's repeated of tens of thousands of times all over the world. So, as you start looking at the history of the weather forecast and how it started, you found it that it was actually a revolution in telecommunications that made the first weather forecast possible. So tell me why the development of the telegraph was important for understanding. Is really about having this picture of the earth across space either we have mapped, Oh that's a kind of one way of imagining the earth, but until you can communicate instantaneously across distance. Basically, until you have the telegraph and then all of the communications technology, the comes after it, you can, really know what's happening simultaneously in many places all at once, and it turns out the kind of first step towards knowing what the way
There's gonna, be in one place at many times is knowing what the weather is at one time in me, It places the kind of key to it, and so you you end up as soon as the telegraph has invented and as soon as there is a kind of rudimentary telegraph network, the telling operators begin sending messages to each other about the weather conditions and make quickly realized that especially the? U s the weather's, often moving from West to EAST and they give some advance notice of what's going to happen, afternoon based on? your New York, what is doing in Ohio and that just kind of basic sense that you could move faster than the Clouds the news could move faster than the clouds begins to open up this idea of a kind of holistic view of the planet? Suddenly, you can kind of imagine yourself looking down not just on a map as a political idea, but really live, seeing how the weather is changing space and so in the eighteen. Forty six was only Institute takes. This are granted
because idea and in turn it into an actual map, which is a kind of beautiful Corky analogue. Fun thing that I loved your description of. Could you describe the map and how functioned you know, I mean, as with any corporate or government headquarters up when they built their new building, the centre piece in the lobby of the Smithsonian institution on the ball in Washington was a big. Above of the fledgling United States up on the wall in a pre civil war fortys and whenever they got a report, in from their Smithsonian observers, they're kind of brand new network of whether observers they would put a little paper disk up at the disk would be of the temperature to be different color for the weather, so white for fair weather, black for rain Brown, for clouds blue for snow. And so when you arrived this disowning, you could look up with the wall. You could see what the weather was across the country and you could begin to Heaven first inference of the weather of the future of the forecast based on how those patterns might be changing.
So then we get to the eighteen seventys. When there's an internet coalition forming to expand the weather forecast? People are starting to think about how to collect share whether data more widely coming from the beginnings, of essentially international networks of any kind young eighteen seventies. You have irrational telegraph networks. The postal unionist formed you have the over the meter convention. Is really this kind of votes for standardization and a big part of that. Is the recognition that, if you have brand new national, whether services they need a common language for communicating their observations with each other and where each I may be maker and forecasts, but certainly no What the sky is in your country is useful to my country and that kind of basic sense of meteorology is a common good of the earth's atmosphere, continuous really be as part of meteorological culture from the beginning of may are very good from a very early stage at cooperating with each other,
it becomes as much of a diplomatic project as a scientific one, yeah yeah absolutely so. How did you from gathering data about whether to actually doing something about it, we're theirs. They start to look into the future of what was to come, but the first person who kind of codifying the process Has become the weather models as we know them today. Was a norwegian meteorologist him bill him Hyrcanus and it was eighteen nineties, petty first began to play around with the idea that you could treat the weather forecast. Policies as a kind of mathematical hypothesis that if you could calculate the weather, cock by the evolution of the atmosphere, units temperature, its pressure, its winder action, and you could do that mathematically. Then you could be quite sure, the next day, if you are right or wrong and If you are wrong, you could begin to refine your equations and then do it again the next day or you get even go back and use the previous days, observations and calculated again right, but
mathematical models. How complex are they and how far in the future? Can he really look at? This point will His basic equations, which are now could have known a algae, is the primitive equations housing out of love. My is see. Equations were right, but he couldn't solve them. Paden neither had now fobs reservations, especially at different levels of altitude and high up into the atmosphere. Nor could he solve the differential equations required to sort of the south is on occasions a key just he couldn't you can actually plug the numbers in so theoretically, he was mostly right and in fact the equations are still at the root of the weather model, see other deep in there. They they feel they have evolved dramatically, but there are still there they are still relevant, but practically he got nowhere. Neither had enough to put into his mouth, nor was able to actually calculate what came out Then people can't imagine these ways to get around this issue of the computation. So a method
Your name Louis FRY Richardson. Had this crazy that I want you to tell us my yeah EDA sub soberness. Rights, his paper, nineteen o four yo. He says so that we can predict the weather, using math and physics and ten years later Louis by Richard sit English mathematician. Comes to it in says. Why think? I might actually give this a try and he actually used a set of observations that business himself and organise the collection of from a single day in above Europe and begins. This sort of furious six week process of actually calculating that into a weather forecast, and he does it while he working as an ambulance driver the western front during World war, one he was a Quaker, so he wouldn't fight, but he drove an ambulance, and so he talks about going back to his his Billiton. Instead of running the calculations with his slide rule and spending six we Some sort of single Africans forecast, which famous Lee and spectacularly was wrong. Thrift. Surface!
famous errors- and I mean your ology, but he was, can since that, if he had better observations and if he had a greater ability to actually make these calculations, you could have a useful forecast and he comes to the idea that what it would really take would be sixty four thousand computers, which is to say sixty four thousand humans, red human computers I arranged in a stadium and there would be a conductor- in the middle, who would shine a light on them if they are going to faster, too slow when they would write their calculations than pass. It's the person next to them and with six four thousand people, you could go fast enough to have a useful weather forecast, which is to say a forecast that is completed before the weather actually arrives in in one I mean ass, the thing you know you can have a very detailed forecasts, but it's useless if the future comes before for a super. He also said,
But the amazing Lee predicts, like the Google campus. He thinks that, like his sixty, four thousand computer should have like ball fields and cafeterias and entertainment, and things like that Ngos are predicts a kind of steam punk aesthetic as well. He describes these offices with Icu levers and desks and things that rise up under roof decks and basically what Facebook Isabella part today so funny. Was so. We have these people. Thinking in these big weighs about the whether and how to forecast it- and we have these couple limitations that are there, but enough against one is computational limitation. Neither what is the current data limitation like access to these measuring these points? So how was whether forecasting moving forward in the rest of the world and what were they doing to come up with what was going to happen in the future In Richardson Am Hyrcanus when their project essentially fails there, this kind of amazing and pretty successful, basically forty years, your algae. That actually makes a lot of progress, whether weather forecasts gets better and useful and
helps with early aviation famously the forecast for D day was a solid today, forecasts and allowed the allies to postpone their invasion certifies points as this kind of forecasts that change the course of history. But none of it had anything to do with this sort of with these calculations, Israel, the equivalent of like looking at a cloud or a cold front and just Cena go across the country and has not a lot of math in it, but has a lot of just like history and past president and stuff that lets you predict. What's going to happen, the future yeah wasn't until the Post war era, when you have the beginning, of spaceflight and the beginnings of real computing that the idea of actually functionally creating but a forecast based on mathematical analysis of the atmosphere becomes possible again. So after the war, we would get into cities and Sixtys and there's a big breakthroughs new technologies emerge, and there is the political will to build this whole
earth map and make it really really good. So tell US Lebanon, the sixties, that makes darknesses dream of calculating the weather. Finally come true, the most thing? Is you have this kind of love affair with the earth you with the earth has, as a plan either you suddenly have this collective societal vision of what the earth will look like from space. You know you have all this science fiction, you have them your first people orbiting the earth and every sort of imagining what it is like to look back and as soon as you can have in the popular imagination the idea of a map of the complete atmosphere becomes real, we go into space, because whatever mankind must undertake free men must fully share there's this incredible moment in eighteen. Sixty one are right after the Soviets. First launch Sputnik, where Kennedy, gives a speech when he says that we must put a man on the moon before that.
Kate is out and provide the funds which are needed to meet the following National goes first, I believe, This nation should commit itself to achieve in the go before this decade, is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth, and that's all point number one and turns out point number three, is seventy five million dollars for whether satellites will help give said the earliest possible time, a satellite system for world I'd whether observation. Let it be clear as familiar as that, man in the moon line is the line about whether satellites comes like thirty seconds later and for Kennedy. The global view of this was kind of part of the larger project of the triumph of american ideals around the globe. Otherwise. So you have the sort of moment where all of the kind of imperial ideas of of
cut of american view of the globe and american dominance of the globe become wrapped up in a view of the atmosphere for scientific good? For me, your article good, either for the sort of Moby now think of his banal project, of creating better weather forecasts. Digg is vision, came true. Many ways throughout the Sixtys and Seventys of lot of satellites went up into space both for milk. Various surveillance and for whether forecasting As the weather machine grew a worldwide alliance developed between nations, they figured out how to share data and how to maintain the infrastructure that they'd collectively build the main part of the EU and that now deals with weather is called the world meteorological. Organization get together every four years to talk about policy. Andrew went to one of these gatherings yeah, I'm two thousand fifteen in Geneva. The worldly nautical Congress is the big event every four years and its
in a world whether diplomats coming together and sort of mythology They can have hashing through their issues and then breaking for receptions, which has the diplomatic word for party has a turns out. It's mostly very specific and technical, but the dynamic beach in the countries that is actually run supercomputers and the countries that don't was increasingly apparent and not surprisingly, the effects of climate in our share, more pronounced for less wealthy countries, which is also the countries. Don't fly whether satellites and run whether supercomputers It was really a sense that they were all in it together that this was a kind of thing that governments did, and there was a hundred. Fifty the tradition of governments around the world. Your share more data with each other sharing their forecast with each other and especially now when storms, are more powerful when the effects of the storms and were pronounced. When
where's, the sort of growing threat of what will happen with the weather in the future. There was very clear that that cooperation is needed now more. Whenever there there's this whole notion the weather machine, does this global project is carried out by governments as dump public good, but increasingly pray companies are getting into the weather forecast in business. So tell us that and how this is interacting with the sword global that's been going on for decades and decade, yeah, never there it has been the assumption. Essentially, since the birth of satellites and computers, Super computers and satellites are things that governments do there too expensive for private companies to do with, You have a weather service, seen on Unita thirty million dollar computer. That's gonna, be something that a government buys in it and had been service not only to its citizens but to the entire world, but the coupled currency are collide mean one, you have the sort of rise of private space flight to have the kind of space axes of the world knew of private space observation companies.
You have more severe weather and more money at stake to predict that whether and you have a kind you rise of the recognition of sort of big data and what we can do with data on. How important is tat tissue to understand the world using big data Do you end up now with the idea that private, whether forecasting is probably a pretty good business, and so after a hundred fifty or tradition of whether forecasting B something that governments do for their citizens. There is now a bit of a gold rush where please can run their own. Whether models can fly their own. Whether satellites can collect their own, whether observations and provide a private forecast. That is a value that it seeds, usefulness of publicly available forecast and have you about that. As someone who has seen the long view of the weather machine it turning towards privatisation, like what you think that either the complication like now, and maybe the complications and the future. Well, I mean
the first thing that I saw, was the real axed among these would have done. In the Wall government meteorologists over what this man, for the long tradition of governor Whether services protecting life and property and that being something that govern, Stu for their citizens, but of course, from a technical standpoint, you have them. Possibility of even better weather forecasts and others are now certainly a kind of technological thrill with the idea that this could be improved. But it's not hard to recognise the kind. Global inequality suddenly appearing in the technology of the weather, forecast itself, and this real exacerbation of the effects of climate change. When you have hurricane forecasts accessible to the rich before they are accessible to the poor, when of course they will affect the most vulnerable more directly. New we get to the fore. The crux of this, which is like at this moment, being aware of that, you extremes. Mc comes to our climate is
more important than ever for others. Many were improvisation and proprietary data, Models could break that apart and it it wouldn't take. Much is this strange thing All the weather observations that are collected by the. U S, government are put it's kind of right in the global bucket and in exchange, we get all the world's whether observations back and if, for example,. National other service decides to by private satellite observations, fur one category and that company says no. You can't share that and that's big. It is true. Off the possibility that other start with european countries will say well, if you're not giving us that data were not giving you our data. And within two or three days in being the entire system falls apart and it's not. If we only need observations over the United States for forecast over the United States as soon as your past year, three or four days, you need that entire global view and all of the weather models are kind of built on that holistic, global view, and so the idea
Yet this is a kind of you. This is within our borders that this is a kind of local issue that it is entirely international Interdependent is preposterous and, of course, its deep in the kind of global order that the? U S, built up in the second half the twins trade is the kind of american ideal of leading the world with technology in cooperation, at the moment, and not only in the trump error, but really of the last ten years, particularly with the that kind of new technological dominance of the? U S, with a Google's and facebooks of the world that the idea of her proprietary. None of this data as something that is deep in the heart of our system, becomes more consequential in the way that we put together weather forecast. New I think we're things it's fastening about all this and all the work that you ve done it and my thinking, at that. As of all since reading your book is this weird mixing of the idea of weather and knowing the weather beans,
How kind of the now and every day and how much it's about Little tiny decisions about whether you bring an umbrella and also about hurricanes economy gets mind reeling in this very strange way about dislike the when desire to know. What's coming, yeah yeah this book took me, several years to right and in the course of writing at my elder child, my daughter went from kind of a toddler too, like a proper elementary school students at the beginning, I would be work Hemison, she would say: what's he gonna be tomorrow without would be cut of her last words before going sleep is, she seemed like what are we doing. But I would you like. Oh how do you know? How do you consider the future EDA? What does it mean that those I am coming this way and I'm sort of rooted in place and time and houses going on it's like I have heard it is like you know what the weather gonna be tomorrow and that sort of contrast between liking. My what she's gonna. Tell me what the weather's can it be tomorrow, and that's just breezy in no worries, and then the x
potential dread of Vienna, what's it can it be. Tomorrow was right there with it. It's the most banal thing. You know that it is the ultimate small talk and yet it is also, of course, the core of our existential planetary dread, and this is in some ways that sort of parable of climate change as well. You know we can be pretty sure about what's going to happen and the abyss to change it to do something about. It is completely independent of that foresight. In other words, we have the information we can effectively see into the future. But what we do who is that information on how it is used for planning and preparation, is up to to find out more about Andrew Bums book, the weather machine go to night p. I thought you were going to visit a tiny island in the North Atlantic.
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Numbers. Nine, nine, the procurator dotcom last night, one of the most fascinating things about the entire system used to project the weather. How were line it is on Spain, they'd satellites orbiting, the earth and hundreds, more humble weather stations located on the land. Both technologies are needed to inform our global view because what machine is so bad Stan made of so many I know one thing exemplifies at all, but I asked You belong if he could zoo in on one of his favorite places that are essential to the whole data gathering apparatus when you try to kind of you'll open the weather machine and see what it's made of you end up with this kind of child choosing a single place to represent all the places in which, of course, is kind of impossible. You know you they please,
nature of of places they are all different. They occupy a kind of different spot in the map, partly because of darkness, and partly because of this norwegian meteorological tradition, I latched onto Norway's system of whether observation and in fact I welcome They love with this island called Yon Mayan. That's this Arctic Island way off veto could have towards grew. Lend that only has a weather station on it would like an army crew. They get service too few times of year. Like a couple, huskies nesses sounds like this really coming incredible: wild place Needless to say, you can't go there. Are you if you go yet like over three months, as I kind of abandoned that dream? actually visiting this, whether station but found but found it. Dead play scalded Sera, which is us but a small island off the coast of norms and when I say off the coast of Norway, I mean it's like a twenty five minute very rides. Like you know, no big deal runs a few times a day, but it because its location in the North sea. It has been an important whether observation point. Basically, four hundred fifty years
and so you have a very early telegraph line there and have a single spot up on the top of a hill in the center of the island. That consistently has been the point where the Norwegian. Whether service has observed the weather to very windy, place, serious known for its burning and for its wins, and when you're there you realize violent? I realized what it meant for the kind of wine to be rushing by this single point, and I realize that kind about wind is in a wind, is the passage of the atmosphere passed a single spot and that has to then be tied back into the kind of global mutations system meta, you need to sort of send word back to us low and also needs to send word back to Frankfurt. Were the sort of european collector is in them. Get sent to Virginia the entire thing kind of gets network together into typing in you know it's you and Google, and then the temperature shows up, but all
those things have to fit together and that system has to be deliberately designed in the kind of design of that system goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, with a sort of first recognition that not only was it useful to know What the weather was another places, but it was suddenly technologically possible to get that news. Pretty speedily right and it's gather by human, pretended to buy him with its tended to buy a human yeah. He runs the restaurant and he does the weather observation sobs four times a day. He goes and his back stupid. He has a cigarette and he gonna looks at the sky, and then he goes computer didn t logs in and he in this kind of norwegian weather since drop down menu, secretive, does a quality. Native analysis of what the clouds are? According to the rules that he's been taught and that gets them sort of put in the hallway and this evening have using every airport in the country, every major airport has of has around the clock whether observer some some person whose like in it
office somewhere link on the grounds of the airport, who need a once, an hour's checking the observations that the automated system have as made make sure the system's working and if the clouds are slightly different than me, the silly amateur the cloud the cloud observing machine can read to correct those: Andrew Plum is the other of the weather machine. A journey inside the forecast Ninety nine percent of Isabel was proves this week by Delaney Hall mix intact. Production by Sri abusive music by Sean Rio are being abused. Is Katy mingled critical stance is the digital director ferocity, Amethyst Earl Vivian lay Joe Rosenberg Christmas who Avery every Sophia cluster and me roman Mars. We are directive. Ninety one point: seventy eight w in San Francisco and produced.
RO in beautiful, downtown, Oakland, California Maybe I am presenting this boy. Is a member of Radio Toby Frumpy. Our acts are fiercely independent, collective of the most innovative shows in all upon casting find them all and were utopia done, Fm One show enjoy disgusted by the show on Facebook and Twitter me at Roman Mars and the show and ninety nine p or run Instagram and read it to, but we should really what about the weather Hey! I don't work, radio do.
Transcript generated on 2020-03-07.