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  • Tim McGill

Weather & Wars

Throughout history weather has had an impact on wars and other battles. The ability to forecast weather accurately could give one side a huge advantage over the other. Wars have had an impact on weather forecasting too. Mathematical modeling came about during World War I. It was the infancy of what we call today Numerical Weather Prediction.


Lewis Fry Richardson was an English mathematician was working in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit on the Western Front in 1917 when he made the first numerical forecast. So ironically this pacifist helped pioneer the modern mathematical techniques of weather forecasting in the middle of our country's first World War.


From Smithsonian Magazine:


This “new meteorology”, as it was sometimes called, became culturally pervasive in the years following World War I. Not only did it lift the metaphors of trench warfare and place them in the air (the “weather front” taking its name directly from the battle fronts of the war), it also insisted that to speak of the weather meant to speak of a global system of energies opening, ever anew, onto different futures.


A National Research Council report referred to this "new meteorology" as an art in 1918. Weather forecasters started to build off of some basic understandings of how the weather worked. Swedish scientist Carl-Gustaf Rossby began to look beyond just incorporating surface observations and started to consider what was going on in the vertical too. He developed a bigger picture of how the entire atmosphere behaved by helping to discover high-altitude winds. Rossby founded our country's first meteorology program at MIT in 1928 where he designed curriculum that would be used by World War II forecasters.


From Phys.org:


Forecasters knew, among other things, that weather generally moved from the west; that high barometric pressure indicated cold temperatures; and that low pressure meant rain. They would collect data by telegraph, make charts and provide forecasts, which were often faulty. Weathermen were popular objects of ridicule.


By the early 1940s, however, American universities were training thousands of military weather forecasters to see the atmosphere as a dynamic global system driven by powerful high-altitude winds. During World War II, this approach helped determine the timing of crucial Allied operations such as the D-Day invasion.


The knowledge reaped from Rossby's forecasting technique would help turn the tide on deadliest conflict in human history. The battle of Normandy raged from June to August of 1994. More than 150,000 allied forces liberated Western Europe from Nazi Germany's control. The weather forecast to determine d-day or the starting day of that battle was crucial.


From JSTOR Daily:


It all came down to the weather, the tides, and the amount of moonlight. Low tide, small waves, and a moonlit night were essential. As geographer Mildred Berman explains, weather forecasting was fairly rudimentary in those days. There were no satellites, telecommunications, or supercomputers. “One or two days of continuously overcast sky with low clouds could bring the entire undertaking to a halt,” she writes, quoting a general who said weather “would remain as constant an enemy as the Germans.”


Berman writes,


The success or failure of the grand design would be controlled by a combination of elements, not only the moon and its effect on the tides but also sea swells, breaking surf, beach surfaces, and visibility in the air and on the ground…All the desired conditions for tides occurred on only six days a month, but optimum conditions for tides and moonlight occurred on only three days a month, which in June 1944 were the 5th, 6th, and 7th.

Cancelling these dates would mean a delay of two weeks at least, something logistics, secrecy, and hundreds of thousands of troops in the south of England could hardly bear. June 5th was the initial choice, but the 4th saw December-like high winds, five-foot waves, and four-foot surf. Planning shifted to June 6th.


The weathermen and heads of military eventually settled on early June 6th counting on a break from the hurricane-like conditions they saw on June 5th. That forecast of a break, even though it would be short lived, would also coincide with more optimal moon and tide conditions.


From History.com:


The weather during the initial hours of D-Day was still not ideal. Thick clouds resulted in Allied bombs and paratroopers landing miles off target. Rough seas caused landing craft to capsize and mortar shells to land off the mark. By noon, however, the weather had cleared and Stagg’s forecast had been validated. The Germans had been caught by surprise, and the tide of World War II began to turn.


The Allies won the weather forecast war because of more advanced models and bigger network of weather stations to gather data from.


Even Doppler Radar's roots can be traced back to war. The advanced technology that Doppler Radar employs has helped saved countless lives by detecting tornadoes early enough to give more lead time for people react and seek shelter that are in their path.


From Wired.com:


Radar (for RAdio Detection And Ranging) was developed over the years with input from many sources, but it was Robert Watson-Watt, a Scottish physicist looking for a reliable method to help airmen locate and avoid approaching thunderstorms, who designed the first set put into practical use. Watson-Watt realized, as he perfected his device, that radio waves could be used to detect more than storms.


While accurate weather forecasting is essential in helping to win wars it ultimately comes down to the men and women who do the fighting. Today we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.


Jim Butz receiving French Legion Of Honor
Jim Butz receiving French Legion Of Honor

I just want to single out man who I knew personally. He was part of "The Greatest Generation" that served in World War 2. Jim Butz received the French Legion of Honor Award in 2013. He was 88 years old when he received this recognition.


WWII Veteran Jim Butz


He fought in D-Day as well as the Battle of the Bulge and the Colmar Pocket. I was honored to witness the ceremony where he was inducted as a chevalier, or knight, for his role in liberating France. Before he passed Jim shared some of his stories from those battles with me. He was a true hero. Today I am thankful for Jim and others who bravely served this country.




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