Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/October 1905/Fake Weather Forecasts


By F. J. WALZ, B.S.


THAT the dissemination of erroneous predictions and false prophesies of any kind is always injurious is very evident. In every community there are always many to believe and take fright at any prediction of disaster, however baseless such a prediction may be. Certain then it is that the publication of weather forecasts based on theories, often little better than superstitious conjecture, especially when these forecasts attempt a prediction of atmospheric phenomena of a dangerous and damaging character, such as severe storms, floods and droughts, is an injury to the public interest.

In our day and generation there are so-called long-range weather forecasters, who persist in their efforts to foist their predictions upon the public for personal gain. Too often they receive liberal compensation for their absurd predictions, thus preying upon the credulity of the public. It is mainly to help to counteract this growing tendency by explaining their methods and theories that this article has been prepared.

All times and all peoples have had their weather prophets. No factor among the forces of nature influences man's temporal well-being more than weather and climate, and hence the changes in weather conditions have been carefully studied from the earliest times, and attempts made to account for their causes, and thus be able to foresee them. The appearances which were found by experience to precede weather changes have been noted from time to time, and these have given rise to many weather proverbs, many of which are the result of close observations by those compelled to be on the alert, and hence are based in part upon true atmospheric conditions.

It was but natural that, in the lookout for weather signs, men should have studiously scanned the heavens, and have associated the celestial bodies with changes in the weather, often erroneously, as causation. Thus astronomy has been closely associated in the popular mind with meteorology. This has taken such deep root that even today a weather observer and prognosticator is to a large extent popularly associated with telescopes and the celestial sphere. This may account for the ease with which so many people can be gulled by weather predictions pretendedly based upon the influence of the planets. Meteorology too was so long neglected, both in popular and liberal systems of educations. But this has changed, and now even throughout the public schools of this country the subject of meteorology has taken a firm place.

The moon was for a long time widely held, and deep in popular belief, as the great weather breeder and prognosticator. But in recent years the lunar idea of weather control has been largely discarded. This belief could hardly be considered more than a mere superstition, as it is impossible to see from an astronomical analysis how the varying positions of the lunar cusps could in any way be connected with the character of the weather.

The moon's appearance to us depends on the relative position of the moon and sun in regard to the observer's horizon. From new to full, the moon gradually increases from a crescent to a full circle, and back again from full to new. The positions of the crescent vary, as the moon (shining by the light of the sun which she reflects to us) is sometimes north of the sun's path and sometimes south of it. The variation is probably noticed most in the new moon which is seen when the sun is just below the horizon. A line joining the horns of a new moon is sometimes nearly vertical, and oftentimes nearly horizontal. These were supposed to foretell the weather, the first being called 'wet moon' and the second 'dry moon.'

Even if the several lunar phases did influence our atmosphere, the same phase should produce the same effect all around the world (as the earth revolves on its axis in twenty-four hours) for any given latitude circle. It is true that the ocean tides are for a large part the result of the moon's attraction, but this force, when applied to the earth's atmosphere, is wholly insufficient to produce any appreciable disturbance in the atmosphere. It is most probable that the moon belief grew up out of the naturally frequent coincidence between certain weather changes (and certain brands of weather) and selected moon phases. The moon enters a new phase, or quarter, every seventh day, and the weather (at least in the middle latitudes) changes on the average of one to two times in seven days; hence there must be a great many accidental coincidences. And if one counts the agreements and overlooks the disagreements, quite a theory could be announced. The lunar phase theory was not found to bear the test of accurate comparison of weather observations with the lunar phases, except in this very slight and imperfect manner, which is entirely insufficient to have any value in weather prediction. Nevertheless, the moon and her changing phases have been the basis of nearly all the weather forecasts found in the almanacs. And the almanac has probably received more wide distribution, and been more greatly cherished by the people of all countries, than any other publication, next to the Bible.

Nearly all countries have had their almanacs, but they were particularly popular in Germany and England. In America, probably, the almanac which has been more widely read and its weather forecasts more generally credited than any other, is the Hagerstown Almanac, which has been published regularly every year since 1794. Yet the weather predictions appearing in it were based entirely upon the time of day the moon entered into any one of her four quarters. For instance, if this happened between midnight and 2 a.m. it indicated fair weather in summer, and fair with hard frost in winter, unless the wind be south or southwest. While, on the other hand, if this change occurred between noon and 2 p.m., it indicated very rainy weather in summer, and rain or snow in winter. And so a table, claimed to be constructed on a due consideration of the attraction of the sun and moon in their several positions respecting the earth, was prepared for all the hours, and thus was weather forecasting simplified and made easy.

The full moon has usually been associated with clear, cold weather. This is probably because we notice the full moon so much more when the weather is clear, and also clear nights are cooler on account of more rapid radiation of the earth's heat than when blanketed with clouds. Also since the moon's path on the heavens is so near the ecliptic, and full moons are always 180 degrees from the sun, they are far north in winter, and thus longer above the horizon in the northern hemisphere than they are in summer, and thus we associate full moons with our long, cold, winter nights.

So much for the moon as a weather forecaster. Let us take a look into the planetary theories.

Along with astronomy, which had its beginning away back in history among the Chaldæans, the Chinese and the Egyptians, there grew up the art of astrology. Egypt was a particularly rich field for this art. Astrologers not only professed to tell the future weather and the seasonal conditions from the relative positions of the planets, and the sun, moon and constellations in the heavens, but could foretell the results of all human endeavors and desires. They could read the future of the individual and the state. Astrological predictions, however, could not stand the light of education and modern scientific knowledge, and we could hardly say that in the twentieth century, in educated countries, they have any credence whatever. Yet the predictions of our day so-called long-range forecasters, based upon their planetary theories, have as little foundation in demonstrated facts as did those of the astrologers.

Among the most famous astrologers, outside of Egypt and the Orient, was one Dr. Thurmeisen, a man of truly great genius, who resided during the eighteenth century at the electorial court of Berlin. He was the 'pooh-bah' of the court, occupying the positions of physician, chemist, printer, librarian, drawer of horoscopes, astronomer, etc. He compiled annually an almanac in which he indicated the principal weather events, including the temperature for each day, besides the general character of the seasons and the year. This almanac had enormous success for twenty years or more, and helped to amass a fortune for the author.

I have before me a little volume holding between its covers copies, for the years 1791-1800, inclusive, of an almanac published in London by one Francis Moore, physician. This almanac in its day had great sale and reputation. It gives predictions by months and also by quarters, based, as it says, 'upon observations of the influence of the Planets.' Besides the weather predictions, Dr. Moore seems to have read the horoscope, and prophesies about everything else in the universe. A few quotations taken at random might be interesting. "Summer Quarter, 1794. The Position of Saturn causeth Cold and dry Diseases proceeding from Melancholy, mixed with tough Phlegm, causing Obstruction and Indigestion in the Stomach, Heaviness in the Head, etc., the cure of which must be left to the care of learned and able Physicians; as for the Weather Consult the Calendar Part." Consulting the Calendar Part, I find the following predictions: For June, "Rain (more or less) may be expected about the 8th, 17th, 24th and 30th days of this month; the day before or the day after." The July and August predictions are similar to this, only a little variation in the dates. For January, 1794, we read the following forecast: "Rain or snow (more or less) may be expected about the 2nd, 10th, 16th and 28th of this month; the day before or the day after; that is, within the Triduum, or Compass of three days."

I also have before me a copy of 'Word and Works' for January, 1904, containing the weather forecasts of Rev. I. E. Hicks for that month. As these forecasts, as printed, take up more than two columns in that paper, I will not give them in full, but confine myself to exact quotations from the salient features:

"Forecast for January, 1904. We enter the new year in the midst of a Venus perturbation. This will insure some very great extremes of temperature, with violent storms and blizzards during the regular and re-actionary storm period. The first storm period is central on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th." (Central where, it does not say.) "During this period we have the moon in opposition, etc. A general reaction to warmer will set in to the west as we enter this period; the barometer will fall decidedly, and storms of winter wind and rain will turn to gales and blizzards as they advance eastward on and touching the 2nd, 3rd and 4th. Look for sudden reaction from moderate to extreme cold weather immediately behind the rain stages of storms at this and other January periods. Electric storms, very high tides and seismic shakes are among the probable phenomena at this time. A regular Vulcan storm period covers the 6th to the 12th, being central with moon's last quarter on the 9th. This period lies near the center of the Venus period on the 12th. As we enter this period the weather will again moderate; winds will shift to southerly and easterly; the barometer will fall in western extremes, and general storms will organize and pass in regular order from west to east from about the 8th to the 12th. The first stages of these storms will most likely prove moderate and rainy, but as the high barometer pushes into the low areas from the northwest, look for high winter gales, blizzards of blockading snow and sleet and a severe, dangerous, cold wave. If the barometer is very low in the far south at this time, the cold wave will not stop short of the Gulf Coast. Watch your barometer as far south as Florida. If it is very low, keep your eye on any 'high' that may head that way from the northwest." In other words, the cold wave depends upon the relative distribution of air pressure, and it will be cold or warm, clear or rain or snow, according to the prevailing atmospheric conditions. And how are we to know these all-important prevailing atmospheric conditions without the reports of the U. S. Weather Bureau? How can you watch your barometer as far south as Florida, and keep your eye on any 'high' that may head that way from the northwest without these telegraphic reports? Neither Venus nor moon nor Vulcan has yet vouchsafed to send them by the wireless system.

I will not follow the month's forecast in detail further, but I challenge the reader to go through the whole two columns, and arrive at any conclusion in the predetermination of the weather for any day in any particular locality. Is it the same whether you are on the Pacific coast, in the Rocky Mountain region, the upper or lower Mississippi Valley or in the New England states?—the oracle and the prophet sayeth not.

Summarized, the prediction would read about as follows: Wind and rain turning to gales and blizzards the 2nd, 3rd and 4th (a day sooner or later); followed immediately by extremely cold weather (dates and regions not given); moderating weather, winds shifting to southerly and easterly, general storms organizing and passing in regular order from west to east, the 6th to the 12th; look for high winter gales, blizzards, blockading snow and sleet, and a severe, dangerous, cold wave (date and place uncertain); moderation of the cold and return of cloudiness and more rain and snow, the 14th, 15th and 16th; prolonged disturbed and threatening weather the 17th; rising temperature and winter storms, 18th to the 23rd; winter thunder and lightning the 19th; snow and blizzards, the 20th to the 23rd; cold relaxing, cloudiness gathering in the west and more rain and snow passing eastward, the 25th, 26th and 27th; much colder from the west and north, lasting up to the 30th and 31st.

These predictions can hardly be said to be less absurd or to possess more value than those given in Dr. Moore's almanac for the month of January one hundred and ten years before. This statement is made without regard as to whether or not any of the storms passing across the United States during January, 1904, happened to agree in time in some part of the country with the storm periods mentioned in the 'Word and Works' forecast. During any month of January, from five to ten storm areas of from two to four or five days' duration pass across or over some part of the United States, and it would be strange indeed if some of these storms somewhere did not agree with the 'longrange' forecast periods.

Professor C. M. Woodward, of Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., has given a clear and most excellent review of the so-called planetary influence theory, in an article published in Ware's Valley Monthly, December, 1875. The article is entitled 'An Examination of Mr. Tice's Theory of the Planetary Equinoxes,' and was published very soon after the appearance of that wonder book, Tice's 'Elements of Meteorology.' Professor Woodward practically concluded that Mr. Tice 'built a house of straw upon the sand, and his theories fell under the first blow.' As Mr. Tice's disciples are still with us working upon the credulity of the people, and as Professor Woodward's article is probably not now generally available,[1] I will attempt briefly an explanation of this fantastic theory, drawing freely upon the work and words of Professor Woodward.

For the past seventy-five years or more the scientific world has been busy observing, collecting and tabulating all sorts of natural phenomena—astronomical, physical and meteorological—in the attempt to discover cycles, or regular recurring periods. Thus it was found that the sun spots show a period of 11.11 years between two successive times of maximum frequency; also that this period holds good for extra magnetic disturbances of storms. Further, that the times of maximum and minimum sun spot frequency fairly agrees with the times of maximum and minimum magnetic disturbance, and also that the years in which the sun spots were the most frequent, and the earth most electrically excited, were years as well in which hurricanes were the most terrible and most numerous in the East and West Indies. These striking coincidences set men to thinking, and the scientists—and some, unfortunately, not so scientific—to hunting for a possible cause.

It was noticed that the period of 11.86 years of the planet Jupiter to make the complete revolution in his orbit was so near an agreement with the sun spot period of 11.11 years that the coincidence suggested the possibility that Jupiter and the other planets might be the cause, or at least an influence, in the sun spots. However, nothing was satisfactorily demonstrated. "The planetary system represents so many periodic relations as to render it almost certain that any periodic changes in the sun's condition may be associated statistically with some period of planetary motion."

Now among those casting about for a great cycle was Mr. Tice. He had worked out to his own satisfaction that some meteorological phenomena were periodic, and concluded all were, and so set out to establish a great meteorological cycle, which would be the key for explaining all atmospheric phenomena. By an arrangement of meteorological tables, juggling with meteorological statistics, and smoothing out irregularities through resorting to averages, thus obliterating all individual phenomena, he arrived at an average period of 11.83 years. This he at once adopted as the wonder-working meteorological cycle. Naturally, of course, the near agreement of this with Jupiter's period of 11.86 years, and the sun spot period of 11.11 years, caught his attention. He jumps to the conclusion that Jupiter is the main cause of the sun spot period, the earth and the other planets helping. In this conclusion he entirely ignores the difference of .75 years, and that this difference is sufficient to change agreement into total disagreement in five or sis periods. To fit its great cycle into this foundation he must have some starting point, and so he must know when, or in what part of his great orbit, Jupiter exercises the greatest influence in producing sun spots.

It has generally been believed that the weather about the equinoctial period, when the sun is in the plane of the equator, is very unsettled, and that there always occur the so-called equinoctial storms. That storms are more frequent, more violent, or occur with any more regularity at these seasons than any other is certainly not shown in established weather records. Still, there seemed enough truth in it for Mr. Tice, and so he assumes as undeniable (1) that the earth and atmosphere at the equinoxes always undergo an intense electric disturbance, and (2) that this disturbance extends to and affects the sun, and through the sun the other planets. He assumes these notwithstanding no maximum of sun spots is in evidence during the equinoctial months. Reasoning from this unproved hypothesis, he comes to the conclusion through tables of statistics giving (1) the dates of maximum sun spot frequency; (2) dates of Jupiter's aphelion; and (3) and (4) his own dates of the major and minor equinoxes of Jupiter, that Jupiter's equinoxes are the immense influence. (These tables never proved anything; or if anything, also its converse.) And so Jupiter's equinoxes (and if Jupiter's, the equinoxes of the other planets) are adopted 'as the main cause of the disturbances of the sun, and consequently the whole solar system.'

With this adoption of the equinoxes, it becomes necessary to know when these equinoxes actually occur. Now of all things concerning the planets—with the one exception of the earth—astronomers are able to tell us least about their equinoxes. This is because they have discovered no law pervading the obliquity of the axes of the various planets, and hence the inclination of the planes of their respective equators to their paths around the sun. This inclination produces seasons, as it brings the sun a part of the year above their equators and part of the year below. Hence, we know but very little about the seasons of the other planets. The inclination of the earth's equinoctial to the ecliptic is a constant, and so the several seasons should be constant if abnormalities were not the result of other causes.

One point, however, about which there seems to be no uncertainty is that no planet has fixed equinoctial points. The 'precession of the equinoxes of the earth' was settled back in the days of Sir Isaac Newton. At present the earth is in perihelion (the point of her orbit nearest the sun) very nearly at the time of her winter solstice. But the times of perihelion and aphelion come a few minutes earlier every year, so in the course of several thousand years the earth's perihelion will have gone backward in the year until it comes at the time of autumnal equinox, when the sun's distance from the earth will be the same in the winters and summers of both hemispheres. After another few thousand years the time of perihelion will come in the summer of the northern hemisphere. Then any difference of climate in the two hemispheres caused by the variation in the earth's distance from the sun will be the reverse of now. Not alone do all the planets revolve upon their axes, but the sun itself so revolves. His axis of revolution is not quite perpendicular to the ecliptic, with the result that the plane of his equator has an inclination of a few degrees to the plane of the earth's orbit—and also to the orbits of the other planets. In consequence of this slight angle the earth—and likewise each of the other planets—is exposed to the north pole of the sun during one half of its year and the south pole during the other half.

Now, according to Mr. Tice's theory, the influence exerted by the planets upon the sun, and retroactive, is entirely electrical, and hence not the force of universal gravitation. A safe assumption, as almost anything that we can not explain in any other way, may be laid to some form of electric energy with least chance of its being disproved. So electric energy and the equinoxes of the planets became the basis of the Tice electro-equinoctial theory. What foundation stones for his great cycle arch! But the keystone, the illusory planet Vulcan (which will be discussed later) is even more mysterious.

The sun and each of the planets were regarded by him as immense magnets with north and south poles, and as the planets moved in their orbits they were exposed alternately to the north and south poles of the great sun magnet, and this alternating exposure aroused not only the planet to greater electrical activity, but influenced the sun himself, as evidenced in the sun spots. But even were this so, what has it to do with the planet's equinoxes? The amount of change to and from the poles of the sun depends, as shown above, solely on the inclination of the planet's orbit to the plane of the sun's equator, as, in the case of the earth, the inclination of the ecliptic to the sun's equator plane, and not of the ecliptic to the equinoctial.

Now it happens that (at this time) the earth is at its greatest distance south of the plane of the sun's equator, and hence most exposed to the sun's south pole, March 6; and the greatest distance north, and so most exposed to his north pole, September 5. These dates are so near the dates of the earth's equinoxes—March 22 and September 21—Mr. Tice assumes that they agree. And even though this difference, like the equinoxes themselves, is not a constant, further assumes a like coincidence to exist in the case of every planet. With this lame assumption he puts the source of the great electric energy of the sun upon the equinoxes of the planets, and reaches the conclusion that all atmospheric phenomena were produced by planetary equinoxes.

But with all these assumptions injected into his great meteorological cycle, it yet refuses to work properly. It was found that there were many phenomena occurring that would not fit into any of his assumed cycles, or that were contemporary with the causing planetary positions—that is, of the known planets. Thus it became necessary to find a new planet—one he could have his own way about, and so Vulcan—a planet so near the sun that only Mr. Tice, and two others, neither of whom was a trained astronomer, and using only ordinary telescopes, have ever been able to see it, and they only once each—is harnessed to the electric cycle wagon.

Lescarbault saw the supposed Vulcan March 26, 1859, Mr. Tice September 25 or 26, 1859, and Mr. Lummis in March, 1862. So this wonderful planet which plays such an important part in our welfare has been seen only these three times, and never since, although astronomical observers with the finest telescopes, and located all over the world, have been on the constant search for a planet interior to Mercury, and though during every total eclipse of the sun (when his intense light is for a moment shut out), it is the sole duty of some observer in every party to search for such a planet—yet the wily Vulcan eludes them all.

The main reason why Vulcan, or some uncertain planet, became so essential to the theory, was the fact that the planets in sight, though seemingly so well trained, far too frequently disagreed with the development and movement of cyclonic and anti-cyclonic areas over the field of systematic meteorological observations, and as these are the disturbances in the atmosphere which bring the variation in weather during the several seasons, something heroic was needed.

To his own satisfaction Mr. Tice established that Vulcan was a planet of gigantic size. He also assigns him a period of revolution around the sun of forty-six days, and sets the dates of his equinoxes—all essential to his planetary theory. Thus with a terrible Vulcan equinox every twenty-three days of from seven to eleven days' duration, and the aid of the equinoxes of a half dozen other planets, it is made possible to account for about everything under the sun. There is considerable uncertainty and confusion as to the energy of Vulcan's influence at his equinoxes; but as Professor Woodward concludes, "I infer it is immense when immense energy is exhibited and not noticeable when none is noticed—in fact, it depends upon the weather."

A good deal more might be said from a meteorological standpoint to controvert this theory, but I think I have given sufficient to show the absolute untrustworthiness of such a system in predetermining weather. Astronomers have no faith in the astronomical work, assumptions and deductions, and meteorologists certainly as little in the meteorological part. Neither part stood the test of critical investigation. It is believed that Mr. Tice was conscientious and honest in his investigation and theories, but that he was over-enthusiastic and ambitious, and could only see things as he wished to see them. Not so much can be said of some of his present-day disciples.

Some of our long-range weather forecasters base their predictions entirely upon tabulated weather statistics, with averages and departures, from which they believe they have discovered cycles and recurring weather changes and conditions. But their conclusions will not stand critical investigation, and their forecasts are of so general a nature as to be absolutely without value.

Nearly all the modern 'long-range' weather forecasters rely to a large extent upon the weather reports of established weather bureaus, and a mighty howl goes up whenever these reports are withheld from them.

I have reviewed most of the popular weather prognostication systems, but as yet have said nothing of the methods used by the U. S. Weather Bureau. To tell these would take many chapters, and would be a history of modern meteorology as revealed and built up during the past century. The Weather Bureau has taken, and ever stands ready to take, the best that scientific minds and training and scientific research are able to produce. There is no secret or magic about the system of simultaneous observations, telegraphic reports, synoptic charts and weather maps of the U. S. Weather Bureau. The best scientific thought and the life work of some of the brightest scientific minds, together with long experience of the forecaster, are used in the discussion of these charts and observations in predetermining the weather elements for a day or two in advance. Many of the most eminent meteorologists, who have contributed so much in bringing our knowledge of the earth's atmosphere to where it is to-day—such as Maury, Ferrel, Abbe and Bigelow—were also astronomers, and it is not likely that they, in their research, should have overlooked the terrific planetary influences.

True, logical, scientific weather forecasts for a season, or a month even, in advance, is the aim and dream of the meteorologist and the inspiration of meteorological research all over the world. But in the light of all our present knowledge of original causation of variations and abnormalities in current weather and in the seasons, this meteorological 'millennium' is not yet. and there is work in plenty ahead for the earnest, capable investigator.

Will not the newspapers, the great enlighteners and disseminators of truth and knowledge in the present age, help these investigators by discouraging and discountenancing the publication of weather predictions founded upon such baseless theories as told in this paper?

The U. S. Weather Bureau is now erecting excellent observatories at Mt. Weather, located in northern.Virginia on a spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains. These observatories are to be fully equipped with the latest and most approved instruments and apparatus for observation and research in meteorology and allied sciences. Here will be given opportunity for collection, correlation and study of simultaneous observations and measurements of meteorological and magnetic elements, changes in the activities of the sun's atmosphere, solar energy, radioactivity, atmospheric electricity, etc. Also exploration of the upper levels of the atmosphere will be made by means of balloons. As stated by Professor Willis L. Moore, chief of the U. S. Weather Bureau, "Research at Mt. Weather will lie catholic in its broadness. There, we will look only for the truth, and shall not despise its source or the means of its conveyance."

  1. Since writing this article, Professor Woodward's paper in full has been published in Bulletin No. 35, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, entitled 'Long-Range Weather Forecasts,' by E. B. Garriott, professor of meteorology. A copy of this bulletin can be obtained by addressing, Chief, U. S. Weather Bureau, Washington, D. C.—F. J. W.