In 1800 the weather remained a mystery. The sky was the last part of nature to be classified: a relic of the arcane, chaotic world that had existed before Newton and the Scientific Revolution. ... Very few in scientific circles would have heard of William C. Redfield’s name before the publication of his storm paper in 1831. A New York businessman, he had made his name with his Steam Navigation Company. Redfield’s steamers plied up and down the Hudson, from New York to Albany, carrying passengers and freight. Redfield’s success had come through his natural instinct for innovation. In the 1820s, the early years of steam, passengers had been wary of traveling too close to the engines, worried that they might explode—as they often did. Redfield’s solution to the problem had been simple but effective. He had designed “safety barges” for the passengers to travel in, precursors of the railway carriages of the future, drawn in strings behind the steamer. Over time, as safety standards had improved and passengers had become more confident, he had switched his tactics: moving the passengers back into the steamer and filling the barges with cargo. ... But Redfield was more than a wily businessman. He had worked as a mechanic in his youth in small-town Connecticut, and he had retained his interest in engineering. ... Traveling on a steamer from New York to New Haven one day in 1831 Redfield chanced to meet Denison Olmstead, professor of mathematics and physics at Yale. Spotting Olmstead on deck he had approached and “modestly asked leave to make a few inquiries” about a paper Olmstead had recently published on hailstorms in the American Journal of Science. Soon Olmstead and Redfield were talking about storms and it was then, for the first time, that Redfield unveiled his theory of whirling winds. It was a pivotal moment in the history of meteorology. ... Redfield’s idea of circular winds was clearly perplexing. Espy could find no reason why winds should dart about the central axis of a storm. Eventually he concluded that Redfield was wrong. A more logical answer, Espy reasoned, was that winds rushed toward the central column at the core of the storm as air in a room would be drawn in toward a burning fire—cool air from beneath replacing the warm heat traveling upward. The science behind this idea was sound. In a powerful storm, Espy thought, the effect would simply be magnified.
“Fire left,” instructs Pederson. Mistry flips a switch on the center console and deploys a flare on the left wing. “Fire right.” There are 24 cylinders resembling sticks of dynamite wired to racks on the plane’s wings, 12 on each. The flares are filled with combustible sodium chloride—pulverized table salt mixed with a flammable potassium powder. When the switch is flipped, the end of the flare shoots orange fire and trillions of superfine salt particles are released into the cloud. Water molecules are attracted to salt, so they bond to the particles and coalesce into raindrops. ... During our mission over Maharashtra, we have cooperative clouds. Twenty-two minutes after seeding the first cloud, Pederson returns to the location where he fired that initial flare. It’s pouring. “We’ve got drops!” he shouts. He dips the King Air into a victory swoop before gunning over to another cluster of clouds. My stomach churns, and I can’t hold it in any longer; I heave into my purse. Pederson doesn’t notice. The computer barks out another warning about excessive banking. He laughs and says, “Shove it, Betty.” ... Cloud seeding has been controversial since it was invented by Vincent Schaefer in 1946. A chemist for General Electric, Schaefer made the first snowstorm in a laboratory freezer. The media predicted that cloud seeding could perform miracles, from dousing forest fires to ensuring white Christmases. But doubts quickly arose about the impact of meddling with nature. Concerns that cloud seeding might “steal” water from an area a cloud is traveling toward—robbing Peter to water Paul, as it were—have been dispelled. Storm clouds continually regenerate and release only a portion of their moisture when they rain, which means you can’t “wring out” all the moisture from one cloud.
When Hurricane Sandy closed in on New york City, the Weather Channel dispatched (who else?) Jim Cantore, the world’s most fearless meteorologist. Nick Heil tagged along for a wet, wild adventure that quickly became something else—a survival challenge in the darkest hours of a killer storm.
Mass, who is 64, has become the most widely recognized critic of weather forecasting in the United States — and specifically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the National Weather Service and its underling agencies, including the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, where the nation’s weather models are run. Mass argues that these models are significantly flawed in comparison with commercial and European alternatives. American forecasting also does poorly at data assimilation, the process of integrating information about atmospheric conditions into modeling programs; in the meantime, a lack of available computing power precludes the use of more advanced systems already operating at places like the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, based in Reading, England. And there are persistent management challenges, perhaps best represented by the legions of NOAA scientists whose innovations remain stranded in research labs and out of the hands of the National Weather Service operational forecasters who make the day-to-day predictions in 122 regional offices around the country. ... accuracy is everything, often the difference between life and death, given that extreme weather ... Industries like shipping, energy, agriculture and utilities lose money when predictions fail. Even slightly more precise wind-speed projections would help airlines greatly reduce fuel costs. ... the Weather Service interface was so primitive — the protocol was originally designed for the telegraph — it could only accommodate uppercase type.