Weather has enormous influences on society, but these influences seem to be relatively invisible or poorly understood. We tend to think farmers and fishers are weather sensitive while the rest of society is relatively immune. This is not the case.
Energy suppliers, retailers, the manufacturing industries, water companies, transport and the leisure sector are all weather dependent. Local councils need detailed weather forecasts if they are to grit the right roads at the right time and at minimum cost. The weather affects hospital admissions, with increased respiratory illnesses in damp, foggy weather and increased slips and fractures in frosty weather. Mental health is influenced by the weather. Peaks in the suicide rate in Mediterranean countries show strong associations with particular winds.
We cannot control the weather but predicting it more accurately can benefit almost every sector of society by allowing for better planning. There are decisive historical events where the weather played no small part in determining the outcome of a battle.
Such events include:
- the Spanish Armada damaged by a series of summer storms as the ships circled Britain to escape Drake
- the D-Day landings, finely timed to fit a short ‘weather window’ of better conditions
- Kubla Khan’s planned invasion of Japan defeated not by a defending army but by an unexpected typhoon
As our ability to forecast improves we gain the potential to alter history for the better and to reduce the impact of natural disasters. The death toll from cyclones and hurricanes has fallen dramatically since satellite technology has enabled us to monitor vast areas of ocean from space.
© National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce
In 1900 Galveston, Texas – a prosperous US city near the Gulf of Mexico – was unexpectedly hit by a hurricane. A storm surge (a hurricane-induced rise in sea level) of five metres caused an estimated 10,000 deaths by drowning. By contrast, 1996 saw a more powerful storm hit a much poorer area – Andhra Pradesh in eastern India. Despite a storm surge of eight metres, good forecasting and effective evacuation led to less than 2,000 deaths.
Weather has contributed to the outcomes of many wars. The Spanish Armada suffered storm damage just after they set out and again on the return journey. King Philip II of Spain is quoted as saying ‘I sent you out to war with men, not with the wind and wave’.
The Galveston hurricane claimed up to 10,000 lives. Forecasting could not have reduced the property damage but it could have allowed evacuation, saving thousands of lives.