Saturday, August 15

The wonders of weather

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Distant cumulonimbus clouds over Muara Tabuan, Kuching.

FRIENDS have asked me, “Didn’t you become bored during the Covid-19 Movement Control Order with your enforced stay in Sarawak?” My reply was simple, “Boredom is for boring people for I had the weather and the skies to keep me company!” Sadly, they did not know that even with generalised and now more specific hourly forecasts on the internet, all weather at any place and time can be very unpredictable and no more so than in the islands of the UK and Borneo.

My best clues, I have found in life, are by looking upwards to skies, seeing clouds form and change their shapes, feeling local winds as my skin reacts to different humidity levels. Yes, here in eastern Malaysia, a blackening of the skies, followed by a flash of lightning and later the roll of thunder is often a daily occurrence. Counting in seconds between lightning and thunder (five seconds = 1km) gives me an approximate clue how far away the heavens have opened!

I am not a walking meteorological station but my love for weather was inculcated in my birth place in the far west of West Cornwall, UK. This area is a small peninsula in the larger peninsula of the County of Cornwall. There, a semi-subtropical climate prevails where the Cornish coasts are warmed in winter by a warm ocean current, the Gulf Steam Drift, moving across the North Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. Whilst, it may rain frequently in that region with sea fog in the autumn and winter months, I always felt the rain to be warm.

My sister, now almost as old as me, takes a daily swim throughout the year in Cornish waters, even on Christmas and New Year Days in the middle of winter! The first winter snow I experienced there was in 1947, so a family photo has revealed in our back garden. I was but a babe in my grandmother’s arms. The winter of 1962 saw a heavily snowbound Cornwall with severe frosts and a burst water storage tank in the attic of our house with the water cascading down the stairwell to the ground floor.

In my late wife’s remote North Devon village, in the adjoining county, roads were literally locked down with three-metre high snowdrifts and farmers walking along hedge tops to dig out newborn lambs to ask villagers to care for in their homes. Sadly, deceased persons in the village were buried in snowdrifts until their burials later.

A few years later at Oxford University, in the centre of England, I can remember the cold winters going to bed, dressed in a track suit on top of woollen pyjamas, and going to breakfast and lectures with my pyjama bottoms on under my trousers. Waking up to look out of my small bedroom window was a nightmare in scraping condensed frost off the window panes – central heating did not exist.

Meteorology lectures inspired me for, whilst I only had a basic science knowledge, the wonders of atmospheric physics and chemistry often baffled me. This led to deeper reading and understanding of these areas before I took up my first teaching post at a Nautical College for potentially young merchant mariners. There, I learned to unravel the mysteries of atmospheric physics to convert it into plain man’s understandable English.

Origins of scientific meteorology

Nowadays there are two types of weather observation: the statistical data based recordings and the visual. The latter depends on one’s ability to ‘read’ the weather. For many centuries, in ancient history in Babylon, India, and China, forecasting depended upon the study of clouds, sky colourings, and animal behaviour let alone human insanity when certain dry winds blew.

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, wrote a treatise entitled ‘Meteorologica’ and his student and successor Theophrastus gave natural clues to the forthcoming weather in his book ‘Signs of water winds and storms’ quoting animal behaviour as indicators of impending weather. Today, folklore worldwide contains such observations for, whilst some dismiss these are myths, there is an element of truth in each. Such local tales need documenting.

The weather in urban areas and particularly large cities is more difficult to predict and Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are no exceptions. The relative density of buildings, road, and street surfaces all of tarmac or cement see heat being absorbed and then radiated back into space at different rates. In one part of a city it may be sunny and bone dry, yet in other parts the rising cells of hot moist air lead to massive cumulonimbus storm clouds with torrential rain and flooding.

Weather vanes and sundials have been with us for at least 4,000 years and wind speeds often measured in knots have been with mariners for centuries. It was Leonardo da Vinci, in the 14th century, who invented the first hygrometer to measure air humidity; with Koreans devising the first rain gauges in the 17th century; and the Italian, Alberti, inventing the first handheld anemometer to measure wind speed; and Galileo inventing the first barometer to record atmospheric pressure.

In the 18th century, two German and Swedish physicists, respectively Fahrenheit and Celsius, came up with their temperature scales. The 19th century British meteorologist, Luke Howard, gave Latin names such as status, cumulus, and nimbus to cloud types following Linnaeus’s nomenclature for plant species.

Admiral Francis Beaufort RN devised his wind force scale based on a Calm (force 1) to a Hurricane (force 12). For each, he gave an observational description based on the frequency and size of waves at sea crashing over the prow of a ship and for ‘landlubbers’ smoke, dust, and tree branch movements leading up to the potential damages to houses. Sadly, many battles since then – Waterloo, Moscow, and Stalingrad – have been lost owing to their commander’s inabilities to read the weather.

The 20th century saw two World Wars with both the Allied and Axis forces withdrawing their weather ships from the North Atlantic, shipping and plane movements limited, and radio communications halted. It was just before WW1 that a Norwegian father and son, Bjerknes, developed a model for the development of a depression (cyclone) in the northern hemisphere from its initiation to its occlusion.

Just before WW2, a Swede, Tor Bergeron, and a German, Walter Findeisen, discovered how raindrops were made. This was put to good effect in dispersing fog from military airports and later in cloud seeding over arid areas. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whilst causing much loss of life and the end of the Pacific War, saw the discovery of the high altitude Jet Streams, which were recorded by the US meteorologist Jerome Namias. Ironically, a Japanese meteorologist had already made claims to this important discovery.

Remote weather watching

The deployment of weather satellites and ever increasing accurate feedback to international meteorological centres has revolutionised weather forecasting. Currently, there over 1,000 weather satellites passing daily over our heads in orbit at any one time. Their remote cameras feed super computers with digitised information which today’s meteorologists can use alongside ground meteorological stations to run present conditions against stored past weather conditions. These are the wonders born out of the ‘space race’ and technological advances.

Weather lore

Weather prediction is, indeed, as much an art as it is a science especially locally. Wherever I have travelled, I have always made time for conversations with local farmers or fishermen in rural or coastal spots I have visited, in order to determine their gut reaction to next day’s weather.

Rising cumulus clouds indicate approaching rain.

These are the very folk whose income depends upon their accumulated local knowledge based on their interpretations of the overhead skies. With climate change and global warming such advice today may be outdated tomorrow. Weather is after all an important daily conversational item in any language and affects not only us but as importantly all animal behaviour.

Give yourselves a treat when next out of doors by day or by night, learn to interpret cloud types and whether or not you can see the nightly stars or moon and then forecast the next few hours or tomorrow’s weather. You could save time by not looking up weather websites and determine as to whether (excuse the pun) you need an umbrella, rain jacket, or sunblock with you tomorrow.