Geoff Kemp: Weather forecasting - a brief history

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Much has changed in 160 years - including the relative weight given to political news and coverage of the weather. Photo / AP
Much has changed in 160 years - including the relative weight given to political news and coverage of the weather. Photo / AP

As warfare in the Crimea looms as a real possibility, the talk at home has been about the difference between "cyclones and gales of a more ordinary character", as one weather expert put it.

Sound familiar? The scenario actually dates from March 1854, with Russia's military in the field and a declaration of war only days away on the part of the British Empire and France.

Much has changed in 160 years — including the relative weight given to political news and coverage of the weather.

Daily research at the University of Auckland's Chapman Audio-Visual Archive indicates that last Friday and Saturday, One News devoted 13 to 15 minutes of the 45 non-advertising minutes in its "news hour" to the weather, while 3 News devoted 7 to 8 minutes. Both programmes gave on average less than two minutes to covering the crisis in Crimea.

The discrepancy owes something to the impending arrival of Cyclone Lusi, with bulletins leading on stories of storm deaths in Vanuatu and looming disaster, but even on a normal day weather occupies a five-minute slice, showcasing Jim or Karen before, during and at the end of One News.

Back in March 1854, the media were not preoccupied with weather forecasts. Journalists were rushing to report the Crimean conflict, though "rushing" involved delays of days and weeks for news to make its way over land and sea.

It was July before news of the March 28 declaration reached the shores of New Zealand and the pages of the Daily Southern Cross in Auckland, where the weather was fair with a fresh breeze, according to the newspaper's small weekly weather report.

Changing news priorities are only part of the reason for the media preoccupation with the weather. Another is the fact that there were no regular "weather forecasts", a term about to be coined by the 19th century weather expert working to distinguish cyclones and gales.

He was Robert FitzRoy, at home in England after being driven from his post as Governor of New Zealand by settler protests at his sympathy with Maori land grievances.

In August 1854, FitzRoy's experience and expertise as a sea commander — most famously as Darwin's captain on HMS Beagle — resulted in his appointment as the first head of Britain's meteorological service, where he introduced weather forecasts, primarily to save ships from disaster but clearly of wider application.

Initially, there was scepticism. MPs laughed and the Times scoffed at the notion of predicting the weather, and the Government criticised FitzRoy for using resources for forecasts instead of sticking to reports. Beset by problems, FitzRoy cut his own throat in 1865.

The next decade, British newspapers began to print regular forecasts and New Zealand set up meteorological stations and followed suit.

But it is only in more recent times that weather has really become a dominant feature of mainstream news consumption, as opposed to a vital resource for ocean voyagers or farmers, or a modest aid for the public.

The Pew Research Centre in the US has reported the proportion of TV news devoted to weather or traffic reports continues to rise, forming the lead story in four out of 10 bulletins on TV stations outside the national networks.

The reasons may be obvious. In a competitive environment the need to maximise audiences demands a package that draws in marginal news viewers and isn't over-demanding on resources. Some people are interested in the Crimean crisis and political news affects everyone but the weather interests everyone, and it allows for a mix of good and bad news, routine but changing coverage with occasional drama, good visuals, and engaging presenters who promote brand loyalty by making viewers feel "part of the family".

News about the weather can be crucial — climate change is an example. Cyclone warnings are another, though the pressure on met forecasters to err on the side of caution, coupled with the media's appetite for drama, can invite a perfect storm of news hype unmatched by the damp squib of reality.

It is probably not what FitzRoy envisaged 160 years ago, though neither did he mean to help Darwin in overturning the scripture-based argument that the Earth was a mere 5,000 years old.

But he was prescient too — the final chapter of his book on New Zealand urges that the country's well-being depends on better relations between Pakeha and Maori, planning buildings to withstand earthquakes — and taking full advantage of "a very healthy climate".


Dr Geoff Kemp is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland. Deputy political editor Claire Trevett, who usually writes the Thursday column, is in China with the Prime Minister.

- NZ Herald

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