The great meteorology movement

Since the second half of the twentieth century, the field of meteorology has moved forward in giant strides. Notable leaps include the development of operational weather radars post World War II, the first successful launch of a weather satellite in 1960, and an ever expanding global network of upper air, land and ocean surface observations. Never before had so much weather data been available. Considering rapid progress in research, as well as the numerical weather prediction explosion of the 1950s due to advances in computers, the latter 55 years of the century saw meteorology morph into something quite inconceivable from the days of Aristotle’s theories in his pioneering piece, Meteorology.

These advances may seemingly have come too late for Leonard Hussey, the meteorologist aboard the Endurance. No doubt Mr. Hussey would have had measuring instruments, such as a barometer, anemometer and thermometer, as well as the official Observer’s Handbook published in 1909. These, on their own, would have been scant providers of crucial information about the expected movement of weather systems or the sea ice conditions in the Weddell Sea. Although these instruments are still used, thankfully, the situation is quite different in 2019.

With South African Weather Service meteorological measuring instruments conforming to the highest international standards, the SA Agulhas II vessel is able to accurately measure atmospheric parameters throughout the Weddell Sea Expedition. These measurements are supplemented with visual observations (such as weather, clouds, and sea ice) done manually by the on board meteorologist, giving a more complete picture of current weather conditions. Additionally, several weather balloons have been released into the atmosphere (the highest reaching 22.6km – well into the tropopause) and drifting weather buoys deployed into the Weddell Sea, one of the most under-researched parts of the world.

Meteorology wisdom reveals that a good forecast begins with good observations. Each day, the on board meteorologist compiles three-day weather forecasts using the observations, as well as internet-based numerical weather models. The forecasts are useful for a number of operations on the ship, including the use of the autonomous underwater vehicles essential in the search for the Endurance shipwreck. The accuracy of these forecasts is a testament to the progress of meteorology, given the historic scarcity of surface observations in these parts.

With more observations from the furthest reaches of the world, research giving a fuller picture of our earth system, and computing power increasing at lightning speeds, so meteorology continues its forward march with an ever increasing gait. Let the Weddell Sea Expedition of 2019 pay homage to the memory of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition by aiding in this endeavour.

By Thapi Makgabutlane