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From Telegrams to Weather Apps: A Brief History of Wind Mapping

Today it’s easy to check the weather without even leaving the house: hourly predictions for rain, wind, temperature, and humidity are available to most of us through our phones at the touch of a button. Warnings for severe weather flash across our screens to help keep us safe – but how did we get here?

 

trade winds around North America

Detail showing trade winds around North America on  Herman Moll’s “A New Map of the Whole World With the Trade Winds According to Ye Latest and Most Exact Observations.”  1729, Geography and Map Division.

Early wind maps focused on the critical importance of wind for navigation and trade. The above 18th Century map from British cartographer Herman Moll produced around 1729 (“A new map of the whole world with the trade winds according to ye latest and most exact observations”) shows prevailing trade winds around the globe using directional arrows.  Moll based his mappings on data and observations collected by explorers he knew personally, using connections formed at places such as London’s Royal Society to provide a basis for his mapping work that he carried out from London.  As you can see in the detailed image, the directional arrows were quite broad in nature and would not be able to provide a sailor with local detail.

 

More than a century later, American oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, then working out of the US Navy Office’s Depot of Charts and Instruments, revolutionized wind data by compiling information he found in old ship log books and using it as a basis for detailed mapping of winds and ocean currents. In 1847 he first published his “Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic,” a wind chart given to sailors who agreed to participate in a cooperative data sharing agreement going forward.

1853 Pilot Chart showing wind speeds

Pilot Chart of the North Atlantic,” produced by M.F. Maury. 1853, Geography and Map Division.

As Maury writes on the chart, “The information embodied here has been collected from the sea journals of American vessels…The masters and owners of merchantmen have not only placed their old logs at my disposal for this and other purposes, but they have also undertaken, in a manner deserving of all praise, to collect information.”

Wind Rose from Maury's 1853 Chart

Detail of a wind rose on Maury’s chart. 1853, Geography and Map Division.

Sailors who used his charts fed information back to him about their own voyages, which Maury then used to continually refine and improve his charts and maps. Maury, who would go on to join the Confederacy during the Civil War and support the international expansion of slavery, was keenly aware of the immense power that came with understanding wind patterns as a road into success in international commerce, travel, and exploration.

Not long after Maury’s data collection program began, the invention of the telegraph transformed wind data collection yet again, allowing for quick recording of measurements from around the world. In 1849, the Smithsonian Institution began collecting wind and weather observations via telegraph, compiling the data and creating weather maps. This network continued to grow until it was disrupted by the Civil War. After the Civil War, the goal was not simply to record weather observations, but begin predicting future weather events, particularly for storms. In 1870, President Ulysses Grant created a United States weather service within the US Army Signal Service. This service would eventually become the Department of Agriculture’s US Weather Bureau in 1890.

By the early 1900s, the Post Office began delivering daily forecast slips to some locations through the mail, followed by weekly forecasts for farmers. Soon after the Wright brothers flew the first powered airplane, the US government began using airplanes to conduct research into the atmosphere. Balloon observations followed, then weather observations communicated through telephone. By the mid-20th Century, the US Weather Bureau began using meteorological radar systems and established one of the first uses of civilian computers for weather monitoring. By 1960, the first weather satellite was launched. In the 1970s, the US Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service and NOAA was established. Since then, the agency created ASOS (Automated Surface Observing System), eliminating the need for the collection of human observations.

Map of the Southern US showing hurricane tracks from 1954-1977

Selected hurricanes affecting the southern United States OCS area 1954-1977,” United States. Bureau of Land Management. 1978, Geography & Map Division.

Today, datasets measuring wind are collected in many scales, forms, and formats, for many uses.  Scientists continue to study the impact that climate change will have on global wind speeds and patterns, and many are looking to wind as a clean energy source that can help carry us into the future.  The National Weather Service still provides both daily maps and data downloads, and NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information provides online global historic weather and climate data. The National Renewable Energy Lab provides multiple wind data sets for download, as well as creates static downloadable wind maps.  USGS provides the United States Wind Turbine Database, and raster wind speed data is available through the Global Wind Atlas.  And for those looking to marvel at the cartographic beauty of wind, there is the always-updated Hint.FM Wind Map.

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