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The Tragic History of the Father of Meteorology


Admiral Robert FitzRoy enjoyed (and suffered from) a sensitivity sufficiently intense to found climate science.

Along with the Englishman who invented the umbrella, the man who dreamed up meteorology was also, of course, English. And when someone lives in the rain all their lives and with days the color of the night it is more probable that they will develop a sincere and anarchic intimacy with the weather, that restless mirror of human character. One hundred and sixty years ago, admiral Robert FitzRoy, the taciturn captain aboard Darwin’s HMS Beagle, discovered that it was possible to forecast the weather.

At that time the only way of knowing whether a storm was approaching was by observing, for example, how a bull behaved in a field, a frog in a jar or a swallow in flight. But every year there were thousands of shipwrecks and countless seamen lost their lives due to not being prepared for a storm. FitzRoy believed that with a warning 24 hours prior to the event, lives could be saved.

In 1854 the seaman coined the mysterious term forecast to name his new science and founded what would become the Met Office of London. “Prophecies and predictions they are not,” he wrote, “the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of scientific combination and calculation.”

We can imagine what it was for the Victorians that their weather, that chaotic and uncomfortable phenomenon with which they shared their lives, began to ‘behave in society’, with warnings of its changes with enough anticipation to be able to take measures against it. That the weather could begin, at last, to become predictable like them.

As with all affronts to brilliance, the news that this man had made sufficient scientific advancements to be able to predict the London weather one day in advance caused an outbreak of laughter among the public, according to Peter Moore, who wrote an extensive and extraordinary history of meteorology. However, after the expensive shipwreck of the Royal Charter, a ship carrying gold, in 1859 FitzRoy was granted the authority, or rather the benefit of the doubt, to issue storm warnings. And from that moment what we know as meteorology was born.

FitzRoy was able to issue his reports thanks to the electric telegraph, a complicated piece of new technology that reached people before the storm, and in 1861 it was possible to forecast two days in advance. Queen Victoria even sent messengers to his house to find out if the weather would be calm for her crossings to the Isle of Wight. And although the majority of his calculations were accurate, the meteorologist was mistaken on more than one occasion, causing the newspapers to mock his “science” and make him a theme of conversation in Victorian high society.

To compensate, FitzRoy worked harder to decode the British climate. He published a book and gave conferences, but by 1865, with his critics breathing down his neck, he became exhausted and retired to his house in Norwood. His last forecast was published in his absence on April 29, 1865. He forecast storms over London, Moore writes.

FitzRoy woke up the next morning, entered his dressing room and committed suicide. His meteorology department in London, which began with three employees, now employs more than 1,500 and has a huge annual budget. Perhaps, as Moore said, FitzRoy was a man who was as brilliant as he was indispensable, but who isn’t who dedicates himself to the weather?

Today we know that the greatest poverty is not living in the physical world. Knowledge of the climate allows us to plan a consonance with the natural world that ranges from our attire to our emotional disposition. Perhaps there is nothing more profound than knowing our vulnerability and at the same time our aptitude for living beneath the capricious climate.

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