In Animals, Cat stuff, History, Names, Nature, Nature, Science, Words

Cloud formation

This time last week, Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most famous groundhog (the world’s only famous groundhog) was emerging from his burrow to make his annual weather prediction. If he sees his shadow, it means there will be another six weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, they’re in for an early spring.

If it wasn’t for the film Groundhog Day, none of us would know any of this. As weather forecasts go, it’s flawed. Eight times out of 10 Punxsutawney Phil is wrong. Maybe he doesn’t understand the system. Or perhaps he’s just pretending to see his shadow to wind everybody up. Anyway, this year he predicted an early spring, so that’s nice.

Rodents seeing their shadow, cows lying down, crows flying low, cats coming in soaking wet… animals have always been useful when it comes to knowing what the weather’s doing. Aristotle, a keen biologist and meteorologist, published his own theories, which formed the basis of most weather forecasting right up until the 17th century, when the barometer replaced the octopus as the most reliable instrument for measuring atmospheric pressure.

The verb ‘forecast’ originally meant to shape in advance, as in ‘premeditate’ or ‘scheme’. It evolved to mean ‘predict’ by the 16th century but no-one used it in relation to weather watching. That dark art was known as aeromancy, and was more about looking for signs in the weather to foresee events, rather than predicting the weather itself. For example, if you saw a cloud that looked a bit like Art Garfunkel (as you often do), you might predict that they’d be showing Watership Down on the telly that night. You’d be wrong, of course, because they didn’t release Watership Down until 1978.

The man we have to thank for giving a little more scientific foundation to the whole weather forecasting thing, and indeed for coining the word ‘forecast’ as we use it today, is Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy. What you might call a high achiever, Fitzroy captained The Beagle on Charles Darwin’s auspicious world tour, then came home and set up the Met Office in 1854. He launched the first shipping forecast in 1859 and published the first public weather forecast in The Times in 1861. Four years later, penniless and wracked with remorse for his inadvertent role in abetting Darwin’s ungodly theories, he cut his own throat.

Which just goes to show, achievement is no guarantee of happiness. And when it comes to divining the future, you might as well put your money on a rodent.

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