Foundations of the Met Office

Stormy Weather: An exhibit in partnership with the Met Office

Cray XC40 Met Office Super Computer (2017) by Meteorological Office and CrayThe Royal Society

The Met Office

The Met Office is the national meteorological service for the UK. This is the story of its origins, from the first network of national observations to its system of forecasting inspired by Robert FitzRoy. Since its foundation in 1854, the Met Office has pioneered the science of meteorology and its application.

Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy FRS (circa 1900) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Robert FitzRoy FRS 1805 - 1865

Inspired by US Naval Officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, the first International Meteorological Conference took place in Brussels from 23 August – 8 September 1853 to develop an international system for sharing data. Twelve delegates represented ten nations: Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The delegates agreed a code for observational practice at sea and the use of a standard meteorological register. In order to collect and benefit from the data, the UK established the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade (now known as the Met Office) on 1 August 1854 under the leadership of Captain Robert FitzRoy.

Engraving of the Beagle in the Straits of Magellan (1913) by Robert Taylor Pritchett (1828-1907)The Royal Society

FitzRoy was a skilled hydrographic surveyor and is often better known as the Captain of HMS Beagle during her circumnavigation of the globe with naturalist Charles Darwin.

Sir Francis Beaufort KCB FRS FRGS MRIA (circa 1900) by J. ScottThe Royal Society

FitzRoy was recommended to take on the post of Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade by Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort FRS, who, like FitzRoy, was a naval hydrographer with a strong interest in meteorology.

Early wind direction analysis - looking for prevailing winds (Late 1850's) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

At the Board of Trade, FitzRoy immediately started the process of collecting marine observations and analysing the wind direction data in Royal Naval ship logs.

Wind and Current Charts (1852) by Matthew Maury (1806-1873)The Royal Society

FitzRoy was building on the complex charts designed by Matthew Maury. FitzRoy used Maury's data and his own analysis to produce a new version.

The Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology image of FitzRoy Wind Star (1863) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

Instead of each ten degree square holding a complex arrangement of numbers, FitzRoy used a graphical indication of prevailing wind direction not unlike a modern wind rose. On his charts he was also able to add information on currents and rainfall.

This illustration is from FitzRoy's Weather Book. Here, he covered all aspects of meteorology as he understood them in 1863 and coined the term "forecast" for scientific weather prediction.

Schipbreuk op een rotsachtige kust (ca. 1837) by Nuijen, WijnandRijksmuseum

The Royal Charter Storm 25 - 26 October 1861 

On the night of 25th/26th October 1859 a severe and slow-moving storm struck the British Isles. The storm took 800 lives and 133 ships with a further 90 vessels badly damaged. The most famous ship to founder during the night was the steam clipper Royal Charter. The ship was on the last leg of her two month journey from Melbourne to Liverpool. She was one of the fastest and most famous emigrant ships operating during the years of the Australian Gold Rush and could carry up to 600 passengers and some cargo. She sank on the North coast of Anglesey with the loss of about 459 lives including all women and children aboard and only 40 survivors. It remains the highest death toll of any shipwreck on the Welsh coast. 

Royal Charter Gale Re-ananlysis Charts (2015) by Philip Brohan and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

The Royal Charter Gale was the most severe storm to hit the Irish Sea in the 19th century. The storm depression was first noted in the Bay of Biscay near Cape Finisterre on the 24th of October. The centre progressed slowly northwards over Britain from Cornwall to the Yorkshire Coast during the 25th and 26th.

These extracts from re-analysis modelling of the event show the approximate track of the storm based on the limited available data.

Royal Charter Storm Chart (1859-10-25/1859-10-26) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

The strongest winds in the storm system developed as a rather narrow stream from the North or North-North-East over the Irish Sea. The winds reached hurricane force 12 on the Beaufort Scale and were estimated at well over 100mph. Wind speeds recorded in the Mersey were higher than any previously recorded.

The gusts are represented by the black pointed lines on the chart, the longer the line, the stronger the wind gust.

The wreck gained much coverage in the national press and focused attention on the need for storm warnings to reduce further such losses.

FitzRoy believed that his department could provide such a service. He produced a detailed report including these charts, to prove that the storm could have been tracked and its path predicted.

Red and blue lines indicate pressure tendency and temperature change. Other symbols on the map indicate various weather conditions - clouds and intensity of rainfall.

The observations were obtained from ports, observatories and private observers working for James Glaisher FRS (1809 - 1903) as part of his British Rainfall network.

Storm Cone Image (circa 1980) by WalkerThe Royal Society

Forecasts and Warnings

Through his analyses of the Royal Charter Storm and other storms, FitzRoy demonstrated the validity of his models and proposed a national storm warning system. There was much doubt amongst the scientific establishment that the weather could be predicted in any meaningful way. Still, the government permitted FitzRoy to test his new science of weather forecasting and to establish a Storm Warning service. The service used a combination of canvas cones and drums hoisted on masts at high points, to make them visible from the coasts and harbours.

First page of Daily Weather Report data (1860-09-03) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

Observations were collected from coastal sites around the British and French coasts. The telegraph network was used to transmit data to the Meteorological Office in London where it was analysed and warnings issued if needed. Without the telegraph network, the system could not have worked fast enough to enable effective warnings.

Storm Warning Signals (1860) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

Without radio technology, FitzRoy needed visual signals to warn ships of approaching storms. He designed a system of cone and drum shapes made from canvas to be flown during the day, and from sets of lights for nocturnal alerts, to create a 24-hour service. Spheres were not used in order to avoid confusion with the time balls in use at some of the major ports to indicate time to sailors.

A cone pointing up indicated gales from the South, a cone pointing down would indicate high winds from the North and a drum indicated changeable conditions. Combinations of cones and drums indicated the direction the gale was likely to come from first.

Storm Signals (1862) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865)The Royal Society

Gale warning signals were designed to appear the same from all angles in order to avoid confusion and were to be hung from a high point where they could be seen by ships in harbour and those nearby the coasts.

Visibility took precedence over convenience and some signal masts were located a reasonable distance from the telegraph office where notification to hoist the warning would have been received.

First extant recorded issue of a gale warning (1861-03-11) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

The first recorded gale warning was issued on 5 February 1861, but was ignored on the Tyne and loss of life resulted, so future warnings were heeded.

The earliest surviving notification of a gale warning 'hoist drum' is from 11 March 1861. The effectiveness of the warnings was rapidly and very widely recognised.

Admiral FitzRoy's Storm Barometer, also known as a Fishery Barometer (circa 1860) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

FitzRoy knew that his gale warnings could only reach larger ports with a telegraph office. To reduce loss of life among the smaller fishing communities, he worked with instrument makers Negretti and Zambra to produce a Storm Barometer, also known as a Fishery Barometer.

Admiral FitzRoy's Storm Barometer - close up showing weather prediction rhyme (circa 1860) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

The barometer was designed to be easy to read and included short rhymes to aid fishing communities interpret the movement of the mercury. The barometers saved countless lives.

First Public Weather Forecast in Daily Weather Report (1861-07-31) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) and Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

FitzRoy became a hero across the maritime communities where his warnings saved lives among fishermen, lifeboat crews and merchant shipping. He was also aware that the population as a whole could benefit from advanced notice of the weather and proposed starting a forecasting service for the general public.

This is his draft for the first published Public Weather Forecast.

Times Newspaper including first forecast (1861-08-01) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865)The Royal Society

The first Public Weather Forecast was printed in The Times on 1 August 1861. Weather observations for the preceding day had been published among the reviews and advertisements for some time, so the forecast was added to this small section.

Stormy Weather- from lore to science (2020) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

The Met Office remains today one of the most trusted forecasters in the world. To discover how it went from forecasts based on small amounts of observational data to the complex Unified Model it operates today, browse to our next story on Numerical Weather Prediction and Supercomputers.

Credits: Story

All rights reserved © The Royal Society 2020

The digital and physical exhibits were curated by Dr Catherine Ross (National Meteorological Archive, Met Office) and Dr Louisiane Ferlier (The Royal Society).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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