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date: 28 January 2020

Historical Understandings of Weather and Society, From the Everyday to the Extreme

Summary and Keywords

Throughout history human societies have been shaped and sculpted by the weather conditions that they faced. More than just the physical parameters imposed by the weather itself, how individuals, communities, and whole societies have imagined and understood the weather has influenced many facets of human activity, from agriculture to literary culture. Whether through direct lived experiences, oral traditions and stories, or empirical scientific data these different ways of understanding meteorological conditions have served a multitude of functions in society, from the pragmatic to the moral.

While developments made in the scientific understanding of the atmosphere over the last 300 years have been demonstrably beneficial to most communities, their rapid onset and spread across different societies often came at the expense of older ways of knowing. Therefore, the late 20th century turn to emphasizing the importance of and interrogating and incorporating of traditional ecological knowledge within meteorological frameworks and discourses was essential. This scholarly research, underway across a number of disciplines across the humanities and beyond, not only aides the top-down integration and reach of mitigation and adaptation plans in response to the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change; it also enables the bottom-up flow of forgotten or overlooked knowledge, which helps to refine and improve our scientific understanding of global environmental systems.

Keywords: history of meteorology, weather and society, weather and culture, traditional ecological knowledge, atmospheric humanities, tacit knowledge, ethnometeorology


Throughout history, the changeable, and until the last 100 years, largely unpredictable, meteorological conditions commonly known as weather have been speculated upon by nearly every human society and culture. Whether forming the fabric of a culture’s cosmogonic myth, being afforded supernatural agency, or being meticulously recorded and analyzed, the crucial life-supporting role played by the atmospheric conditions that envelope the earth have been an integral part of our species’ conceptions of, and enquiries into, the natural world in which we exist. This article provides an overview of the varied and changing ways that societies have interacted with, explained, and understood the meteorological conditions they have faced. Focusing on the developments that have most influenced contemporary understandings of weather and climate, this article explores the divergent ways that experts and the general population have interpreted weather, and introduces how these ways of knowing have interacted over time.

Although historical in its focus, given the broad range of ways that society, weather, and more latterly, meteorology have interacted over time, this article draws upon literature from a range of disciplines and fields. Primarily citing work in the fields of the history of science and technology, environmental history, and historical geography, this article also introduces intersecting areas of study, including anthropology, science and technology studies, and sociological work on extreme weather and disasters. Finally, the conclusion reflects on what these myriad ways of knowing the weather can tell us about contemporary 21st-century debates regarding anthropogenic climate change, advocating for the role that studies, which integrate different ways of knowing the weather within scientific frameworks, can play in helping us to navigate global-scale concepts, such as climate change and the Anthropocene.

The article reflects on society’s relationship with the weather at three spatial and temporal levels. First is the everyday and mundane weather a society faces, considering how different societies around the world have understood, interpreted, and more recently predicted the normal expected weather they face. Situating shifting relationships with the weather within the development of the discipline of meteorology over the last 200 to 300 years, the article shows how scientific ways of knowing the weather have vastly influenced popular societal conceptions of weather and environment. Focusing on cutting edge research, which explores how ethno-meteorological traditions have interacted with meteorological knowledge and practice, this article shows that modern societal conceptions of weather have been shaped by a myriad of cultural influences beyond the purely scientific. The accumulation of quantitative weather data of regional scales has begun to alter our understandings of climate and our place within the natural world. Reminding the modern reader that climate is a social and scientific construct, the article highlights how changing scientific understanding of climate has influenced societal ideas of the expected weather that regions experience. Finally, academic work that considers the history of when these expected norms have been punctuated or overthrown is introduced, showing that extreme weather events have often excited human imagination the most. The inscription of these extreme events within intergenerational community memories is imperative to their ongoing success and is increasingly of use to those trying to develop and enact successful disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation strategies. However, first, the article begins with an overview of some of the older, pre- and proto-scientific ways that various human societies have understood the weather they faced, and the ways that academics are increasingly accessing and valuing the traditional ecological knowledge bound up in such traditions.

Pre- and Proto-Scientific Ways of Knowing the Weather

The Abenaki of northeastern North America tell a story in which, because of a late frost and subsequent drought, the protagonist, Notkikad, faces having nothing to harvest in the autumn to feed his family with. In desperation, Notkikad offers tobacco to the creator, “The Master of Life” Tabaldak, and that evening Tabaldak visits him in his dreams promising him special seeds and weather warm enough to grow a crop. The next morning the onset of the cold season had ceased, and Notkidad planted the seeds he found beside him. Within two days, the young plants were already waist high and in time the family had enough food to last them the winter (Sweeting, 2003). As the indigenous writer and storyteller Joseph Bruchac recounted,

To this day, the people say, that special time is still given to us each year, even though we have none of those magical seeds. That time, which people call Indian Summer today, was called Nibunalnoba or “a man’s summer” by the Abenaki. It reminds them to always be thankful.

(Bruchac & Ka-Hon-Hes, 1988; Sweeting, 2003)

Weather and climate feature in nearly every existing indigenous oral tradition around the world, from the Bibbulum people of southwest Western Australia who speak of “icy cold times long ago” (Indigenous Weather Knowledge), to the farmers of Tamil Nadu, India who still use a wide range of indigenous practices and beliefs to forecast the weather (Anandaraja, Rathakrishnan, Ramasubramanian, Saravanan, & Suganthi, 2008). For nearly all societies throughout human history, their exposure and susceptibility to changes in their environment have made such intergenerational modes of passing on information imperative to a community’s survival.

Long overlooked by scholars in the Western tradition, since the late 20th century, such forms of knowledge about weather and the environment have been revisited, not only for their cultural importance, but also for the Traditional Ecological Knowledge often bound up within the narratives of such stories. Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a field of anthropological study and refers to any framework of understanding, or body of knowledge, that has come about from sustained long-term interaction with the specific environ in which a community lives (Royer, 2018; Usher, 2000). Within such traditional ecological knowledge frameworks, four distinct but not always mutually exclusive categories have been identified. The first is factual and rational knowledge about the environment based on empirical observation, like the expected time of year that coastal waters may freeze. The second is factual knowledge about historical and current human use of the environment, such as how planting a particular crop in an exposed location failed in previous generations. Category three encompasses culturally based value statements, including ethical or moral statements about expected behavior, like the protocol for correct courtship and marriage. And the final category is the community’s culturally based cosmology, which usually underpins all of the first three categories. Stories such as the Abenakis’ on the origins of the Indian Summer, fall into this final category, and for many indigenous cultures, such cosmogonic myths are part of the foundational knowledge system under which all other information, whether derived from observation, experience, or oral traditions gain their significance and explanatory meaning (Usher, 2000). Thus, while on first reading the part that the weather plays in a traditional indigenous story may seem purely mythic, allegorical, or moral (categories three and four), such top-level stories often provide the context for more pragmatic, everyday understandings of the environment. This category-one knowledge, often focused on activities imperative to the community’s success, such as agriculture or ocean navigation, may feel more familiar to those from a scientific tradition, as it is typically based on the empirical and systematic understanding of the environment cumulatively built up over generations.

One of the first written accounts to try and collate such intergenerational observations of the weather, and to systematically consider the various conditions of the atmosphere in a more general universal sense was Aristotle’s (384–322 bce) Meteorologica.1 Recording the sum of knowledge to date of the earth sciences, the text was part of the philosopher’s wider empiricist canon, which fundamentally shaped the development of the natural sciences. As well as giving us the word meteorology, Aristotle’s work codified the empirical tradition of meteorological observation begun by ancient observers. This tradition continued to develop over the subsequent centuries, largely via scholars in the Arabic world, such as Yahya ibn al-Bitriq, and later by medieval scholastic figures in Western Europe from the 12th century onward (Lettinck, 1999).

From these medieval endeavors emerged what might be referred to as classical meteorology. This largely academic endeavor, however, was unable to shake its Aristotelian roots and thus focused much energy on supra-atmospheric phenomena, such as meteors. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that meteorites were shown to be extraterrestrial in their origin, and thus the scope of meteorology narrowed to consider the atmosphere as we understand it in the 21st century. Although empirical, this pre-modern meteorology was largely based on description rather than quantified measurements. Further, the focus of this meteoric tradition was largely on observations centered on exceptional phenomena or rare extreme weather events (see the section “Extreme and Abnormal Weather”) (Janković, 2006).

While these traditions represent precursors to contemporary scientific investigations of weather and climate, it is important to remember that, while practitioners may have been the leading experts on the subject at the time, their works are inextricably bound to the dominant worldviews of their day. That is to say, none of them worked in a vacuum, and their works cannot be interpreted independently of the societies in which they lived. So while Aristotle gave an early description of the hydrological cycle in Meteorologica (Aristotle, Ross, & Smith, 1908), and the Chinese philosopher Wang Chong (27–97 ce) critiqued the Chinese belief that rain came from the heavens as early as 80 ce (Needham, 1959), humans continued to invoke supernatural causes for rain for centuries afterwards and, indeed, still do today.

Overlap and interchangeability between what in the 21st century are considered distinct scientific and pseudo-scientific ways of interpreting the weather is evident in written works dealing with the subject up until at least the early 20th century. While many concentrated enquiries grew out of the need to know about what weather communities could or should expect, the limitations of these forms of knowledge left vast areas of understanding open to speculation and superstition. Without a three dimensional understanding of the atmosphere, or the dynamic processes occurring within it, explanatory and, even more so, predictive frameworks describing the weather were inevitably speculative at best. The almanac is one of the most fascinating traditions, highlighting how intertwined moral and social narratives were with observational and predictive ways of knowing the weather. Almanacs are annual publications that list detailed information deemed to be relevant and useful for the targeted end user. Usually structured around a calendar of months and days, they often contain astronomical and meteorological data, calculations and forecasts. The use of almanacs goes back as far as the ancient civilizations of the Indus Valley, where the oldest surviving example of a farmers’ almanac is from ancient Sumer, dated from 1700 to 1500 bce (Kramer, 2010). Although varied in its format across the centuries since, the modern configuration of the farmers’ almanac frequently combines advice based on sound observational data, such as when to plant specific vegetables, alongside speculative predictions of future weather, based on astronomical tables.2 As one of the most enduring modes of passing on local and regional agricultural knowledge, which is invariably linked to local weather and climate, this rich tradition shows that when it comes to weather the predictive has long comfortably sat alongside the proverbial. That titles such as the U.S. publication The Old Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1792, survive into the 21st century alongside the more utilitarian focus of modern numerical weather prediction highlights the integral imaginative role that weather continues to play in human societies.

Almanacs are just one of many different folk traditions found around the world, which track changes in regional weather conditions and the cycle of the seasons. From the Hanami cherry blossom festivals of Japan (Sawano, 2006), to the extensive vendemiological records of wine growing regions of France (Labbé & Gaveau, 2013), the cyclical weather patterns that have shaped human societies have long been recorded, celebrated, and revered. As these examples highlight, the societal function of these traditions is varied, from economic motivations to those centered on community cohesion and shared cultural experiences that carry explanatory power within the society’s dominant epistemological or cosmological framework.

That many of these traditions are largely about community cohesion is not to say that some of these traditions haven’t played a predictive role in the past. A vast amount of reliable data and knowledge is bound up in these traditions. For example, the records of wine harvesting in regions of France, which in some cases go back as far as the 12th century, have been reliable enough to be used in contemporary historical climatological reconstructions (Labbé & Gaveau, 2013). While pre-modern societies did not attempt to predict future weather conditions per se, they often had plenty of well-functioning heuristics, or rules of thumb, as well as annual records. Bound up in local knowledge, place names, and vernacular and oral traditions, knowledge about extreme weather events and local microclimates has survived accurately across generations (Hall & Endfield, 2016).

One of the most common heuristics, found all over the world is weather lore—vast canons of proverbs and sayings that incorporate local norms and expected weather conditions. In the United Kingdom, many of these traditions and sayings were recorded and further popularized by 19th century figures such as the Reverend Swainson and Richard Inwards (Inwards, 1869; Swainson, 1873). Extremely comprehensive and wonderfully poetic, both Inwards’ and Swainson’s books were continually reprinted throughout the 20th century. The proverbs in collections like this are regionally specific, with many referencing specific counties or individual towns; however not all of the sayings and passages record ancient folklore (Golinski, 2010). For example, in between traditional rhymes, and excerpts from the Bible and Shakespeare, Inwards’ Weather Lore contains passages by contemporary figures, such as the Anglican cleric and writer Sydney Smith, and a number of rhymes, rules, and observations attributed to Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the founder of the U.K. Meteorological Office and an early proponent of weather forecasting (Walker, 2011; and see section “Everyday Weather”). Much like almanacs, these collections of traditional proverbs and sayings incorporated useful rule-of-thumb weather heuristics alongside moral poems and stories.

While earlier academic enquiries into the atmosphere and weather were bound up in astronomical and religious explanations, a number of developments, occurring from the late 17th century onward, began to shift European and North American scholarly understandings of the weather.3 First, the sublunary scope of Aristotle’s Meteorologica was narrowed, as meteorites were increasingly considered to be extraterrestrial in their origin; in response, naturalists of the period turned their attention to the chemistry of the atmosphere. Enabled by developments in the technology, reliability, and cost of instrumentation (Barnett, 1956; Middleton, 1969; West, 2013), new experimental methods led to a swathe of theoretical developments in areas such as air pressure (Dear, 1990) and the chemical composition and physical properties of the atmosphere (Hulme, 2009a). Observation stations containing new instruments began to appear across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries; the first is thought to be a group of seven stations established by the Accademia del Cimento under Ferdinand II of Tuscany, in 1653 (Davies, 1990). In Reading the Skies, the historian of science Vladimir Janković (2000), showed that, while these new techniques produced many tenants of what is now recognized as the scientific discipline of meteorology, new laboratory analyses of the atmosphere also clashed with established understandings of weather and atmosphere in Europe, which were until then bound up in the moral landscape of the 1700s.

These new experimental approaches to understanding the atmosphere were part of wider changes during the period that are collectively referred to by historians as the Scientific Revolution (Principe, 2011). In turn, these significant shifts in understanding of the physical world, and the new technologies and frameworks via which these natural properties could be quantified, had a direct effect on philosophical thinking across Europe, influencing the 18th century period known as the Enlightenment (Reill, 2003). Among many significant social, economic, and moral changes occurring in Europe and North America during this period, Enlightenment thinking significantly altered how Europeans and settler-Americans understood their place in nature. Allied to the emergent natural philosophical and scientific framework for understanding the physical world, was a growing sense that nature was increasingly under man’s dominion. From the late 18th century onward, as the technological expansion of the Industrial Revolution rang out across Europe and North America, a narrative of man’s subjugation of the natural world came to dominate elite thinking in these countries (Leiss, 1994).

For those interested in the weather, the impact of these huge societal changes was myriad, varied, and inconsistent across different regions. For while these new approaches may have alienated those invested in older traditions and any practical notions of dominion over weather or the ability to forecast it may have still been a long way off, they gave meteorology a framework—centered on recording numerical observations—which opened up the subject to whole new groups in society beyond universities and the metropolitan centers in which they were located (Golinski, 2010; Janković, 2000). For centuries traditional folk ways of knowing the weather—what we might call ethno-meteorology—ran parallel to more comprehensive scholarly natural philosophical musings on the subject. In the late 18th century, as a generation of weather observers emerged across Europe and the wider world, both the methods they spread and the data they were compiling began to significantly alter societal understandings of weather. The next section charts these changes, demonstrating how the scientific developments that began in the late 1700s impacted not only the development of the discipline of meteorology, but also more fundamentally altered humanity’s relationship with the weather itself.

Societal Understandings of Weather in the Enlightenment and Beyond, 1700–2000

Rather than try and give a detailed account of the history of meteorology since the Enlightenment, this section gives an overview of the major developments and discusses how these may have altered societal relationships with the weather.4 Structured around three temporal and spatial scales—everyday weather, expected weather or climate, and extreme or abnormal weather—the section introduces scholarly literature that has attempted to understand how various societies have interacted with weather in the period since the late 1700s. It highlights that the development of theoretical models and computational power, which enabled accurate weather forecasts for the first time, did not completely sideline ethno-meteorological traditions of understanding the environment. However, while older folk traditions continued, new numerical weather prediction became the dominant explanatory framework for understanding weather patterns, which in turn deeply affected humanity’s expectations in regard to the vagaries of our climes.

Everyday Weather

The historian of science, Jan Golinski, began a 2001 paper with the following excerpt from a 1703 weather journal kept by an anonymous diarist living in the west of England:

I remark we had a constant thick & heavy Sea of clouds & close dark nebulous expanse, or Black sad Atmosphere baked in massy clouds, & I could compare ye huge rising body & vast aeriall Load or ye mundane smoak to nothing more than a Diffusion of ye Ocean or steam of some infinite Abyss & what I term in my speciall Language, a Sea = sheet . . . & now we had a Deluge of vapours wich off some exalted eminence, seemed to flow over ye hills & fill ye valleys & invade ye trembling air . . . so that in recompense for my neglect I subjoyne this descant; & note ye year commences wet.

(Golinski, 2001, p. 149)

The diarist, with poetic and metaphorical style, represents an important point in the shifting development of popular meteorological traditions. “[S]ituated between learned and popular cosmological traditions at the dawn of the Enlightenment” and demonstrably different from the majority of weather observers during the period who attempted to be objective, via standardized terminology, this diarist used emotional language and evocative descriptions to convey their subjective experience of the weather, alongside more standard observational data (Golinski, 2001, p. 150). This diarist was part of a popular trend in the early 18th century for British gentleman to observe the weather and keep a weather diary. This trend is usually depicted by historians as being driven by new instrumentation and a desire to quantify and record natural phenomena precisely. However, this example reminds us that these new ways of knowing the weather did not wholly replace prior cultural traditions. For some, such as this author who regularly invokes Romantic poetry and vernacular cosmology, centering new scientific theories of the atmosphere within a personal framework that allowed the weather to be a space for “contemplative transcendence and an agent of spiritual rapture” was still of great importance (Golinski, 2001, p. 171).

By the early 19th century, the network of observers meticulously recording the weather across Europe, North America, and beyond had grown substantially. As professional societies and bodies emerged—the First International Meteorological Conference was held in Brussels, in 1853, and attended by representatives from Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United States (Davies, 1990)—the activities of this network of observers increasingly became standardized. This standardized weather data was subsequently compiled at the regional and national level, and a new higher resolution understanding of weather patterns began to emerge. By the second half of the 1800s, a network of voluntary observers in the United Kingdom were sending standardized weather observations from rural outposts, such as Cornwall, in to London based organizations, such as the Royal Meteorological Society, founded in 1850, and the United Kingdom’s National Weather Service, the Meteorological Office, founded in 1854 (Naylor, 2006). This explosion of data and its near real-time collation in centralized locations was facilitated by the invention of the telegraph, which by the 1850s was rapidly spreading around the world. Although still the preserve of the relatively wealthy, the accessibility of these new networks to those based in provincial and previously isolated locations who were interested in the weather, began to bridge the divide between scholarly understandings of weather and the lived experiences of communities. Thus, for example, observers in Cornwall were able to demonstrate the long held local assertion that the region’s climate was milder than elsewhere in Britain and therefore ideal for the burgeoning Victorian tourist industry (Naylor, 2006).

If one looks at these regional weather observations over a long period of time—to continue with the U.K. example, using the TEMPEST Database—one can clearly see how the amount of weather information being recorded increased and changed in type over the period from the mid-1600s to the late 1800s (Veale et al., 2017). The emergence of standardized and detailed weather accounts on a widespread regional level provided a spatial network of data points, which helped shift academic conceptions of the weather, from something that happened in one particular space at one particular moment, to a dynamic system of processes occurring across a region.

As weather records collected by these networks in countries such as the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Sweden began to accumulate, attempts to forecast future weather conditions based on statistical analysis of past conditions appeared more frequently. Most notably, the first Director of the U.K. Meteorological Office, Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who coined the term weather forecast in 1859, failed to gain scientific and ultimately political support for his early attempts at forecasts and warnings that were published in The Times newspaper. A Royal Society-led review into FitzRoy’s forecasts found their statistical basis and veracity lacking and recommended among other things that the network of data feeding into the forecasting system needed to be vastly expanded before it could become effective (Naylor, 2006; Walker, 2011). When controversies about early forecasting techniques emerged, whether among English elites, or for example, in the United States when Cleveland Abbe initiated forecasts from Cincinnati in 1869 (Willis & Hooke, 2004), those advocating new techniques, such as FitzRoy and Abbe, often contrasted their ideas with those of traditional folk practices and prognostics (Anderson, 2010).While the various folk traditions introduced in this article had useful rules of thumb for predicting weather in the short-term and often had ways of foreseeing the norms and extremes of their associated climates, the notion that one could attempt to numerically and accurately predict future weather was a big theoretical leap. Unlike astronomical permutations, weather is a dynamical system, and although it follows regular patterns that are completely determined by initial starting conditions, it is chaotic in its nature. Thus, even today in the 21st century, when weather forecasts are extremely accurate in the short-term, it is still debated as to whether it is physically possible to accurately forecast weather with any meaningful detail in the long-term (Bauer, Thorpe, & Brunet, 2015). The first person to attempt to numerically predict future weather conditions was the English mathematician and physicist Lewis Fry Richardson (1922), who published the pioneering Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. In the book, Richardson outlined experiments and calculations that he undertook in an attempt to use primitive differential equations, governing the known fluid dynamics of the atmosphere, to manually calculate how the weather would develop over a six-hour window. Ultimately Richardson was thwarted by the time it took a human computer to calculate such complex equations, but he had the vision to suggest that such a limitation may be overcome in the not too distant future (Harper, 2008; Nebeker, 1995). In a now famous passage, Richardson let his imagination run free, visualizing a vast concert hall filled with humans, each computing an equation in real-time related to the region of the weather map at which they sat:

From the floor of the pit a tall pillar rises to half the height of the hall. It carries a large pulpit on its top. In this sits the man in charge of the whole theatre; he is surrounded by several assistants and messengers . . . he is like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines. But instead of waving a baton he turns a beam of rosy light upon any region that is running ahead of the rest, and a beam of blue light upon those who are behindhand.

Four senior clerks in the central pulpit are collecting the future weather as fast as it is being computed, and despatching it by pneumatic carrier to a quiet room. There it will be coded and telephoned to the radio transmitting station. Messengers carry piles of used computing forms down to a storehouse in the cellar.

In a neighbouring building, there is a research department, where they invent improvements. But there is much experimenting on a small scale before any change is made in the complex routine of the computing theatre. In a basement an enthusiast is observing eddies in the liquid lining of a huge spinning bowl, but so far the arithmetic proves the better way. . . Outside are playing fields, houses, mountains, and lakes, for it was thought that those who compute the weather should breathe of it freely.

(Richardson, 1922, pp. 219–220)

It wasn’t until the early 1950s, with the development of electronic computers, that the computational methods Richardson first proposed were realized, and numerical weather prediction became feasible. In addition to the electronic computation required, the success of numerical weather prediction relied upon a myriad of theoretical developments and the continual refining of equations, which had been developed by many mathematicians, physicists and meteorologists, most notably from the Bergen School of Meteorology founded by Vilhelm Bjerknes in Norway in 1917. The eventual successful deployment of numerical weather prediction was spearheaded by U.S. military development of electronic computers during the Second World War; with the mathematician John von Neumann credited as the first to see the machines’ potential for weather forecasts (Edwards, 2010).

Successful numerical weather prediction relied on a combination of the continued refinement of mathematical equations, major developments in three-dimensional understanding of atmospheric processes, the increased resolution of weather data, and widening the scale on which data was being compiled and shared. To this end, the international network of weather observations first facilitated by the invention of the telegraph, and formalized via the International Meteorological Organization founded in 1873, continued to expand. The rapid spread of meteorology in this period, part of a wider process of the internationalization of science more generally, can be explored via networks of both infrastructure and colonial empires (see respectively, Edwards, 2010; Zaiki & Tsukahara, 2007). For example, the main electric telegraph cable system operating around the world, which enabled the sharing of global meteorological data, was created and controlled by the British. If 19th century developments in meteorological understanding and equipment triggered an explosion in amateur interest in the discipline, by contrast, the 20th-century development of numerical weather prediction resulted in the everyday observer being increasingly separated from the emerging professional discipline of meteorology.5 The first artificial earth-orbiting satellites, launched in the late 1950s, vastly increased meteorological observational capabilities, particularly across remote ocean regions (Davies, 1990).

Reliant on global scale data, expensive and increasingly automated equipment, modern forecasting meant that during the 20th century most individuals in Western societies became consumers of weather information, rather than producers of meteorological data, or lay interpreters of actual weather conditions.

For the layman, these changes in the predictive power of weather forecasts were not without their impact. As the predictive power and accuracy of weather forecasts increased across the 20th century, a shift occurred in individual and societal expectations in regard to weather and those forecasting it. When communicating forecasts, meteorologists spend a lot of time and energy navigating the challenges of trying to communicate complex probabilistic data in accessible deterministic language. However, in cases when forecasts have been inaccurate, warnings issued late, or the communication of important information not made clearly enough, meteorologists have received a large amount of the anger and blame in both media and public discourse. Even in instances where it has been shown that the disruption or damage caused by inclement weather was actually exacerbated by social, political, and economic factors, it is most often the public-facing meteorologists who receive the blame (Hall, 2012, 2017). This blame directed at the weather forecaster or presenter is bound up in wider 20th-century societal shifts in trust in scientific expertise, socio-political trends promoting individualism, and the continued dislocation of humans from the natural environment via urbanization and modern housing.

The lack of familiarity with local weather conditions for many of the vast swathes of humanity now living in urban centers can be keenly felt when contrasting their experiences with the often rich and detailed knowledge passed on by those in more traditional rural and indigenous communities (Anandaraja et al., 2008; Hall & Endfield, 2016). However, the development of quantitative ways of measuring and monitoring the earth at a global scale have also had other important repercussions for the public’s relationship with the weather. After centuries of Western philosophy, which separated humans from nature—promoting our difference and dominion over other species—the increase in global monitoring of the atmosphere during the 20th century revealed the scale of many vast environmental crises facing humanity. Initially taken up by environmental and counter-culture movements in the 1960s and 1970s, global earth monitoring systems helped to highlight the fragility of our global environment, in particular the relatively thin layer of gases that envelope us and enable life.6 This wealth of hemispheric and global-scale data assisted scientists in identifying issues including acid rain, ozone-layer depletion, and anthropogenic climate change. The fragility of the earth and our atmosphere was further reinforced by the imagery that accompanied these developments. In particular, photographs taken by early satellites and space missions, most notably the famous Earthrise photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders while orbiting the moon in late 1968, fed into popular societal narratives that attempted to re-orientate our relationship with the natural world (Poole, 2010).

Alongside the effect that numerical weather prediction and increased scientific knowledge of our atmosphere had on an individual’s relationship with the weather, many earlier folk traditions remained, and remain, vibrant. The desire to understand the weather and our wider environment, which has driven human societies for millennia, persists. While some folk traditions exist in direct opposition to scientific consensus—for example, the pseudoscience espoused by many in the climate change denial community—on the whole, across the 20th century, most ethno-meteorological traditions, knowledge, and ways of knowing the weather that have survived did so by incorporating, responding to, or interacting with new scientific knowledge.7

The cutting edge of academic research on weather and society is increasingly exploring the intersection between ethno-meteorological traditions and the atmospheric sciences. As introduced earlier in the section “Pre- and Proto-Scientific Ways of Knowing the Weather,” scholars from a vast range of disciplines are exploring how traditional ecological knowledge and ethno-meteorological traditions can be used to corroborate or enhance scientific understandings (Janković & Barboza, 2009; Robbins, 2018; Strauss & Orlove, 2003). Endeavors such as the incorporation of Pacific islanders’ detailed understanding of the seasonal calendar and wind patterns into climate adaptation plans (Lefale, 2010) are helping to create plural ways of understanding the weather that in turn have often pragmatic benefits for both local and scientific communities.

The next section discusses in more detail how the vast accumulation of weather data from the 19th century onward began to influence both academic and everyday conceptions of climate, climate change, and the place of communities in their wider environment. Here again, increasingly diverse types of traditional ecological knowledge, historical data, and oral traditions are being interrogated and utilized to refine and calibrate climate models, input into climate adaptation strategies, and to help communities reconnect with the environmental conditions they face.

The Expected Weather

Today, in a meteorological context, the word climate is commonly understood as the average, expected, or characteristic pattern of weather for a specific region over a defined period of time.8 During the last two decades of the 20th century, in popular media discourse across many regions of the world, climate, as an expected norm or average of seasonal weather, became overwhelmingly linked to the issue of anthropogenic climate change (Billett, 2010; Boykoff, 2011; Jaspal & Nerlich, 2014; Jaspal, Nerlich, & van Vuuren, 2016). The growth of popular discourse on anthropogenic climate change in the late 20th century has somewhat overshadowed other definitions of the word climate. For earlier thinkers, climate had been understood as each of the bands of the earth running horizontally, along lines of latitude, associated with specific environments or ecosystems. For thinkers in Enlightenment Europe, such as the French philosopher Baron Montesquieu (1689–1755), it was climate that determined not only the flora and fauna one could expect in a given region, but also the nature and intelligence of the humans found there (Fleming, 2005). While today such climatic determinism—with its implicit racism and imperial overtones—has been wholly discredited, our understanding of climate is still shaped by European thinkers from this period.

Although the philosophies of climate popularized in Europe and North America during the Enlightenment were created in response to the memories and folklore of travelers and colonists, some of their central tenets survived the later collation of empirical climatic data. For while the idea that climate determines culture has fallen out of favor, the idea that humans can alter and moderate climate also emerged during this period, largely in the writings of David Hume (1711–1776) and other philosophers who were interested in the effects of European colonization of the Americas (Fleming, 2005).

Much like the development of mainstream meteorology, as standardized data began to accumulate over the 19th century and beyond, early climatologists began analyzing it using basic averaging techniques, and developing proxy methods to fill in data gaps. In the early 20th century, this data began to be increasingly scrutinized using statistical methods, such as those promoted by the German climatologist Helmut Landsberg (1906–1985) (Lamb, 1986). Again, it was the invention of the electronic computer and global satellite surveillance systems that created what those in the 21st century might recognize as the discipline of climatology. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, National Weather Services around the world created climatological branches, and multidisciplinary methods that began to interrogate climatic change on a vast temporal scale emerged. Central to this shift and the emergence of modern climatological studies was the formulation of standardized data series, such as the Central England Temperature series, compiled and calibrated by the British climatologist Gordon Manley in 1953 (Endfield, Veale, & Hall, 2015).

Although the role of humans in influencing climatic change has been discussed by academics since the 18th century, popular discussion of climate and the weather often centers on nostalgic sentiment for idealized past weather and seasons, whether mundane or extreme in nature (Harley, 2003; Gorman-Murray, 2010; Hall & Endfield, 2016). A limited number of studies have shown that some communities have very accurate intergenerational memories around both every-day and extreme weather, and that often such knowledge is connected to specific places and influenced by media narratives (de Vet, 2013; Hall & Endfield, 2016). Somewhat paradoxically, while studies have shown that some communities are reluctant to draw a connection between observed local environmental changes and global climate change (e.g., Marino & Schweitzer, 2016), others have shown that local weather events directly affect public perception of anthropogenic climate change (e.g., Capstick & Pidgeon, 2014). What seems to be consistent across these studies is that when individuals are asked to consider the abstract notion of global climatic change, they draw upon these biographical, community-level memories and knowledge of local weather (Hulme, 2009b).

Where they have survived, older indigenous traditions often have stories about large climatic shifts that may have their origins in pre-historic climate events. For example, the Bibbulum aborigines’ conception of icy times (see section “Pre- and Proto-Scientific Ways of Knowing the Weather”) deep in their history may well relate to prior glacial or periglacial periods. As with studies of the weather, in the early 21st century such traditional ecological knowledge has begun to be integrated into scholarly studies of climate (e.g., Riedlinger & Berkes, 2001).

Not all folk traditions related to climate are ancient in their origin. In 2000, a U.K. charity, the Woodland Trust, launched a project asking the public to record observations of annual natural phenomena, such as the first blackthorn blossom. The recording and analyzing of these recurring natural cycles in relation to climate is called phenology and had been a popular amateur pursuit in the United Kingdom from the late 18th century, until it fell out of favor in the 1940s (Hall, 2015). Now, with over 18 years of data and nearly 50,000 participants across the United Kingdom, the Nature’s Calendar Survey has resurrected an amateur tradition, which gives those interested a participatory role in real scientific research on climate change.9 As global-scale action in the face of the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change continues to be insufficient, scholars have emphasized the importance of such initiatives, which help to reconnect cultural and popular understandings of climate with scientific climate studies (Hulme, 2009b; Janković & Barboza, 2009). As the historian of science James R. Fleming has argued, finding ways of agreeing on and understanding climate’s “elusive identity” is crucial to making progress in addressing the societal impacts of anthropogenic climate change (Fleming, 2014).

One of the most vibrant fields where ethno-meteorological traditions, historical methods, and scientific knowledge of climate intersect, is in the field of historical climatology. Influenced by the work of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the methods of historical climatology were developed and refined in the second half of the 20th century by academics such as Christian Pfister in Switzerland and Rudolf Brázdil in the Czech Republic (de Kraker, 2006). By collecting, interpreting, and calibrating a vast range of documentary sources, historical climatology attempts to reconstruct and understand historical climates in more detail, for which instrumental data often does not exist. For example, in a study from 2008, Leijonhufvud, Wilson, & Moberg used harbor records from Stockholm, Sweden to reconstruct the sea ice conditions of the harbor inlet in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their analysis was used to corroborate and check the accuracy of existing early instrumental records of temperature from the period, and to extend records further back by contributing to a proxy data series reconstructing winter temperatures over hundreds of years in the region (Leijonhufvud et al., 2008). The integration of these historical documentary techniques with observational data, such as the Central England Temperature series, is important for the calibration of climate models. The accuracy of such models, which came of age in the 1980s as computing power grew substantially, is reliant on a high resolution of well calibrated weather data (Edwards, 2011). Beyond this science supporting role, the examination of historical data, collected by a diverse range of communities can help us to better understand how past societies dealt with changes in climate that they may have faced (e.g., Degroot, 2015; Garcia-Herrera et al., 2008). In the early 21st century, climate mitigation and adaptation studies and plans at the academic, municipal, and intergovernmental levels still overwhelmingly rely on climate models and future scenario modeling (e.g., Hofmann, Hinkel, & Wrobel, 2011; Hughes, 2015) and are only just beginning to incorporate local tacit climate knowledge (e.g., Kettle, Dow, Tuler, Webler, Whitehead, & Miller, 2014).

One thing predicted by nearly all climate models is that, because of anthropogenic emissions, we will see a demonstrable increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events over the coming decades. It is to these outliers from the norm, which must be accounted for in any climate adaptation plans, to which the article now turns.

Extreme and Abnormal Weather

Across nearly all regions of the world, the most severe meteorological and atmospheric conditions occur with an infrequency that has repeatedly proven costly to humans throughout their history. In addition to their infrequency, the devastating effects of these meteorological conditions, whether droughts, floods, or severe winters—their ability to cause complete social collapse (Carr, 1932)—means they have been at the center of intergenerational knowledge transfer and narratives about the environment throughout history. Most notably, flood myths are extremely common and found across cultures across the world; from ancient myths—such as the flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which in turn seems to have been the basis for the story of Noach/Noah/Nūḥ and his ark in the Abrahamic religions (George, 2003)—to the less well known, such as the many Mesoamerican myths of pre-Columbian origin (Dundes, 1988). Central to such myths are moral narratives that most commonly center the flood event as divine retribution by the relevant god(s) for errant human behavior. In the 21st century, for many people, deterministic explanations of extreme weather events that causally connect extreme weather to human behavior have lost their salience. Yet, lots of these myths and stories persist, perhaps resonating with individuals as, beyond their literal readings, they are often stories about human hubris. The redemptive narrative that usually follows contains an important parallel for communities when they experience a flood or other extreme weather, which lets them know that events like this have happened before and that despite the hardships humans survived.

In spite of the causal mechanisms provided by contemporary meteorology, even today across a wide range of cultural settings and geographical locations, when the worst aspects of our weather hit, many people still invoke supernatural explanations. For example, in 1993, one in five Americans saw floods on the Mississippi river, which reached over eight feet in parts and devastated towns with a long history of repeated flooding, as an act of God (Steinberg, 2006). Even in many of the most secular of countries, there are categories and cases where the supernatural is still invoked when an extreme weather event occurs. Take the term “Act of God,” which persists both in common parlance and as a legal category across much of Europe. Despite developments in insurance products now meaning most extreme weather events are insurable, continued use of the phrase alerts us to the hidden work that invoking a supernatural agent in the face of an extreme weather event may be doing.10 For while religious adherence may have been much higher in the early 1800s, and meteorological knowledge limited, by referring to an Act of God an individual was not absolving all responsibility to an omnipotent supernatural force, but rather, much like in the 21st century, making a calculated assessment of the weather event, the damage it had caused, and whether with reasonable adjustment this was avoidable. The phrase helped demarcate the line between manageable aspects of the disaster and the external hazard itself. While the mechanism of causation may have shifted from a natural theological God of first cause, to a winter anticyclone developing in the mid-Atlantic, the idea that human agency is also involved in the disaster resulting from an Act of God is not a new one.

One of the first major extreme weather events to intersect with and influence new Enlightenment imaginings of the atmosphere was the Great Storm of 1703, which devastated the south of England in December 1703. Memorialized by Daniel Defoe’s lengthy journalistic account, The Storm, the extreme extratropical cyclone that resulted in thousands of deaths generated a great amount of public debate. While still wholly interpreted as a judgement from God on the state of the nation, much debate emerged centered on whether the storm could be considered natural or not (Golinski, 2010). As such, the storm and the ensuing public debates it generated represent one of the best documented examples of the changing relationship with and interpretation of extreme weather events that has occurred over the last few centuries.11

In addition to oral and written accounts, extreme weather events have been most commonly commemorated by physical markers such as rock etchings, statues, or plaques. These more tangible forms of cultural heritage are often situated in the exact locale where tragedies have occurred and play an important role in intergenerational commemoration and collective memory of the risks posed by extreme weather events. For example, during the summer of 2018 on the river Elbe in the Czech Republic, extremely low water levels revealed a series of hunger stones placed there over a period of about five centuries, which warned, often in stark language, of the perils of drought the communities living there had faced in the past (Arnold, 2018).

While such physical markers often outlast technocratic solutions, such as official government records, so often human societies are myopic and do not adequately heed these warnings from history. Although not meteorological in its cause, the Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011 gave a ruthless reminder of the potential consequences of not incorporating extreme outliers into disaster planning and infrastructure. Among the destruction, the village of Fudai was spared from the worst of the tsunami inundation because of traditional stories of previous disasters passed down to their former mayor. Here, in this small fishing port in Iwate prefecture, the 51-foot wall, a “folly” of previous mayor Wamura, finally became a symbol of protection in the face of harm rather than a waste of taxpayers’ money. Sadly, however, Wamura’s conviction, which was fueled by his experience in the tsunami of 1933 and tales told by his family of earlier tsunamis, was not followed by most of the adjacent communities in the area who suffered significant losses (Plümper, Quiroz Flores, & Neumayer, 2017).

Continued human population pressures and anthropogenic climate change mean that pragmatic and empirically grounded approaches to dealing with extreme weather and other naturally triggered disasters, such as the field of Disaster Risk Reduction studies, will continue to be of great importance to humanity. However beyond these pragmatic and policy-level approaches, academics have begun to show how extreme weather events, in and of themselves, demonstrably affect individual conceptions of climate and our place within the natural environment. Alongside the everyday and mundane, it is the vivid experiences of particularly bad or extreme weather events in particular, with their associated hardships and tragedies, that play a significant role in shaping weather memories, especially at the intergenerational time-scale (Forgas, Goldenberg, & Unkelbach, 2009; Hall & Endfield, 2016). However, these intergenerational memories of extreme weather often exist at the community or family level, a scale that is at odds with much of the global discourse of scientific and technocratic studies of anthropogenic climate change. In the early 21st century, anthropogenic climate change has been connected to, and situated within, wider conceptions of global-scale anthropogenic influence of the Earth, via concepts such as the proposed new geological epoch the Anthropocene (Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2011).12 As studies from a multitude of disciplines on the Anthropocene have emerged, the disconnect between these global scale concepts, and the way in which communities and individuals interact with the weather has become more apparent. The conclusion reflects on the varied societal relations with the weather as outlined in this article and the implications for humanity regarding climate change, in light of the 2019 *projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


As briefly introduced in this article, humans have had many of ways of knowing the weather across their history, incorporating direct lived experiences, oral traditions and stories, and empirical quantifiable scientific knowledge. As this article has shown, these societal ways of knowing the weather have continually interacted with each other, developing inconsistently over different spatial and temporal scales, and have served a multitude of purposes in society, from the allegorical to the pragmatic.

While, as has been demonstrated, the leaps made in scientific understanding in the field of meteorology over the last 200 to 300 years have been demonstrably beneficial to most communities, their rapid onset and spread across different societies often came at the expense of older ways of knowing. Therefore, the recent turn not only to emphasizing the importance of, but also to interrogating and incorporating traditional ecological knowledge within scientific frameworks and discourses is essential. This scholarly research, underway across a number of disciplines across the humanities and beyond, aides the top-down integration and reach of mitigation and adaptation plans in response to the threat posed by climate change; it also enables the bottom-up flow of forgotten or overlooked knowledge, which helps to refine and improve our scientific understanding of global environmental systems.

Since the early 2000s, assessment of and reflection upon Homo sapiens’ relationship with the natural environment has received renewed attention, via the concepts of sustainability and, more recently, the Anthropocene. Although still a relatively new term, fluid in its definition with many definitive features (including an ongoing debate on when exactly it began), the concept of the Anthropocene has been adopted widely across the environmental sciences and related disciplines (Lewis & Maslin, 2015).Scholars in the social sciences and humanities have argued that one effect of adopting a framework that accepts that human forces are now a dominant factor in processes of global environmental change is the collapse of “the dichotomy between humans and nature at the functional level. . . .” This, they assert, “in turn, brings into question the appropriateness of much previous thinking and writing, about human–nature relations, since the human–nature dualism, as conventionally framed, no longer provides an adequate basis for assessing the functional dimensions of human–environment interactions” (Oldfield et al., 2014, p. 4). However, as this article has highlighted, such a reductive framework in and of itself excludes many successful and functional ways of knowing the weather that have existed and continue to persist across different cultures.

As the examples in this article of human-societal interactions with the weather have repeatedly shown, detailed social sciences and humanities analysis of even the most scientific concepts, and their integration with other culturally bound ways of knowing the weather can lead to a more productive and critical engagement with the global environmental challenges human society faces. For while the urgency, and at times declensionist narrative that dominates the Anthropocene literature is reflected in some humanities disciplines, such as Environmental History, there is a danger that the domination of the discourse by scientists conducting global environmental studies airbrushes away important local, social, and political dimensions. Any homogenous application of the Anthropocene concept in this vein, rather than resituating human activity within its immediate environ and the bounds of natural processes, can actually serve to completely collapse the dualism between nature and society and bring an air of inevitability to the fate of both. While often seeming tangential upon initial observation, this article shows that studies that explore societal interactions with the weather from a multitude of perspectives, are indeed imperative to the future success of any initiatives that seek to re-orientate human relations in the natural world within truly sustainable boundaries.

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(1.) See a complete edition of E. W. Webster’s (1931) English translation of Meteorologica online.

(2.) For an example, see The Farmer’s Almanac for 1850.

(3.) For an in-depth account of the key meteorological understandings and developments in the period before 1700 in Europe, see Martin, 2011.

(4.) Those interested in more comprehensive accounts on the history of meteorology should see Anderson, 2010; Golinski, 2010; Harper, 2008; Nebeker, 1995.

(5.) Although professionalized in many countries from the early 20th century onward, debates within the discipline, about whether meteorology was a true physical science and whether forecasting was an art or a science, continued well into the 1950s. For example, see Sutton, 1954.

(6.) Explore layering global atmospheric weather data on a world map using ESRI’s online Earth Systems Monitoring.

(7.) See, for example, the case study on the relationship between the perspectives of small farmers and scientists on climate variability in Botswana, as detailed in Kolawole, Wolski, Ngwenya, & Mmopelwa, 2014.

(8.) See the World Meteorological Organization for their definition and mandate for studying climate.

(9.) To learn more, or to participate yourself, please visit the Nature’s Calendar Survey. A list of similar networks and initiatives in other countries around the world can be found on the USA National Phenology Network website.

(10.) For more on the history of the development of insurance products related to meteorological conditions in the United Kingdom, see Kneale & Randalls, 2014, and for a history of the development of federal multi-peril crop insurance in the USA see Goodwin and Smith, 1995, chap. 3.

(11.) It was storms, in particular those at sea, that provided much of the impetus for the investment in early meteorological forecasting in the 19th century, such as the early attempts by Robert FitzRoy, as introduced earlier. For more on British maritime meteorology, see Naylor, 2015; for a different European perspective, which includes the development of maritime meteorology, see the account on the development of Portuguese weather forecasting given by Leonardo, Martins, & Fiolhais, 2011.

(12.) Conceived by chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000, the Anthropocene is defined as the latest geological epoch, distinct from the prior Holocene, during which Homo sapiens has dominated environmental processes on such a scale as to leave significant signatures in the geological record (Oldfield, Barnosky, Dearing, Fischer-Kowalski, McNeill, Steffen, & Zalasiewicz, 2014).