A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter V
The new science of meteorology
Cyclones and anti-cyclones
Yet, after all, it is not to be denied that the chief concern of the meteorologist must be with that other medium, the "ocean of air, on the shoals of which we live." For whatever may be accomplished by water currents in the way of conveying heat, it is the wind currents that effect the final distribution of that heat. As Dr. Croll has urged, the waters of the Gulf Stream do not warm the shores of Europe by direct contact, but by warming the anti-trade-winds, which subsequently blow across the continent. And everywhere the heat accumulated by water becomes effectual in modifying climate, not so much by direct radiation as by diffusion through the medium of the air.

This very obvious importance of aerial currents led to their practical study long before meteorology had any title to the rank of science, and Dalton's explanation of the trade-winds had laid the foundation for a science of wind dynamics before the beginning of the nineteenth century. But no substantial further advance in this direction was effected until about 1827, when Heinrich W. Dove, of Konigsberg, afterwards to be known as perhaps the foremost meteorologist of his generation, included the winds among the subjects of his elaborate statistical studies in climatology.

Dove classified the winds as permanent, periodical, and variable. His great discovery was that all winds, of whatever character, and not merely the permanent winds, come under the influence of the earth's rotation in such a way as to be deflected from their course, and hence to take on a gyratory motion - that, in short, all local winds are minor eddies in the great polar-equatorial whirl, and tend to reproduce in miniature the character of that vast maelstrom. For the first time, then, temporary or variable winds were seen to lie within the province of law.

A generation later, Professor William Ferrel, the American meteorologist, who had been led to take up the subject by a perusal of Maury's discourse on ocean winds, formulated a general mathematical law, to the effect that any body moving in a right line along the surface of the earth in any direction tends to have its course deflected, owing to the earth's rotation, to the right hand in the northern and to the left hand in the southern hemisphere. This law had indeed been stated as early as 1835 by the French physicist Poisson, but no one then thought of it as other than a mathematical curiosity; its true significance was only understood after Professor Ferrel had independently rediscovered it (just as Dalton rediscovered Hadley's forgotten law of the trade-winds) and applied it to the motion of wind currents.

Then it became clear that here is a key to the phenomena of atmospheric circulation, from the great polar-equatorial maelstrom which manifests itself in the trade-winds to the most circumscribed riffle which is announced as a local storm. And the more the phenomena were studied, the more striking seemed the parallel between the greater maelstrom and these lesser eddies. Just as the entire atmospheric mass of each hemisphere is seen, when viewed as a whole, to be carried in a great whirl about the pole of that hemisphere, so the local disturbances within this great tide are found always to take the form of whirls about a local storm-centre - which storm-centre, meantime, is carried along in the major current, as one often sees a little whirlpool in the water swept along with the main current of the stream. Sometimes, indeed, the local eddy, caught as it were in an ancillary current of the great polar stream, is deflected from its normal course and may seem to travel against the stream; but such deviations are departures from the rule. In the great majority of cases, for example, in the north temperate zone, a storm-centre (with its attendant local whirl) travels to the northeast, along the main current of the anti-trade-wind, of which it is a part; and though exceptionally its course may be to the southeast instead, it almost never departs so widely from the main channel as to progress to the westward. Thus it is that storms sweeping over the United States can be announced, as a rule, at the seaboard in advance of their coming by telegraphic communication from the interior, while similar storms come to Europe off the ocean unannounced. Hence the more practical availability of the forecasts of weather bureaus in the former country.

But these local whirls, it must be understood, are local only in a very general sense of the word, inasmuch as a single one may be more than a thousand miles in diameter, and a small one is two or three hundred miles across. But quite without regard to the size of the whirl, the air composing it conducts itself always in one of two ways. It never whirls in concentric circles; it always either rushes in towards the centre in a descending spiral, in which case it is called a cyclone, or it spreads out from the centre in a widening spiral, in which case it is called an anti-cyclone. The word cyclone is associated in popular phraseology with a terrific storm, but it has no such restriction in technical usage. A gentle zephyr flowing towards a "storm- centre" is just as much a cyclone to the meteorologist as is the whirl constituting a West-Indian hurricane. Indeed, it is not properly the wind itself that is called the cyclone in either case, but the entire system of whirls - including the storm-centre itself, where there may be no wind at all.

What, then, is this storm-centre? Merely an area of low barometric pressure - an area where the air has become lighter than the air of surrounding regions. Under influence of gravitation the air seeks its level just as water does; so the heavy air comes flowing in from all sides towards the low-pressure area, which thus becomes a "storm-centre." But the inrushing currents never come straight to their mark. In accordance with Ferrel's law, they are deflected to the right, and the result, as will readily be seen, must be a vortex current, which whirls always in one direction - namely, from left to right, or in the direction opposite to that of the hands of a watch held with its face upward. The velocity of the cyclonic currents will depend largely upon the difference in barometric pressure between the storm-centre and the confines of the cyclone system. And the velocity of the currents will determine to some extent the degree of deflection, and hence the exact path of the descending spiral in which the wind approaches the centre. But in every case and in every part of the cyclone system it is true, as Buys Ballot's famous rule first pointed out, that a person standing with his back to the wind has the storm-centre at his left.

The primary cause of the low barometric pressure which marks the storm-centre and establishes the cyclone is expansion of the air through excess of temperature. The heated air, rising into cold upper regions, has a portion of its vapor condensed into clouds, and now a new dynamic factor is added, for each particle of vapor, in condensing, gives up its modicum of latent heat. Each pound of vapor thus liberates, according to Professor Tyndall's estimate, enough heat to melt five pounds of cast iron; so the amount given out where large masses of cloud are forming must enormously add to the convection currents of the air, and hence to the storm-developing power of the forming cyclone. Indeed, one school of meteorologists, of whom Professor Espy was the leader, has held that, without such added increment of energy constantly augmenting the dynamic effects, no storm could long continue in violent action. And it is doubted whether any storm could ever attain, much less continue, the terrific force of that most dreaded of winds of temperate zones, the tornado - a storm which obeys all the laws of cyclones, but differs from ordinary cyclones in having a vortex core only a few feet or yards in diameter - without the aid of those great masses of condensing vapor which always accompany it in the form of storm- clouds.

The anti-cyclone simply reverses the conditions of the cyclone. Its centre is an area of high pressure, and the air rushes out from it in all directions towards surrounding regions of low pressure. As before, all parts of the current will be deflected towards the right, and the result, clearly, is a whirl opposite in direction to that of the cyclone. But here there is a tendency to dissipation rather than to concentration of energy, hence, considered as a storm-generator, the anti- cyclone is of relative insignificance.

In particular the professional meteorologist who conducts a "weather bureau" - as, for example, the chief of the United States signal-service station in New York - is so preoccupied with the observation of this phenomenon that cyclone-hunting might be said to be his chief pursuit. It is for this purpose, in the main, that government weather bureaus or signal- service departments have been established all over the world. Their chief work is to follow up cyclones, with the aid of telegraphic reports, mapping their course and recording the attendant meteorological conditions. Their so-called predictions or forecasts are essentially predications, gaining locally the effect of predictions because the telegraph outstrips the wind.

At only one place on the globe has it been possible as yet for the meteorologist to make long-time forecasts meriting the title of predictions. This is in the middle Ganges Valley of northern India. In this country the climatic conditions are largely dependent upon the periodical winds called monsoons, which blow steadily landward from April to October, and seaward from October to April. The summer monsoons bring the all-essential rains; if they are delayed or restricted in extent, there will be drought and consequent famine. And such restriction of the monsoon is likely to result when there has been an unusually deep or very late snowfall on the Himalayas, because of the lowering of spring temperature by the melting snow. Thus here it is possible, by observing the snowfall in the mountains, to predict with some measure of success the average rainfall of the following summer. The drought of 1896, with the consequent famine and plague that devastated India the following winter, was thus predicted some months in advance.

This is the greatest present triumph of practical meteorology. Nothing like it is yet possible anywhere in temperate zones. But no one can say what may not be possible in times to come, when the data now being gathered all over the world shall at last be co-ordinated, classified, and made the basis of broad inductions. Meteorology is pre-eminently a science of the future.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.