From folklore to chaotic systems

Michel Claessens
Michel ClaessensEditor-in-chief

This issue’s special report deals with a subject that directly influences our daily lives: weather forecasts and the scientific and technical tools they employ.

But before it became a science, meteorology was a domain of tradition and culture. A field of deeply ingrained clichés – “They always get it wrong,” people often say about weather forecasters – and of enduring sayings, originating in the lore of those who worked the land and handed down from generation to generation. Our ancestors respected these adages to avoid the wrath of the elements and to determine the periods of sowing and harvesting. Of course they must be taken cum grano salis, but some of them contain elements of truth. The proverb “Rain before seven, fine before eleven” translates the fact that a belt of rain brought by a front never lasts more than four hours. Similarly the belief that bees become aggressive and insects bite before a storm has often proved to be painfully true!

What will the weather be like tomorrow? Should I take an umbrella this morning? Can we take a picnic the day after tomorrow? There are no guarantees… but European countries today have a weather forecasting network whose scientific and technical sophistication has permitted notable progress over recent years. This is largely due to the progress made in the models used. Major weather events such as the famous storm that hit the Netherlands and England by surprise in 1953 would now be announced several days in advance!

From folklore to the science of chaotic systems: this special report reminds us that multidisciplinary approaches are able to penetrate even the most complex mysteries.