Tuesday, November 30, 2010

President John. F. Kennedy - the Father of World Weather Watch

One of the most remarkable achievements ever made in the science of meteorology was accomplished not by a scientist, but by a President – in fact the 35th President of the United States, John. F. Kennedy.

Above: President John F. Kennedy (Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

In the late 1950's both Russia and the United States began launching space vehicles, with Russia’s “Sputnik” the first ever fully orbiting satellite. On April 1st 1960 the study of our weather systems was to change forever when the United States launched the worlds first meteorological satellite, TIROS 1, that created a sensation by transmitting television images of weather patterns back to Earth to assist in weather forecasting.

Replica of Sputnik 1 - launched in 1957. (Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

It became obvious that satellites would have a major effect on a whole plethora of human affairs including communication, meteorology, navigation and military issues.

Born in the Cold War era when the United States and the Soviet Union were teetering on the brink of all-out war for more than a decade, many assumed that space would become a hostile zone, an extension of the battlefields far below where the confrontation between east and west would continue.

The first image of the Earth received from TIROS 1.
(Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

But in 1961, the US President John F. Kennedy delivered two remarkable speeches – arguably two of the great public speeches of the modern era. They were to change the political landscape of the day and also the science of meteorology.

On January 30th, in his State of the Union address, he stated:

“…….this Administration intends to explore promptly all possible areas of cooperation with the Soviet Union and other nations to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Specifically, I now invite all nations--including the Soviet Union--to join with us in developing a weather prediction program, in a new communications satellite program and in preparation for probing the distant planets of Mars and Venus, probes which may someday unlock the deepest secrets of the universe”.

Then later in the year, on September 25th, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly:

“And as we extend the rule of law on earth, so must we also extend it to man's new domain, outer space. All of us salute the brave cosmonauts of the Soviet Union. The new horizons of outer space must not be driven by the old bitter concepts of imperialism and sovereign claims. The cold reaches of the universe must not become the new arena of an even colder war. To this end, we shall urge proposals extending the United Nations Charter to the limits of man's exploration in the universe, reserving outer space for peaceful use, prohibiting weapons of mass destruction in space or on celestial bodies, and opening the mysteries and benefits of space to every nation. We shall propose, further, cooperative efforts between all the nations in weather prediction and eventually in weather control. We shall propose, finally, a global system of Communications satellites linking the whole world in telegraph and telephone and radio and television. The day need not be far away when such a system will televise the proceedings of this body to every corner of the world for the benefit of peace.”

These resounding and prophetic speeches, together with the major international interest and action that flowed from them, led to the establishment of the World Weather Watch, (WWW) in 1963, under the aegis of the World Meteorological Organisation and resulted in greatly enhanced international cooperation in the collection and processing of weather data.

Remarkably, whilst East and West remained bitterly confrontational on the political field, conducting warfare, espionage and assassination against each other, meteorologists from both sides became friends and colleagues. They attended conferences together, shared knowledge and technology, and established networks for the collection of weather observations from around the world, all for the common good of weather prediction.

As a result, meteorology prospered during the second half of the Twentieth Century, with vast improvements in weather forecasting the immediate result. Detection and effective warning of hurricanes, intense thunderstorms, floods, heat waves, cold outbreaks and all other types of severe weather steadily improved, and the more effective planning of agricultural activities, factoring in the weather, continued to increase our capacity for food production. Ships at sea and commercial aircraft were able to operate more safely as a result of our increased knowledge of the state of the atmosphere.

A hurricane as seen from space.
(NASA image - click to enlarge)

The World Weather Watch remains today as the core of the World Meteorological Organisation's operations. It combines observing systems, telecommunication facilities, data-processing and forecasting products operated by National Meteorological Centres from around the world.

Tropical storm "Katia" photographed on August 31st 2011. (NASA image - click to enlarge)

It is a glowing example of international cooperation, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was born in the barren political wilderness of the Cold War. All the improvements that resulted from its initiation have continued through to the present day and will do so into the future as an enduring legacy of the Kennedy Administration.

President John F. Kennedy must be therefore regarded as one of the key figures in meteorology of the 20th century, and many meteorologists would regard the World Weather Watch as one of the great achievements of an American President.

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