Visualization of the weather—past and present


  • Simon J. Keeling

    Corresponding author
    1. Weather Consultancy Services, Wombourne, Staffordshire, UK and School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
    • Weather Consultancy Services, Wombourne, Staffordshire, UK and School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK.
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All consumers of the media are seeking information. The weather forecast is merely one part of this media. Initially, an artist's visual interpretation of weather conditions (real or imagined), the weather forecast has now evolved into the all-encompassing visual and audio experience viewed through television today, although weather images continue to illicit emotions from viewers similar to those found when viewing other works of art. This paper examines how the weather has been visualized in times past, and how these techniques have been employed, culminating in the television weather forecast of today. Copyright © 2010 Royal Meteorological Society

1. Introduction

Many viewers would not place the television weather forecast in the genre of ‘art’. It may appear as a regular presentation on television screens, but to most viewers the forecast is just ‘there’: a regular feature of the television schedules and one which conveys information to viewers about the weather of the day(s) ahead.

Weather has always held a fascination for humans. Folklore is mentioned in the Bible (Matthew, 16: 2–3): “Jesus said, ‘When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: For the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.’ Also, the visual depiction of weather can be seen in art works dating back centuries.

However, as with other art forms, the television weather forecast must try to achieve viewer satisfaction if it is to remain memorable. Nicholas Mirzoeff (2002) in his book The Visual Culture Reader states, ‘…visual culture is concerned with visual events in which the user seeks information, meaning or pleasure in an interface with visual technology’. A statement with which the television weather forecast almost perfectly concurs.

Mitchell (1994) noted a similar point, explaining how technology has enabled a global culture which is totally dominated by images to become a reality. Our society is now so reliant on images, and is expectant that they will be shown, that it would be hard to portray the television weather forecast without such images.

This paper examines the history of the portrayal of weather and climate, culminating in the television weather forecast. It examines how weather phenomena have been portrayed by the most famous of ‘weather artists’, John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, and what cultural symbols a television forecast portrays. Note that the paper does not consider ‘the internet’ as an entity but includes the display of weather information through it within the context of television, radio and newspapers. The phenomenon of the internet lends itself to a separate paper, examining its impact on visualization and broadcast methods.

2. Seeking the information

All consumers of the media are seeking information, whether consciously, i.e. by researching information about a particular story or series of news stories, or subconsciously, for example by browsing a random internet site during some free time. MacDougall (2003) describes the move away from the printed media, towards that of the image as a complex and protracted phenomenon.

The ultimate aim of a television weather forecast is to convey weather information to the viewer in a way which can be easily interpreted and understood. Not only are forecasts regularly represented by graphical imagery, for many centuries artists have used the weather as a method of conveying information.

Users of weather forecasts will seek information from many sources and by using several media. Depending upon the immediacy of the media, forecasts can be available instantaneously on demand, consisting of the very latest meteorological data, or could be several hours old and consist of data produced up to 24 h before publication. Many of these media portray the weather forecast through imagery. Whilst it is accepted that the user will understand and be able to process the information being displayed satisfactorily, and, therefore, will adequately relate the pictures seen to the expected weather, how has the depiction of the weather changed over time and how do each of the media represent weather (present or forecast) and what imagery is displayed and in what format?

3. Weather in figurative arts

Modern times have presented the opportunity to display weather conditions in pictorial form through many media: internet, television, mobile telephones, but also books and newspapers. Technological advances have enabled such imagery to become widely distributed. However, prior to the advent of such technology drawings and paintings were the only ways that humans could depict weather conditions in a visual form. Despite thousands of images being produced, very few studies of the history of the sky in paintings have been undertaken (Thornes, 2000).

Prior to about 1400 most western art mainly depicted religion (Robinson, 2005). Burroughs (1981) attempts to explain this by suggesting that during this period the weather was so mild and benign that little attention was given to the weather, it was a rather insignificant event. By the early 1400s, however, the number of severe winters begin to increase (Lamb, 1982) and paintings started to display a truer depiction of the land and environment. There are many paintings from the time depicting snow scenes, although before this there were few paintings depicting winters as cold and snowy (Burroughs, 1981). One such is Hunters in the Snow, a well known painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Bruegel, 1565) (Figure 1). It has become one of the iconic images of the cold period known climatically as the Little Ice Age (Robinson, 2005). The image shows hunters returning to a village where mountains are covered in snow and ice, and lakes lower down in the village are frozen and people are walking on them. The image depicts a very cold period under grey skies and frozen ground underfoot, in fact Lamb (1967) suggests that the picture was a response to one of Europe's worst winters, in 1565.

Figure 1.

‘Hunters in the Snow’ by Pieter Bruegel (Bruegel, 1565) the Elder has become one of the iconic images on the Little Ice Age. This figure is available in color online at

Paintings were also made of frost fairs which were held on the River Thames. The first official record of such a fair is 1608, but they probably happened many years before that date. At the frost fair during the winter of 1683–1684 a printer by the name of Croom sold souvenir cards, embossed with the customer's name, date and the fact that the card was printed on the Thames. One might think of this as the first type of ‘wish you were here’ postcard, which instead of being posted would be shown to friends at every opportunity, describing how the weather was during the owner's excursion onto the frozen Thames: an early weather report.

Of course many artists have depicted the weather in landscape paintings and for the purposes of this paper a selection of the works of Constable and Turner is considered.

Thornes and Metherell (2003) discuss how Turner can be described as a realist whilst Constable is a naturalist. There is a subtle distinction between these two styles of painting. ‘Realists’, according to Baudelaire ‘want to represent things as they are, or as they would be, supposing that I (the perceiving subject) did not exist’ (Rubin, 1996). Thornes and Metherell (2003) further explain that, ‘Realists could therefore paint their own vision of nature, although their observations were rarely impartial and the movement became closely associated with wide socio-political views’.

Therefore, one must not expect that the atmosphere depicted by Turner is a true representation of conditions at the time the subject was painted. Turner would have used his own impressions of how the atmosphere may appear to elaborate or enhance the dramatic impact of his paintings.

Conversely, naturalism conveys the atmosphere in a true state. Thornes and Metherell (2003) state that ‘Naturalism refers to any work of art that depicts actual rather than imaginary or exaggerated subject matter’. It is in the paintings of Constable that the work of perhaps the greatest of the weather painters is seen. Some have surmised that his depiction of the sky and nature were so good because Constable believed that it was in nature that God's will was most clearly revealed (Clark, 1949).

For the purposes of the present paper, it is interesting to focus on the emotions that the depiction of weather and atmosphere have on the human mind. By their very nature, the works reflect the fact that emotions can be stirred either by true depiction, or inferred interpretation of conditions.

When looking at an image of the atmosphere as represented in a painting, conditions on a particularly day, or over a series of days, at some time in the past are being observed. Thornes (1999) states that not only does Constable represent past weather in his paintings, he represents present and future weather conditions too. Compare this to viewing symbols or contours in a television weather forecast, where one views predictions of how the atmosphere may be depicted in the day (or days) ahead. By including the atmosphere in their work, Turner and Constable must have known that emotions would have been stirred in the viewer. Is this what those who design television weather forecast graphics should also try to achieve? Keeling (2009) discusses how graphic designers should seek an emotional response from the viewer when viewing graphical interpretations of future conditions.

However, it is possible to take the works of Constable further in comparing them to television weather forecast graphics. Thornes (2008) discusses how Constable wanted to know how the atmosphere worked. Indeed the artist himself stated that ‘We see nothing truly till we understand it’ (Thornes, 1999). This then raises the question of whether the television viewer should understand why a particular weather event is occurring rather than witnessing the phenomenon as an icon on a weather chart, or as a statement made by a presenter. If a viewer understands a phenomenon then they are better equipped to watch for the signs of its onset (such as cumulus clouds building ahead of showers) and adapt to its consequences (taking shelter).

It is the emotions raised by paintings and symbolic representations of weather which link the paintings of great artists to the television weather forecasts of today. Compare Figures 2 and 3 and assess how one might feel when viewing such pictures. ‘A Storm off the Coast, Brighton’ (Figure 2) is dominated by grey colours and broad brush strokes awaking in the viewer images on rain and windy weather, wrapping up against the elements and a feeling of autumnal rains. Figure 3, ‘Flatford Mill’ consists of brighter colours. Bright, white cumulus clouds set again rich blue tones of a summer sky. One feels happy and warm when looking at the picture. However, one must be careful in assuming that this is high-summer. The shadow of the horse in the foreground is quite long, perhaps indicating later summer conditions (the trees are in full leaf, with the deep green chlorophyll infusion shown by mature leaves, perhaps nearing the end of their useful life to the parent tree).

Figure 2.

‘A Storm off the Coast, Brighton 1824’ by John Constable (Constable, 1824). This figure is available in color online at

Figure 3.

‘Flatford Mill (“Scene on a Navigable River”) 1816–1817’ by John Constable (Constable, 1816). This figure is available in color online at

It should also not be assumed that the weather is going to be fine. The building cumulus clouds are indicative of an unstable, polar maritime air mass which frequently produces heavy, sometimes thundery showers. Nevertheless, the picture does feel warm and makes one feel ‘good’. Others believe that the picture is indicative of late afternoon when the storm is retreating and the clouds are fading away.

Should television weather forecasts also be able to evoke such feelings in television viewers, and if they were to stir emotions, would they be more memorable? Perhaps television weather forecast graphic designers should pursue this statement as it may influence their designs for future weather graphic display systems.

In more recent times the artist Olafur Eliasson has attempted to engage people with the weather by creating large scale exhibitions which explore the relationship humans have with the weather. Eliasson's exhibition takes the culture of weather beyond the mental emotions created by viewing images, and adds physical sensation into the concoction.

Hosted at the Tate Modern Gallery, London, from 16 October 2003 to 21 March 2004, ‘The Weather Project’ created a giant representation of the Sun and sky in the Turbine Hall of the Gallery. A giant Sun was at the far end of the gallery with a fine mist injected into the Hall to create the ambience of being ‘within’ the weather. Eliasson ‘views the weather…as one of the few fundamental encounters that can still be experienced in the city’ (Eliasson, 2003). Eliasson also discusses how a city ‘mediates’ the weather. He considers that television weather forecasts represent ‘hyper-mediation’, the viewer is having to imagine conditions and is not actually experiencing them. However, a more tangible mediation may be the experience of getting wet whilst out walking on a rainy day. Between the two extremes may be sitting inside and watching the weather through a window.

Of course, modifying indoor environments is something that humans have been engaged with since the earliest times. Neanderthals would have lit fires in order to increase the temperature of their dwellings. The Romans introduced more sophisticated central heating systems, the temperatures of which could be crudely controlled. Modern central heating can be regulated to the nearest degree Celsius, or should the weather be too hot outside, air conditioning units can be installed to reduce temperature, making indoor conditions more acceptable.

The atmosphere can also be ‘brought inside’ on a larger scale. Holiday complexes such as Center Parcs (2007) boast that ‘The subtropical environment is maintained at a blissful 29.5 °C, it's summer all year round’. Such comments may be meteorologically absurd but they demonstrate the affinity humans feel with weather and certain conditions.

By creating a physical connection to the weather, our experience is intensified. Television weather forecasts should try to stimulate these feelings. However, the only way to achieve this is through graphical representation of the weather, and through the communication skills of the presenters. Perhaps by perfecting such goals one can emulate the physical realities of and emotions of The Weather Project and/or Center Parcs, whether those emotions are negative or positive.

4. Newspapers

Acta Diurna, (Daily Acts), sometimes referred to as the Daily Public Records, is regarded as the earliest recorded newspaper. From around 59 B.C. Julius Caesar wanted to inform the public about important forthcoming meetings and ordered that white boards be displayed in cities publicizing such events.

Newspapers then evolved slowly as printing techniques improved and eventually the newspaper became the first regularly, mass produced method of disseminating weather information. Readers who bought newspapers would read about the weather in a text format and then visualize the weather in their minds. Regular weather reports were printed in newspapers from 1842.

Daily weather maps were first produced and distributed for public consumption at the Great Exhibition of 1851. These maps showed an outline of the British Isles with weather reports from around the country. The reports were plotted onto the map which was then printed and sold at the Exhibition for one penny. For the first time the general public was able to visualize the weather as it occurred, simultaneously in different parts of the country. Gone was the need to read text and then perform a visualization of conditions.

However, it should be noted that a form of weather shorthand visualization had been used by mariners for some time. In 1779 Alexander Dalrymple (Dalrymple, 1779) suggested a form of shorthand to describe wind speed, this latter being copied (apart from the insertion of a ‘moderate breeze’) by Admiral Beaufort in 1806, who also appended a list of letters depicting various weather phenomena. Beaufort's contribution to meteorology and the conveyance of the meteorological message is discussed more widely by Courtney (2002).

On 1 April 1875 the first weather map was published in The Times (Figure 4). It was prepared by the now much neglected (and rather controversial) polymath and meteorologist Sir Francis Galton, who realized the problem associated with printing long lists of reports and then visualizing such data. In a paper published in the Philosophical Magazine Galton (1861a) states ‘When contemporary meteorological reports from numerous stations are printed one after another in a column (such as we may see in newspapers and certain foreign publications), they present no picture to the reader's mind’.). Galton continued to write about the necessity for the depiction of weather information in a visual format and suggested ways of presenting such information (Galton, 1861b), including using varying shadings to present such data. Galton also produced charts showing icons of present weather conditions (Figure 5). Eventually, the daily weather map became a feature of all newspapers.

Figure 4.

The first daily weather chart drawn by Sir Francis Galton (Galton, 1875) and printed in The Times newspaper 1 April 1875, depicting the weather situation of the previous day

Figure 5.

A weather chart for 16 January 1861 drawn by Sir Francis Galton showing present weather icons from weather reports collected by telegraph

As time has progressed, newspapers across the world have adapted various methods of presenting weather information and, today, newspapers vary considerably in the information they portray. For example, in the British Isles, The Sun prints a very small map with 30 words of weather, whilst the Times carries almost a whole page of weather information which includes synoptic charts and icon maps. It is not known if newspapers have carried out research as to what depth of information readers require from forecasts: none is publicly available.

Newspapers which portray more detailed forecast information and maps generally display forecast maps with symbols overlaid. These charts are easy to view and to understand.

Over recent years the internet has become a threat to newspapers. The availability of news via the internet, most of it free of charge, has caused newspapers to look inward and reassess their financial models as well as the service they offer to readers.

In a conference presentation in 2005, Timothy Balding, director general of the World Association of Newspapers, reported a 32% increase in newspaper website viewers during the preceding 12 months and a 350% increase over the past 5 years (BBC, 2005). At the same conference, speakers referred to newspapers becoming complacent and warned that ‘…free papers, online sites and the spread of blogs…would put growing pressure on the readership of traditional newspapers’. This is particularly relevant at the present time as newspapers begin to discuss the possibility of charging for content (CNN, 2009).

However, newspaper editors have been embracing new technology, and acknowledge that this is necessary for the newspaper industry to be sustained. Fabrice Rousselot is the internet editor of a French newspaper, Libération. In her opinion the internet is not a problem for newspapers, but is actually part of the solution (BBC, 2006). She further argues that the internet should be an integral part of a newspaper's business model, but says that the content of the website should not be the same as that which is on offer in the newspaper.

A glance at newspaper websites reveals that they have taken Rousselot's advice and are providing some innovative content such as video (for example The Daily Telegraph TV at After viewing newspaper web sites, one forms the distinct impression that much experimentation is still underway within the industry to establish what readers/viewers want to see.

The internet enables newspapers to advance the depiction of weather forecasts and to display forecasts in an innovative format. Unfortunately, many of them have chosen not to do this and to portray the forecast in the same way as in newspapers and many other internet weather sites. Static maps, often of neutral colours, depict non-animating icons as can be seen in the websites of The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. The Times contains a more complete weather forecast, as indeed do The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent. Some daily newspapers depict no weather forecast information at all and have removed reference to the weather from their websites.

This is a surprising development given that weather websites are some of the most popular on the internet. is an internet traffic rankings site and places the most popular weather website,, as the 116 most viewed website (by traffic ranking), although this does change daily.

Locality of weather forecasts may be of interest to viewers of newspaper websites and so regional newspapers could carry more regionalized forecasts. Many regional newspapers are specific to larger towns, and so presented video forecasts which are town specific may be of interest to website viewers and could attract sponsorship.

5. Radio

Radio stations cannot present weather forecasts as an image. They are restricted to verbal forecasts. Many radio stations use a simple ‘rip and read’ method where the forecast is issued by a weather forecast provider, such as the UK Meteorological Office, and this is then read by a radio news presenter or programme announcer. The listener must then understand the weather story the presenter is trying to convey. Visualization has taken place, but only in the mind of the listener. The amount and clarity of the visualization will be dependent upon the clarity of the forecast as written by the forecasters and subsequently read by the radio presenter.

Some radio stations employ a dedicated meteorologist who will usually present a more detailed weather forecast. Often the meteorologist will have more time to present the forecast and will therefore convey a more descriptive forecast.

By using a meteorologist to present the forecast, and having the situation described more fully, it is believed by the radio station that a listener will better understand the forecast. This is probably through better visualization of conditions.

More specialized forecasts for shipping are also broadcast via the radio. The Shipping Forecast and the Inshore Waters forecasts are stalwarts of BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Radio 4. Selected areas of the forecast are also broadcast by Maritime and Coastguard Agency (formerly the Coastguard) radio stations from various locations around the British Isles. One of the stated aims of the Shipping and Inshore Waters forecasts is, ‘…to reach as many and as wide-a-spread of the UK population as possible’ (Meteorological Office, 2006).

Radio stations now also have internet sites which contain weather forecasts. Visitors can therefore ‘view’ such information in a pictorial form as on other internet sites, and no longer have to rely on the radio announcers reading the forecast and the listener then mentally visualizing it. The web forecast usually takes the form of a static, icon forecast of what weather conditions are likely to be or a map based icon map, similar to those which may be viewed in newspapers.

However, further developments to radio websites do seem inevitable, probably including the addition of some video content displaying weather forecasts.

6. Television

The world's first televised weather chart was broadcast by the BBC on 11 November 1936. This was part of a trial which, due to the onset of the Second World War, was suspended until July 1949. The first ‘in-vision’ British television weather forecast was broadcast on 11 January 1954, 32 years after the BBC had broadcast the first radio weather forecast.

In the United States, television weather forecasting was on air prior to 1949. In 1948 a weather forecaster called Louis Allen was well known for combining clear delivery styles with educating the public (Henson, 1990). The first nationwide televised weather forecast in the United States was made by John Clinto Youle on NBC (National Broadcasting Corporation) in 1949.

Television is the main medium through which forecasts are viewed. Television stations use a variety of media to portray forecast information. These may be icons, for example showing a sunshine symbol, or contours, for example showing an area which may be affected by rain.

Broadcasts are available to view on standard television sets. New technology is changing viewing habits and increasingly weather forecasts are viewable through other methods such as via a desktop computer or downloaded onto a mobile mp4 player.

Forecast data are often displayed on maps of the area of interest. Before assessing the weather forecast for the area they are interested in, the viewer must be able to ascertain where on the map they are located. As revealed in the survey carried out by Thornes (1992) this is something which the public are not generally able to do with confidence. It does seem that an attempt to pinpoint one's location to within a general area can be made, but more detailed identification of the location is more difficult.

During the past few years television weather forecast graphics have evolved, from a ‘hand’ drawing on a weather chart, to fully integrated 3D graphics capable of showing fly-throughs of weather, anywhere in the world. When television weather forecasts were first broadcast, the forecaster would often draw expected conditions directly onto a map using a pen. In the 1970s the BBC introduced magnetic symbols which ‘stuck’ to a base map as the forecaster described the changed weather. These symbols are now perhaps the most well known of weather symbols (at least to UK viewers).

Today, many types of weather symbols are broadcast, although they all follow a similar theme. During the 1990s various artistic depictions of weather phenomena were under experimentation by the author whilst working in private sector weather companies. Such cultural symbols involved showing umbrellas to signify rainfall, and ice creams to show warm weather during the summer. These new depiction methods were considered by company executives not to have been successful as it was deemed that the viewer could not easily assess what the weather might be from only a short glance at each of these more descriptive symbols. However, it is interesting to note that no consumer surveys were undertaken to assess the viewers' opinions of such experiments.

7. Conclusion

The television weather forecast is merely the latest incarnation of the depiction of weather information. By visually conveying such information it is hoped that the viewer has a better understanding of the weather that is likely to affect their area of interest, and can visualize how the weather may be.

Increasingly, radio, which by its very nature is unable to broadcast image data, is using web sites to display weather information via the internet. This enhances the radio stations service to viewers and provides a continuous strand ensuring that not only does the listener tune to that station when no visual means of display are available (for example, in the car), but that they can also ‘watch’ the station when close to an internet connection (via home computer). Radio stations can then claim to enhance value to advertisers by maintaining listeners (or viewers) for longer.

Prior to radio, newspapers provided the first mass produced and distributed method of weather depiction. With millions of copies still printed daily, the weather forecast in newspapers provides such visual weather information to the present time. Again, the internet is playing a role here as many newspapers include weather on their web pages. Increasingly, newspapers will depend upon the link between the printed and electronic form in order to enhance reader loyalty to the brand.

However, it was art that provided the first impression of weather as a visual study with the first true representations of weather appearing in the fifteenth century. As the weather became less benign, artists began to depict the complexities and variability of the atmosphere. Turner and Constable are well known for their depiction of the skies both through naturalism and realism. Exhibitions are still being held conveying the physical apparitions of weather such as Elliason's recent ‘Weather project’.

Visualization of the weather is continually evolving. It evokes emotions in the viewer whether through art, newspaper, website or television. Future developments in weather presentation techniques must seek to illicit an emotional response from viewers, and convey the weather forecast in an informative and coherent manner. It is the responsibility of meteorologists, producers and graphics designers to ensure that this is achieved.