Exploring contemporary amateur meteorology through an historical lens



This paper examines contemporary amateur meteorology as a socio-cultural phenomenon through a historical lens. In particular it identifies the continuities and discontinuities in amateur meteorology both at an institutional and individual level. The rationale for undertaking this investigation is twofold. First, sociological work (Stebbins, 1977; 1981; 1992) has resulted in calls for more social science research on modern amateurism as meaningful social practice. Following this it is our contention that such research might be usefully informed by analysis of the practices and perspectives of, and organizational arrangements associated with, amateur meteorologists in the past.

A second justification for our investigation relates to concerns about the scientific emphasis of contemporary climate change debates (Hulme, 2008). One way of addressing this is to undertake research that investigates how different groups of people (both past and present) relate to and find meaning in weather and climate, particularly at the local level. Amateur meteorologists represent one such group. A research focus on amateur meteorology is further justified by the establishment in 2010 by the UK's Meteorological Office, in collaboration with the Royal Meteorological Society and the Department of Education, of a Weather Observer's Website (WOW) through which amateur observers can submit climate data (Weather News, 2011). This development signals a formal recognition of amateur meteorology by two of the organizations representing meteor-ology's professional interests.

The Climatological Observers Link (COL) is perhaps the most significant organization representing amateurs who observe and record the weather on a daily basis (Brugge, 2010). Members of COL were invited to participate in the research during a presentation at the organization's annual general meeting in October 2007 and through an advertisement in the COL bulletin. Inter-viewees represented a cross-section of amateur meteorologists in terms of their socio-economic status, geographical location, recording practices, level of skill and expertise, degree and length of engagement in COL, and their relationships with professionals and the general public. 23 in-depth interviews with COL members were completed between 2008 and 2010.

Following this, a brief history is provided of meteorological science in the UK, its professionalization and an associated process of ‘amateurization’ (Alberti, 2001). Several themes, identified within the historical scholarship on amateur science and amateur meteorology, are then introduced and used to interpret the qualitative interview data. This approach affords insight into the links with and divergences from the practices, experiences and perspectives of amateur meteorology of the past. The paper concludes with some suggestions for how research on modern amateur meteorology might be progressed.

Amateur meteorology in -historical perspective

There has been a long-standing amateur interest in weather, meteorology and climate change in the UK (Jankovic, 2001; Golinski, 2007), and the increasing standardization and professionalization of meteorological science from the mid-nineteenth century (Naylor, 2006) did not wholly supersede the amateur tradition as a strong interest in parochial weather continued to prevail (Jankovic, 2001). Indeed, alongside professionalism in meteorology, there emerged a new process of ‘amateurization’ (Alberti, 2001). This entailed amateurs identifying themselves as a distinctive group through the formation of new clubs and societies, bulletins and journals that were directed towards public goals (Golinski, 1998). An example is the British Rainfall Organization (BRO) (Pedgley, 2002).

The subsuming of the BRO within the Meteorological Office in 1919 signalled the beginning of an extended phase of decline in amateur meteorology in an institutional sense, that is in the existence of independent organizations that were self-consciously ‘amateur’. It was not until a few years after the last edition of British Rainfall had been published that a new phase of amateurization began (Eden, 2009). Although the discontinuation of the former might imply that this prompted the latter there is nothing to suggest a direct connection between these two events. Two of the most prominent modern amateur meteorology networks, COL and the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO), were established within a very short space of time of each other. The activities of the first of these networks form the focus of the following section. Table 1 summarizes these key developments in meteorology, both amateur and professional.

Table 1. Key dates in the history of amateur and professional meteorology.
  1. It is acknowledged that the amateur/professional distinction is by no means clear-cut. However, it is used here to indicate the constituency of interest that is the focus of the particular institutions highlighted.

c.seventeenth and eighteenth centuriesIndividual and idiosyncratic observation and recordingAmateurNarrative accounts dominate – private weather diaries, chronicles and sermons.
1823–1850The Meteorological Society of LondonAmateur
1850Founding of the British Meteorological SocietyProfessional and Amateur Became the Royal Meteorological Society in 1883. First issue of Weather in May 1946.
1854Formation of the Meteorological Department of the Board of TradeProfessionalInitially established as a small department within the Board of Trade.
1859Formation of the British Rainfall Association, became the British Rainfall OrganizationAmateurAbsorbed by the Met Office following World War One.Publication of British Rainfall continues until 1968.
1970Formation of the Climatological Observers' NetworkAmateurMonthly bulletin published.
1974Formation of the Tornado and Storm Research OrganisationAmateurJournal of Meteorology launched in 1975.
1999Formation of Weather Observers NetworkAmateurMonthly bulletin published.
2005Formation of the Cloud Appreciation SocietyAmateurA ‘cloud shop’ sells merchandize of all types.
2010Formation of the Weather Observers WebsiteAmateur

Continuities and discontin-uities in the individual prac-tices of amateur meteorologists

In this section interviews with COL members are interpreted using the following four themes:

  • A regular and exacting ritual: discipline and routine.

  • Flesh barometers and weather wising: visual and physical sensibilities.

  • Duty bound?: weather observing and public service.

  • Well, weather is not a girl thing is it?: gender and amateur meteorology.

Each of the above addresses an aspect of amateur meteorological practice identified as being significant within the historical literature. A short discussion will introduce each theme and then quotes from COL members1 will be used to illustrate how and to what extent the theme is manifested in contemporary amateur meteorology.

‘A regular and exacting ritual’: discipline and routine

Historian Jan Golinski (1998; 2007) has explored the self-dedication of amateur weather observers and diarists in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Keeping a diary of any kind was, he argued, a kind of spiritual and internally imposed discipline, a regular and exacting ritual (Golinski, 1998), whereby individuals could find self-expression. Some observers in this period maintained regular hours for the recording of readings from weather instruments including the barometer and thermometer. The sense of obligation to record and the discipline necessary to maintain daily weather records can also be recognized in the practices adopted by the modern amateur.

This is illustrated by the requirements of the data sheet completed by the majority of COL members for submission to the editor of the monthly COL Bulletin for collation and publication (Figure 1). While it is acknowledged that not all members contribute data for all the criteria, many do undertake a wide range of these measurements. It clearly requires significant commitment to take (twice) daily readings, transfer the data into electronic spreadsheets for archiving and analysis and extract relevant data for the data submission sheet (now mostly submitted online). A further indication of the dedication typical of amateur observers is the meticulous hand--written weather records that are often started at a very early age. Figure 2 is one such example prepared by a young adolescent in the late 1950s. This observer continues to record today.

Figure 1.

COL monthly data submission sheet: this is the first of four pages.

Figure 2.

Early weather recordings of a COL member. This record was made at Bearsden, north west of Glasgow. The observer now lives in the South West.

Although employment places constraints on the modern amateur meteorologist, many interviewees were either retired or semi-retired. This enables them to conform to the minimum observing protocols which are regarded as a daily priority. For example, one member from the South East said he takes the readings without fail every morning. Most COL members, and particularly those who are fully retired, also record at other times of the day. One relatively new COL recruit, for example, claimed that:

I am looking at what it is doing from hour to hour, but the main recordings are four times a day. I do first thing in the morning, which is always between 8.00am and 9.00am… I then do it between 12.00pm and 1.00pm and then between 6.00pm and 7.00pm and then last thing at night which can often be midnight (NW).

Another member from the South East has been recording five times a day since 1985 at:

8, 12, 4, 8 and 10pm at night …I regularly look at it seven times a day and check it.

Instrumental recording is often accompanied by the keeping of narrative records, another aspect of contemporary amateur meteorology that provides a direct link with the discipline and routine exhibited by amateur meteorologists of the past. The commitment to daily weather observation, however, extends beyond the keeping of personal weather records. A number of interviewees, for example, referred to the importance they ascribe to including time within their daily routine to consult newspapers, other media weather reports and weather related websites:

A typical day is that after I have got up, circa 8.00am or something like that, is to have my breakfast and then by about 9.00am I am on the internet looking to see what the weather is actually doing, that's after I have seen the TV… I tend to look at several computer modules that are predicting up to about 15 days with some of the American models…Then I have my observation to do as well and I put that on [the computer], I can typically be sat in front of the screen there for two hours looking at weather related stuff, easily, every morning. I am often shocked to find that it is almost 11am and I wonder where the morning has gone and whether I should be doing something else (Midlands).

Such routines provide further evidence of the self-discipline that is characteristic of the modern amateur meteorologist.

‘Flesh barometers and weather wising’: knowing the weather visually and physically

The historian Anderson (2003) has focused on the strongly visual content of meteorology in the past. There were, however, clear distinctions between elite and more popular visual knowledge about meteorology, the former increasingly associated with Observatories, and precision instruments, the latter with weather wising and weather prophesy (Anderson, 1999). For Anderson, equipment represented the main means of identifying the professional, whereas ‘weather wisdom’, grounded in a strongly visual and physical familiarity with the weather, was the realm of the amateur. The study of clouds in particular nurtured a form of experimental observation that was very much oriented towards the sky or observatory rather than the laboratory (Anderson, 2003: 303). Experience of being in the weather allowed the amateur to become something of a flesh barometer or bell board in his or her self (Golinski, 1998; Anderson, 2003).

A range of instruments provide the main means of producing knowledge about the weather within the COL community (Figure 3), indeed many of the COL interviewees boast instruments that rival those of the professional. However, for some modern amateurs a strong interest in other ways of knowing the weather persists. A good number share their historical predecessors' interest in physical and visual observation, in knowing the weather from experience:

I always say, you see, if you are walking down this lane on a hot July day, you get a certain impression of the temperature. (Midlands).

But you get to know what the weather is like, it is probably about 6 out there at the minute (SE).

Figure 3.

Stevenson screen and automatic weather station used by COL member in the Midlands.

Some COL members have expertise in weather-wising and weather lore (King, 2010). Many demonstrate a particular interest in visual phenomena associated with the weather, as illustrated in the following account of a COL member given by one of his colleagues:

He has got a system so that you can tell if it is particularly thick cloud or whether it is raining or drizzling and he is particularly observant in terms of optical effects as well…halos or whatever…He has got a good eye for anything in the sky (NE).

The importance of the visual, and how this is becoming increasingly located within the amateur observing community with the closure of many of the manual Met Office stations, was emphasized:

For all the technology, you can't beat a good pair of eyes to see what is going on around and that is why even the Met Office are calling on amateurs (NW).

That many observers are also members of the Cloud Appreciation Society is further evidence of a continuing amateur meteorological interest in visual phenomena, something that is evinced in, and reinforced by, an active engagement in weather photography. However, it is the combining of visual and instrumental ways of observing and recording the weather that defines the modern amateur meteorologists' practice and passion. Whereas in the past visual and physical sensibilities might have assumed a more important place than instrumental measurement, the modern amateur would seem to value a combination of approaches involving both instrumental measurement and visual observation:

The instruments are there to back up what you see and if you are not looking out you are missing it. On the other hand it is fantastic when it is chucking it down with rain…fantastic heavy thunderstorms and I can sit in here and watch it all and get a little wireless rain gauge from upstairs and I can see what is going on without going out and getting wet… It really backs up the visual aspects. But there are things that you would never see without instruments, you can't see changes in wind direction for example…You have to be observant but the instruments can quite often show you that when there is nothing to see, so it is a question of using both…they add to each other (SE).

‘Duty bound’?: weather observing and public service

A recurrent theme in the ‘recruitment rhetoric’ of nineteenth century Natural History societies was the role of the provincial scientist as a public servant focusing on a public duty (Finnegan, 2005). There was a sense that the work of amateur scientists contributed towards the public utility of natural knowledge and this was disseminated through various media, including public talks, exhibitions, letters, printed documentation, etc. Among contemporary amateur meteorologists the notion of performing a public service was acknowledged by some interviewees:

they [COL members] are doing a huge amount of public service… The COL records are as much the national weather records as the Met Office records and there are many more of them in interesting areas like suburbs rather than airports. This is an important public service and I think it is undervalued (SE).

As such, many COL members are committed, just like their historical predecessors, to the dissemination of their knowledge to the wider community, even if they did not always express this as a form of ‘public duty’. This is revealed in the following case:

I produce this monthly weather report and I have done every month, somehow I always manage to get it out and I have done since I have been here which is over three and a half years… I got such good feedback from that and so many people expressed an interest that I feel almost duty bound to do it but it is a great pleasure…the number of people who have actually expressed some thanks for it, well that is nice…Also, I have been asked to write for the parish magazine which I do every edition…(f)our times a year, so I summarise the three months that have passed and I write about any significant events like when we had a flash flood in the village a couple of months ago… So yes, I think I have got something like six outlets for weather nowadays. There is COL, the village magazine, monthly weather report, environment agency, rainfall network and then there is the fact that I am in charge of weather programme at [a local – name given] Observatory (SW).

Further evidence of a ‘public service’ role among COL members is when they act as correspondents for local newspapers, radio and TV companies. In addition to being the occasional ‘weather expert’ for his local paper when notable weather events take place, a Northwest-based COL member supplies his previous day's weather readings to the same paper every morning for daily publication. Such relationships with the media can be long-standing as in the case of an observer from the South East who has been writing a weekly weather column for a local paper since 1979. All of these activities mirror the historical amateur meteorologists' commitment to public service.

‘Well, weather is not a girl thing is it?’: gender and amateur meteorology

Women have featured little in studies of meteorological history, not least because the chances for women to be involved in science were limited. Commonly less able to pursue academic or professional careers, women were often forced to be obligatory amateurs (Ogilvie, 2000). Few women were known to have actively undertaken the task of weather observation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though there were some exceptions. Margaret Mackenzie of Delvine (Perthshire), for example, compiled a meticulous record of daily temperatures at her home between 1780 and 1802 (Wheeler, 1994; Golinski, 2007). It is commonly believed, however, that in the past women family members might have assisted with the recording of weather journals as ‘invisible technicians’ (Shapin, 1989) — and this practice can still be seen today in the male-oriented COL:

My wife would also do the observations for me if I was away for any period of time at conferences or whatever (SE).

The gender bias in COL has not escaped the interviewees, some of whom forwarded a number of hypotheses for this bias. The first concerned the apparently close affinity between train spotting and amateur meteorology, both of which share a fascination with numbers and statistics, an obsession that seems to be more associated with men than with women:

I would say that I do enjoy the numbers (NE).

It is a male thing although I don't know why that is. I think it is because we are in the same category as train spotters, but maybe there are certain things that do attract men (NE).

This seems to support scholarship in psychology which identifies that ‘the urge to collect’ data occurs far more frequently among men than women (Subkowski, 2006). Other suggestions made by interviewees concerned a male desire to control nature through recording it, and a gender bias within science in the past:

It is the measuring. Measuring and comparing seems to be a male thing. But it is also fixing things and actually feeling as though they are in control, getting hold of it and writing things down and plotting and saying ‘that is it’, it is sort of aggressive and physical and there is something different there between men and women, but why, that should really be a kind of magic because weather is not exactly gender based (SW).

Girls might be signing up to science without actually being scientists and boys of course as well. If you were to take the numbers 50 years ago I think they would all have been men wouldn't they (Midlands).

Interestingly, although there are more women within professional meteorology today, not least because opportunities for them to enter science are improving, there remains a male bias within amateur meteorology in the United Kingdom.

Discussion and conclusions

A number of continuities and discontinuities in the practices of individual amateur meteorologists have been revealed by the historical approach adopted in this paper although, importantly, the findings suggest that the former are probably more significant than the latter. Like their historical predecessors, modern amateurs invest significant time and effort in their observations and recording, maintaining a routine and displaying significant discipline and commitment in this respect. While contemporary amateur meteorology is dominated by instrumental practices, the observer's eye remains a critical motivation. The sense of being able to contribute to the public good, by making data available beyond the immediate COL community, defines the purpose of many of our interviewees, mirroring the efforts of many historical amateur meteorologists. Women are still in the minority with amateur meteorology remaining a predominantly male domain, although the reasons for this appear to be largely distinct from those of the past.

There are aspects of contemporary amateur meteorology where continuity appears to be less pronounced, although these need further consideration. One of them relates to the role of technology, both in terms of the practices of weather observing (where, for example, the use of automatic weather stations is reshaping in some ways the relationship of observers to the weather) but also in terms of communication between amateur meteorologists, where the opportunities for the exchange of data and experiences of weather events are being enhanced. Another aspect concerns the internal functioning of amateur meteorological organizations. The research revealed a strong ‘community’ within COL, with links very often well-established between members, particularly at a regional level. The extent to which this was the case within amateur meteorological organizations of the past is far less clear from the historical scholarship and, specifically, it would be interesting to establish the nature of the connections between members of the BRO.

Also of interest are the institutional changes in amateur meteorology over the long term, and the reasons for the various phases of amateurization and de-amateurization that this paper has begun to identify. Although it seems that there has always been an amateur interest in meteorology, the institutional forums that represent this interest tend to be somewhat ephemeral. This may of course be a feature of many different kinds of amateur organizations and an issue that might be worth pursuing. COL represents one of the latest manifestations of a long process of amateurization that began with the formation of the Meteorological Society of London, followed by the BRO. Given this past trend of growth and decline in amateur meteorological organizations, it might be interesting to speculate on what the future will hold for COL, particularly in light of its fairly static membership. COL members are all too aware of its ageing membership and there are difficulties in recruiting young members. Although there is a perception that a widespread interest in the weather persists, it is unclear whether this is translating into a serious commitment to daily observation and record-keeping. This trend may signal an impending phase of de-amateurization as highlighted with previous amateur meteorology networks, at least in relation to the specific activity of detailed observation and recording. However, the rise of online weather forums may be indicative of a re-amateurization of amateur meteorology that would also be worth investigating.

  • 1

    Individual interviewees will not be identified, only the region in which they are located, for example, NE for North East region; NW for North West, etc. being shown.