Can You Believe the Weather We’re Having?
The Politics of the Weather Report
Early forecasts from the US Weather Bureau were mostly about the current weather in broad regions, which was gained by ground observations and government planes carrying mail.
The concepts and speculations about micro-weather futures in this article are the result of a design collaboration between Phu Hoang and Rachely Rotem. Together, they codirect the interdisciplinary architecture practice, MODU, which has won numerous international design competitions and awards. MODU was recently awarded a commendation for “21 for 21,” an international award that recognizes architects who will “lead the next generation of architects in the twenty-first century.” MODU has also been the recipient of architecture and weather research grants from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.
Unseasonably cold and below freezing
On February 26, 2015, US Senator James Inhofe famously brought a snowball onto the floor of the Senate as the latest piece of evidence in a long-standing “debate”: Since it was “unseasonably cold and below freezing” in Washington, D.C. that day (20 degrees Fahrenheit), it must mean that global warming was, as the title of his 2012 book argues, “the greatest hoax.” For throwing the snowball onto the floor, Senator Inhofe (the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, no less) was widely ridiculed, even by some members of his own political party. Notwithstanding the fact that global climate change will produce hotter summers and colder winters (due to more moisture in the atmosphere), this political stunt visualized a common argument made by those who seek to disprove climate change. Their central case is, essentially, based on separating weather from climate. Weather is immediate and personally “experienced,” leading to a belief that it is undeniable. Climate, on the other hand, does not appear to occur “right now”; invisible to the naked eye, it is only made knowable by statistics and computational models. Thus, it seems to be susceptible to the fallibility of the scientific community. But this essential depiction of difference—that weather is universal and unequivocal, while climate is abstract and debatable—is perhaps the actual “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”1
The crux of the weather vs. climate “hoax” is not that they are different, because in fact there are important differences between them. But these differences do not support either of the two claims commonly made by climate change skeptics—that global warming is not occurring, or, if it is, that it is not directly linked to human actions. Instead, the differences between weather and climate further support the direct relationship between anthropogenic, or human-influenced, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming in the atmosphere. These differences have important consequences not only for the climate change debate but also for the future of our cities and built environments; thinking about these differences begins with an everyday event occurring in most of our lives—the weather report.
The weather forecast for today is sunny
In the US, the weather report is nearly as old as the country itself. The first edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which included surprisingly accurate weather forecasts, was published in 1792. By the 1840s, the Smithsonian Institution was supplying weather instruments to telegraph companies and had established the country’s first weather observation network, which allowed for daily telegraphic weather reports and charts to be shared nationwide. This regular observation soon led the federal government to begin forecasting the weather. In 1870, a Joint Congressional Resolution required the secretary of war to distribute weather reports of approaching storms through the telegraph system. Twenty years later, a new civilian agency formed a national weather service, the US Weather Bureau (housed in the Department of Agriculture), and its weather reports would become part of citizens’ daily lives for years to come. Recent technological developments in weather forecasting have also stemmed from advancements in communication networks, as was the case with the telegraph system more than a century ago. These developments may radically alter our cities’ relationship to the everyday weather report, as well as to the weather itself. The integration of micro-weather forecasting with mobile technologies has made it possible to know upcoming weather with more immediacy and at a higher resolution than previously possible. Using a smartphone, it is possible to know when it will start to rain in one neighborhood and when that rain cloud will pass to the next neighborhood. Historically, the US National Weather Service provided forecasts based on a grid in which each square measures 7.5 miles on a side. As a result, weather reports were regional and generally the same for an entire city. It is well known, though, that weather can vary considerably over time and distance—in a city like SanFrancisco, it is entirely normal to have different weather in two neighborhoods.This is where micro-weather forecasting comes into play, as it provides weather forecasts with the granularity of 0.6 miles or less. This isn’t simply a convenient precision of information—the high-resolution weather grid can, in fact, be understood as a new kind of urban organization.
In 1955, IBM’s 701 vacuum tube computers were used to provide daily weather forecasts for the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit. Courtesy of IBM.
Micro-weather forecasts are accessible through a wide range of mobile weather apps: BeWeather, Nooly, and Dark Sky, to name just a few. These apps, all developed by private companies, combine raw data from the National Weather Service with “extra” data from an array of privately managed weather sensors, radar, and satellite images. All of this data is processed together using each company’s proprietary computational models. For example, the one thousand National Weather Service monitoring stations have been increased sixfold by WeatherBug’s networks to provide far more finely grained weather forecasts. Such micro-weather forecasts do not provide regional reports. Rather, they focus on cities and often specific economic development sites (e.g., oil fields). If weather forecasting was originally seen as a blanket of even and generalized coverage, the turn toward nongovernmental participation recasts the weather as something of an index of special interests, with localized precision playing a more important role (whether for the purposes of capital, development, or security).
This privatization and particularization of the weather forecast has its roots in the citizen science movement, which began in the 1990s and was made possible by the communication networks of the Internet. The Weather Underground, founded at the University of Michigan (and named after the revolutionist faction of the New Left formed at the same school in the 1960s), allowed individuals to link their personal weather stations to the Internet and to form a weather reporting network with some ten thousand monitoring stations. The exponential multiplication of weather monitoring stations has given rise to the idea that weather is universally experienced in its broader forms (a shared language of weather in which a region experiences a heat wave or a blizzard) but nevertheless subjectively different within the same time period in different areas. Micro-weather urban conditions—shade from tall structures, proximity to water, topographical characteristics—all contribute to differential ranges in temperature, humidity, and air pressure. The daily statement of the “weather forecast for today,” as conceived of in the worldview of micro-weather, would not be summarized with “sunny,” “cloudy,” or “raining,” but with highly specific conditions tailored to GPS locations.
The impact of microclimatic thinking has been changing the design of building mechanical systems for the past two decades. It is no longer the norm to climatize an entire interior space to a constant temperature; contemporary HVAC design incorporates microclimatic differences based on users’ activities in each program. For example, the variation between the indoor temperatures of a public atrium and an office space can be as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The relationship between these generally interior microclimates and the micro-weather that takes place just outside now offers a wide range of potential weather futures, from the socially transformative to the dystopian. Will it be possible for renewable energy building systems (which use solar and wind power) to respond to changes in micro-weather by anticipating and responding before the weather changes? Will we use our smartphones to map a route that accounts for the micro-weather along the way, seeking out better microclimates and thereby relating physical space to its atmospheric experience? In a more dystopian future, will micro-weather reports be used by utility companies to charge higher “surge” pricing in anticipation of inclement weather for a particular neighborhood? In other words, is our urban future one in which businesses can privatize not only the weather report but also the weather? While any of these futures are theoretically possible, it is perhaps more important to understand the role of “futures” in the debate between weather and climate.
We sure could use some rain
As demonstrated by Senator Inhofe, weather occurs now and thus can be “trusted,” while climate occurs in the future or in the abstract and so is treated with extreme skepticism. While it is true that the basic difference between weather and climate is time-based—weather occurs over a one-week period at most, while climate is years, decades, or even millennia long—this difference is not what separates them but instead makes their interdependencepossible. One way to understand this relationship is through the distinction between meteorology, which is the study of conditions occurring in the atmosphere (temperature, humidity, pressure, density, wind speed, etc.), and climatology, which is the study of everything that affects the atmosphere. It is impossible to believe in the science of meteorology without acknowledging the principles of climatology. Current climate modeling science further interrelates weather and climate by using data sets of past weather to generate predictions for future climate.
With the ever-increasing availability of computer power, climate models are increasingly used as an “instant replay” to analyze extreme weather events. These models are being used to show that global warming is directly connected to human activity. This computational method, described by the climatologist Dr. Heidi Cullen as “weather autopsy,” uses data from past extreme weather events to set up two model experiments in which one model includes greenhouse gas emissions and the other does not.2 The results of both models arecompared to understand the risk of future extreme weather events whenassociated with human influence on climate change. The final step is to runthe climate models in a forecasting rather than “autopsy” mode, whichinevitably shows a higher risk in the future when human influence is involved.
Another example of climate as a history of past weather, as well as the interdependent relationship between climate and weather, is demonstrated with recent reanalysis climate modeling. The historian Paul Edwards, in his book A Vast Machine, describes reanalysis as asking the basic question, “Is it possible to have a ‘do-over’?” Up until the later 1980s, climatological stations had their own set of climate data separate from meteorological stations. The concept of the “do-over” relies on rebuilding the entire set of climate data by basing it on past daily weather reports. All of the world’s available weather data is input into supercomputers, which provide the computing power to recreate the history of weather at every grid point and altitude in the world. In essence, weather data can be used to look back in time to allow us to see future weather. Several government agencies (NASA, the National Meteorological Center) have undertaken different reanalysis projects in the past decade. While the results have not yet been sufficient to replace traditional climate data—perhaps due to the current limits of computing power—they have been successful in showing that global warming is directly linked to human activity. Reanalysis models have highlighted an increase in the height of the troposphere (from increased atmospheric heating), which, after isolating all possible natural causes, is attributable to human activity. Edwards describes this computational method as “the future of the past.”3 The future, and now the weather, is not what it used to be.
The eWeather HD app provides micro-weather forecasts at a range of time scales, including hourly forecasts per neighborhood and 365 day weather patterns.
Advancements in computing power are the principal reason why higher-resolution weather models (such as those used in micro-weather forecasts) have become possible. This increase in resolution has also occurred within the climate models themselves, which have less “loss” of information and therefore produce more accurate climate predictions. It is conceivable that the next generation of supercomputers will use the high-resolution data sets from micro-weather forecasts, perhaps combined with the data from citizen scientists’ monitoring stations, to predict future climate change with a much higher degree of accuracy. Being able to “see” weather at finer scales has implications not only for the design of the built environment but also for understanding the interdependent relationship between weather and climate, and thus perhaps politicizing the weather report. If this seems counterproductive, it may in fact be a desirable outcome, as that interdependency makes it more difficult to use the weather forecast to deny climate change. Cullen has proposed that climate forecasts be included in the daily weather report, providing the public with information about how each day’s weather relates both to past weather and future climate change. The saying, “We sure could use some rain” would be contextualized in the weather report with daily climate analysis. In this way, the weather report—especially with the advent of micro-weather apps—would reinforce the connection between the Anthropocene’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
The BeWeather app, using Weather Underground weather data, provides a wide range of micro-weather forecasts, including hourly weather forecasts per neighborhood, minute-by-minute radar maps, webcam feeds from weather monitor stations, and data from personal weather stations.
Can you believe the weather we’re having?
Since climate models are increasingly based on past weather forecasts, what is the future for the weather report? If micro-weather apps are already part of our everyday urban lives, what will the future hold for weather forecasts? A current technology developed by the mobile technology company Ericsson offers one possible future. Ericsson’s micro-weather technology, called MINI-LINKS, uses microwave links that are already part of mobile phone networks to monitor the local weather at every phone’s location. Microwave links in a telecom network operate in the electromagnetic spectrum. When rain passes through the path of microwave links, a degradation of the mobile signal occurs. Low-cost sensors can be added to phones to measure temperature, pressure, and wind as well. These recordings can provide information about local weather, and, multiplied by the millions of phone signals in a city, present the possibility of an extremely high-resolution weather forecasting network. The system is currently being run in a pilot location in Gothenburg, Sweden. Ericsson sees this technology as having the wide-ranging potential to save countless lives from extreme weather events, manage urban waste water systems, and cut business costs by minimizing weather-related transportation delays.
While the future that Ericsson imagines for its MINI-LINK technology is socially and economically important, the technology also has the potential to radically change how we experience weather in our cities, and even within the interior environments of buildings, blurring the boundary between them. Since the microwave links and weather sensors of MINI-LINK phones would always be on—outside and inside—millions of smartphones would constantly monitor the weather seamlessly between them. Paired with emerging technologies from Apple and Google that map indoor spaces (Indoor Survey and The Cartographer, respectively), the MINI-LINKS could provide weather information for indoor maps. It would be possible to know the temperature and humidity of all the interior spaces of a city, from offices to restaurants to subway cars. This knowledge would change our perception of the most resolute urban boundary—the border between the “known” outdoor weather and unknown indoor, mechanically climatized spaces. The indoors would have its own history of interior weathers available to guide daily decisions. What is the average indoor temperature in the office of a recent job offer? Which subway line offers the coolest route to get to work during the summer? Which retail stores are the worst offenders, keeping their doors open in the summer and thereby increasing the urban heat island effect?
The resulting “indoor city” recorded by millions of mobile weather stations has fascinating potentials for architects, planners, and engineers to reconceptualize the relationship between the city and the environment. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has defined two kinds of atmospheres: the meteorological atmosphere and the interior atmosphere. Sloterdijk believes that people do not react to objects and space but instead to atmospheres.4 The “indoor city” has the potential to synthesize meteorological conditions with interior atmospheres. It could be possible to “design with weather” such that the decisions made by architects and designers would also account for their meteorological effects—material choices, volumes of space, ceiling heights, etc.
While designing with weather would introduce atmosphere as part of a design methodology, it should not be predicated on yet more techniques of environmental control for architects and engineers. Rather, it should highlight the importance of the variability of interior micro-climates and exterior micro-weather. Instead of the static and constant temperatures instituted by modernism, micro-climates celebrate variability, differentiation, and subjectivity. Not all spaces should be climatized the same way; a building’s mechanical systems should be designed to produce mediated environments rather than manufactured weather. The laws of heat transfer that govern the design of building envelopes—namely, that the boundary of a building is where energy exchange occurs—could also inform the organization and morphology of architecture’s interior spaces. Mediated exchanges between the different zones of indoor weathers, as well as between indoor and outdoor weathers, could create invisible differences between a building’s user groups, programs, or functions. Strategically designed exchanges between indoor weather zones and outdoor weather conditions could be developed using weather data from Ericsson’s MINI-LINK networks. The urban landscape of hermetically sealed buildings could be replaced by a gradient of semi-exterior “weather rooms” calibrated for each climate zone. The everyday question “Can you believe the weather we are having?” could be reflected in the design of cities and architecture.
Architecture, rather than striving for environmental separation, can do more to mediate between different weather conditions. The mediation, or negotiation, of architecture with weather could draw on the properties of air as matter. Reyner Banham believed that mediation was part of architecture and described three forms of it: conservative, selective, and generative.5 Conservative mediation occurs when a surface (like a Trombe wall or a mass floor) provides thermal lag to store heat and radiate it back. Selective mediation, on the other hand, uses adaptation in walls, floors, and roofs to redirect the environment, as with a responsive brise-soleil system. Generative mediation occurs when a surface is sealed in order to maximize the efficiency of building mechanical systems. Selective and generative mediation supported Banham’s assertion that the environment has an external relationship to architecture, which led to mediation of the environment primarily through high-tech systems. Rather than see the three forms of mediation as discrete, the synthesis of conservative and selective mediation offers a productive way forward to adapt to weather. Instead of seeing this path as either dependent on technology (selective) or too focused on passive strategies (conservative), there is the option of synthesizing active with passive, or high-tech with low-tech, systems. Banham’s important contribution of a “well-tempered environment” can perhaps transform into a “multi-tempered environment.” Architecture and weather can react to each other in atmospheric exchanges between hybridized active environments and meteorological conditions, made possible by high-resolution micro-weather networks that treat outdoor and indoor weathers as two sides of the same coin.
Weather forecast for tomorrow: bright
Senator Inhofe probably did not anticipate that the central argument of his snowball performance could be countered with something as simple as the very weather report that he saw as evidence for his denialism. The promise of micro-weather apps is not only more weather information; pairing them with other technological advances in climate models (high-resolution climate analysis, reanalysis models) and mobile technologies (MINI-LINKS, indoor mapping) allows for transformative social ideas. This could not come a moment too soon, as environmental imbalances are at an unprecedented level (and the complicity of buildings in those imbalances having been thoroughly demonstrated). We are beyond the point at which the methodologies of sustainability—using techno-managerial techniques based on the assumption of environmental balance—offer a viable solution. Resilience thinking, with its assumption that the climate is extremely unbalanced, can mediate future extreme weather events through strategies of mediation and adaptation. The notion of resilience is subtly different from sustainability, which argues that it may still be possible to return the environment to its natural balance. Resilience looks for ways to manage environmental imbalance, including raising buildings above the ground, using natural wetlands as a form of “soft” infrastructure, and returning sand dunes that previously existed to urban, or suburban, development. These strategies, which accept that architecture can no longer be a static environment, selectively allow weather forces into architectural interiors and adapt to their variable effects.
The microwave nodes of Ericsson’s MINI-LINK technology are integrated into existing cellular networks andprovide the possibility of high-resolution micro-weather forecasting.
While technology has offered exciting opportunities in this regard, the future depends on the sociocultural practices of architects and designers for long-term, viable directions. It is only with the contribution of the cultural and critical methods of design that the relationship between architecture and weather can truly be rethought. Architecture and its relationship to weather is first and foremost a sociocultural project. Architects, planners, and engineers need to engage with the active design of environments that mediate, rather than separate from, natural forces. What this requires is to see technological advances as social instigators, made possible only by synthesizing high-tech systems with “low-tech” passive design strategies. The crisis of climate change is not simply an environmental project; it is also a cultural project, one that requires all of the resources of the varied design disciplines. The undeniable truth of climate change can learn from weather itself—requiring design strategies that are heterogeneous, differentiated, mediated, and adaptive. All of these challenges and opportunities can be “read” every day in the weather report.
1. James Inhofe, “The Science of Climate Change,” Senate floor speech, quoted by Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 84. 2.Heidi Cullen, The Weather of the Future (New York: Harper, 2011), 53.
3. Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 325. 4. Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 71–95. 5. Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (London: Architectural Press, 1969).
This article was originally published in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, ed. James Graham et al. (New York and Zurich: The Avery Review and Lars Müller Publishers, 2016.
Phu Hoang codirects MODU as an architect with extensive national and international design experience. He is a recipient of the Architectural League Prize and the Core77 Design Award. Before starting his first solo practice in 2006, he served as a director at Bernard Tschumi Architects. He holds a bachelor of science from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlantaand a master of architecture from Columbia University in New York. He is currently an adjunct assistant professor teaching advanced design studios in the Graduate School of Architecture,Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.