Weather Forecasts, and What We Now Know in the BBC’s Superb “Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey”.

Orbit: Earth's extraordinary journeyLast autumn, Kate Humble presented a one-off programme on BBC2 called Will It Snow? The question it asked was, is it possible to make long-range weather forecasts? And the answer was an emphatic No.

Weather patterns are subject to what chaos theory dubbed the butterfly effect. A butterfly beats its wings off the coast of Tokyo and six months later there’s a hurricane in Florida.

The problem is, every time you try to make a set of predictions you need to factor in about a dozen variables. If any one of those variables behaves slightly differently than expected, then that will have a knock-on effect on half a dozen other variables.

And each of those will affect half a dozen other variables, each. Any number of which will eventually come back to radically affect many of those original variables a few weeks or months later.

Any mid to long-range predictions therefore will have been rendered completely useless. And that’s assuming there’s only a slight variation in one of the original twelve. Invariably, there are innumerable small variations across the board.

So whilst it is possible to make accurate predictions over a four or five day period, because you can allow for those slight variations, over anything more than a few weeks those small changes will come to have huge and completely unpredictable ramifications.

This topic was treated in a much more measured way when Humble teamed up with Helen Czerski for their three part series, Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey. During which, they followed our planet as it made one of its annual orbits around the Sun.

Using various exotic locations across the globe to illustrate the different phenomena they were exploring, they combined exactly the right mix of glossy, travelogue locations and fascinating, sober scientific explanations.

We learnt and were shown how the Earth’s tilt is responsible for the annual seasons, and discovered how it, the tilt, is one of three elements that determine when and why our planet experiences sporadic Ice Ages. Crucially, they kept the science accessible without in any way becoming patronizing.

For not withstanding our inability to ever be in a position to make long-range weather forecasts, for the first time in our history we can provide a scientific explanation for a huge range of the weather phenomena that govern life on this planet.

Though the Earth’s tilt has long been guessed at, it is only now that we understand definitively that it has a 41,000 year cycle, during which it moves from an angle of 24.5 degrees to 22 and back again, and that currently it’s at 23.5°. Likewise, whilst tornadoes and monsoons have long since been marveled at, today we can provide a scientific explanation as to how and why they take place. And although we’re never going to able to say exactly when and where they are going to happen, discovering what we can and can’t predict is the most valuable gift of all that science had given us.

Once again, the BBC took us on a guided tour of what we now know, and how it is that we know it. It’s an area they’ve become increasingly impressive in, and there’s a distinct sense that, as far as scientific programmes on television are concerned, we’re living in something of a golden era.

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