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The Understudied and Underappreciated Pioneer Behind the Development of Modern Weather Forecasting

February 10th, 2021

Less than a century ago any forecast of the weather was generally considered a practical impossibility. Today’s routine availability of accurate weather forecasts represents one of the most unheralded scientific advances of the last century. Reginald Sutcliffe and the Invention of Modern Weather Systems Science by Jonathan E. Martin recounts the life and scientific contributions of Reginald Sutcliffe, an unsung hero who laid the groundwork of modern weather forecasting.

The book makes the case that three important advances guided the development of the modern dynamic meteorology and that Sutcliffe was the pioneer in all three of these foundational developments: the application of the quasi-geostrophic simplification to the equations governing atmospheric behavior, adoption of pressure as the vertical coordinate in analysis, and development of a diagnostic equation for vertical air motions. These very developments, in addition to enabling the revolution in weather forecasting, have also been employed in our interrogation of the Earth’s changing climate and now offer the best tools we have to peer into its long-term future.

This work not only details Sutcliffe’s life and his ideas, but also illuminates the impact of social movements and the larger forces that propelled him on his consequential trajectory. It incorporates the reflections of the protagonist on his own work and on the development of the field, such as the prescient prediction of a future in which “weather consultant services” would monetize the need for forecasts and data in industry, markets, tourism, and even professional sports, thereby extending the lifetime of the forecasting enterprise indefinitely.

In an age where nearly everyone can cast a quick glance at their phone to acquire accurate weather forecast information, where responsible governments seek scientific answers regarding the possible ramifications of global warming, and where an enormous fraction of the global economy depends on the current and future weather, Sutcliffe’s influence on the modern world cannot be overstated.


“An advancing world demanded better weather forecasts, but meteorology was in a rut. Then along came Reginald Sutcliffe. This thoroughly accessible, meticulously researched, and inspiring twentieth-century journey reveals how wonderfully diverse factors such as geopolitics, community action, sport, a visitor to Malta, underemployment, family, and war engineered this giant of the meteorological world. Discover how his relentless endeavours in understanding and application genuinely have improved quality of life for us all.”

—Timothy Hewson, Principal Scientist, European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts



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