Gordon Tripp is the author of The Weathermen*, a laypersons guide that covers 2,000 years, exploring the many strands that tell the story of weather history – recording instruments, charts, wind circulation, weather diaries, jet streams and so on. The book also documents the lives of over 100 men whose biographies provide the signposts along the way. These were essentially men of their times, be that of The Enlightenment, the Crimean War, the days of the British Empire or of two World Wars. In this article, Gordon tells us about his life, passion for weather and his career in which he specialised in meteorology.
I always had an interest in the weather and from that strange rag-bag of childhood memories that we all carry, I can pluck a picture of my mother pointing out different cloud types. More clearly I remember, before my teens, taking pictures – black and white of course – of various cloud formations to produce my own cloud atlas. I wonder where it went!
But the weather became a more important matter when I joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1951. I trained as a navigator and immediately the weather was a central, pass/fail subject – and a very interesting one too. Life centred round the “triangle of velocities” made up of an aircraft’s speed and direction through the air, speed over the ground and the line joining the two which was the wind velocity.
On graduation I joined a squadron flying Canberra aircraft. These light bombers operated at heights well over 40,000 feet and I recall after one flight having my navigation chart confiscated since I had recorded a wind speed of over 200 knots. I cannot remember having heard the term jet stream (see tWC issue 2) used when under training but I rapidly became interested in it thereafter!
I subsequently spent most of my flying time at low level over the sea in an Shackleton aircraft. Flight times of over 18 hours were not uncommon and there were none of the satellite navigation aids so familiar to us today. Accurate forecasts, weather warnings and an ability to “read” the weather were essential. They were, literally, matters of life and death. I was fortunate in enjoying postings across the world, in the Mediterranean, Australia, Nigeria and Madagascar. How I wish I had taken more photos! Just one example; I remember the many water spouts seen in the Beira Channel when flying from Madagascar, the “Great Red Island”.
After a long and happy career in the RAF I joined a developing world charity. It may seem that there was quite a gulf between these two activities but a common thread running through both was the weather. Visiting projects in Africa, South America and Asia one was immediately aware of the huge impact it had on all those living on the margins. Nowhere was this more so than for those on the Indian Sub-Continent where the variable nature of the southwest monsoon dictates feast, flood or famine.
I have been most fortunate, as a third career, to give talks and run courses on many aspects of weather and climate. There is no better way to learn a subject than to teach it! And course delegates almost always fell into the “interested amateur” category; that group well served by organisations such as the Royal Meteorological Society and theWeather Club (and I speak as member number 71!). Courses, many under the auspices of the Workers Educational Association, have included basic meteorology, extreme weather, the impact of climate on the life-cycle of societies and one entitled “Painting the Weather”. This I ran with another tutor, Dalila Castelijn, hopefully strengthening the bridge that must exist between art and science. Throughout, I was conscious of the problem many participants had in seeing the historical framework within which our understanding of the weather has developed. I hope my book, “The Weathermen – Their Story”, may help fill the gap.
How lucky I am to be to continue to follow such a fascinating hobby. As that great collector of rainfall data, George Symons, famously said: “There is no great goal, only the innocent enjoyment of an inexhaustible subject.” I know just how he felt!
* ’The Weathermen - Their Story’ is published by the Book Guild (www.bookguild.co.uk)