The Beaufort Scale

Photo courtesy of Phil Taylor, an environmental data scientist in Edinburgh, Scotland

Talking about the weather is usually a sign of conversational desperation and that is particularly true in California. The weather patterns here are fairly regular and predictable. Recently, however, a long series of very stormy and rainy weather has buffeted California. Watching the trees bend and sway in the gusty winds reminded me of the Beaufort scale.

The Beaufort scale is a visual index used to measure wind speed. British Admiral Francis Beaufort developed this scale in 1805 and the Royal Navy later adopted it. Beaufort developed this scale so that people could describe the speed of the wind with reference to some objective scale. He used common and familiar indicators to delineate wind speed, such as how much a flag blew in the wind or how much smoke rising from a chimney scattered in the breeze.

Up to that time, the amount and speed of the wind, very important information for ships under canvas sails, was prone to highly subjective descriptions. The “brisk breeze” for one reporter might be “near gale force” for another.  

The scale ranges from 0 (calm) to 12 (hurricane) and provides an easy way for sailors, pilots, and meteorologists to assess quickly the strength of winds. Now the Beaufort scale goes up to a level 19, though these are wind levels only measured at sea in incredibly fierce storms. It has also been extended so that, in addition to the visual description, there is an associate wind speed as measured by weather speed instruments, such as an anemometer.

This progression also illustrates the way that science advances from observation through quantification. And it also demonstrates how that the development of tools like an anemometer are needed for these advances.

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