A Health and Human Services staff member shows a coronavirus outbreak map in Washington, D.C., February 2020
Carlos Barria / Reuters

In 1900, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history hit Galveston, Texas. The storm, estimated to have been a Category 4, all but washed the city away. An estimated 8,000 people died, and even more lives would likely have been lost if Isaac Cline, the chief of the Texas section of the U.S. Weather Service, had not spent the day before the hurricane’s arrival walking around and urging people to seek higher ground. He did so on little more than a hunch based on the fact that a bad storm had recently passed over Cuba. The science of weather forecasting had yet to emerge; guesswork was the best anyone could do.

Over a century later, hurricane forecasts are a central feature of summer and fall for millions of Americans. Such forecasts, along with those predicting winter storms, tornadoes, and floods, have saved an untold number of lives and many billions of dollars. Even fair-weather forecasts play an important role in modern life. Take the airline industry, for example. “Even when you’ve got clear skies, that has an economic benefit,” explained Greg Romano of the National Weather Service, “because then you don’t necessarily need to plan to reroute as much,

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