Abundant, Complex Risk

Complex systems abound with risk.  Their many components interact in multiple, variable ways that make them hard to understand and predict. Risks that crystallise also interact and cause other risks to occur.

The weather is one such complex system.  Hard to predict, and hard to understand exactly how changes to the weather and to climate pan out, and where the tipping points are.

Measurement of weather really only started in the 17th century, but it was one individual, Robert FitzRoy, who moved the whole science and understanding forward in the mid-1800s.  He was a navy man, and captained the Beagle (he only took Charles Darwin along to have someone to talk science with on the long journey that ended up in the Galapagos).  He was also Governor of New Zealand, and later became an MP and a Vice-Admiral.  But it is his contribution to the understanding of the weather for which he is remembered.

FitzRoy invented the term “weather forecast”, founded the forerunner of the Met Office, produced the world’s first daily weather forecast (it started appearing in the Times from 1861), produced special barometers and gave them to fishing ports, and set up coastal stations that used the wireless telegraph to transmit data to the centre and enable forecasting.  To understand complexity and the risks within complex systems, you need data to analyse and understand how the system works.

He was opposed and derided by many for a lot of this work.  For example, after banning ships going out when there were gale warnings, he earned the anger of the owners of fishing fleets, although not that of the fishermen who actually had to go out.  Queen Victoria once requested a personal forecast before setting out for her palace on the Isle of Wight.

Nevertheless, Parliament refused to fund FitzRoy’s activities because MPs claimed that it was impossible to predict the weather.  So, he used his own money to set up these systems which were essentially a public service.  As a result, he became impoverished and suffered severe depression.  On 30th April 1865, he slit his own throat with a razor.  Scientists (including Darwin, with whom FitzRoy had fallen out) clubbed together to provide a fund for his widow and daughter, and Queen Victoria let them live for free in apartments in Hampton Court.

Sources:   La Voz de Galicia, Wikipedia


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