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I receive a lot of weather mail and I do my best to reply as soon as possible. Last winter, I read a very interesting email just before I went on vacation. I wanted to get to it when I returned, so I put it somewhere safe. Do you think I could find it after seven days of sun and sand? (These things happen as you get older.) I came across the email last night. Mr. Fougere, my sincere apologies for the delayed reply.
Mr. Robert Fougere wrote:
“We had a drum (baskets, I understand) system mounted on a high pole in this area of Isle Madame, many moons ago. It was used to predict weather events, so say the older people of the area. Would you have the science behind this system or could you direct me to readings on this old manner of forecasting weather event… ?”
In the mid-19th century, meteorology and forecasting were still in their formative years, but, much like today, the primary mission of the service was to get the weather word out to the public quickly.
By 1876, public weather forecasts were issued from Toronto at 10 a.m., every day except Sunday and covered the following 24 hours. Getting the weather word out usually meant sending the latest forecast by telegraph. In most cases, the person at the other end would post the forecasts outside the local telegraph office, post office, school or railway station.
Things were a bit different in farming communities along rail lines between Windsor, N.S., and Halifax. An ingenious system was developed in 1884 to get the weather word out. After receiving a dispatch from the central weather office in Toronto, railway agents placed large metal discs on the engine or baggage cars. Each disc represented the approaching weather. To farmers working their fields, a full moon chugging by signalled sunny skies, a crescent moon meant showers, and a star meant prolonged rainy periods.
Operators at the many warning stations at ports and harbours along the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic seaboard used a similar method to warn sailors of approaching gales. The system of cautionary storm signals was quite simple. Once operators received the daily forecast, they raised a wicker basket, a cone or a drum from a mast or pole, representing a different weather pattern: a basket implied fair weather, cone for caution and a drum to signal danger.
This simple system of storm warnings proved so effective that it was not until the 1950s when the last cautionary storm station, with its wicker baskets and signal drums, was decommissioned.
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Cindy Day is the chief meteorologist for SaltWire Network.