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Don’t believe everything TV weather forecasters say

NORRIE3699/Getty Images passenger jet at high altitude
JET STREAM: Based on the best information possible, the jet stream, a meteorological phenomenon, was not named after jet planes — despite what TV personalities might say.
And we’re not just talking about their weather predictions, either.

You won’t make another dime farming by reading this story. But you might sleep better. After all, who wants to wake up wondering, “How did the jet stream get its name?”

I watch the 10 p.m. news for weather reports. One night the weatherman got wound up explaining big cold vs. warm swings this spring, talking about the jet stream. He said, “The jet stream got its name because jet planes fly there.”

That didn’t ring true, but no, it didn’t keep me up all night. The next day, while talking about real weather issues with Beth Hall, the Indiana state climatologist, I couldn’t resist asking if that statement was accurate. Was the jet stream named after jet planes?

Chasing a rabbit

Hall wasn’t stumped, but I caught her off guard. It didn’t ring true to her either, but she didn’t have a definitive answer. I told her not to worry. I was just curious — it might come in handy in a trivia game.

Within the hour, she responded. Her team at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, located at Purdue University, did some “research.” According to a Chicago Tribune article, backed up by other internet searches, German meteorologist Heinrich Seilkopf is credited with first using the term “jet stream.” He wrote a research paper about fast-moving winds high up in the atmosphere and described them with the German word stahlstromung, which literally means “jet streaming.” However, he wasn’t the first to discover these winds.

According to Wikipedia, British meteorologist James Glaisher made the initial discovery in the 1860s using weather balloons. But Wasaburo Oishis, a Japanese meteorologist, is often credited with their discovery in the 1920s since he defined them more completely. However, he only reported his findings in a unique Japanese language, and the American military never learned of it. The military discovered the jet stream in 1944 when World War II jet fighters encountered difficulty keeping speed once they reached high-altitude wind currents.

Which brings us back to square one: What was named after what? Again, according to Wikipedia, Frank Whittle, an Englishman, received a patent for a turbojet engine in 1939, but he didn’t do a test flight until 1941. Meanwhile, a German, Hans von Ohain, designed the first jet engine to fly in, you guessed it — 1939, the same year another German gushed out a German word for jet stream.

Ah, but it was early in the 1940s before jets flew as high as the jet stream. Another “reliable” website, Wonderopolis, says the jet stream is about 7 miles high, gushing at speeds of 100 miles per hour and capable of speeds of 200 miles per hour.

Back to reality

So, where does that leave my quest for knowledge? Hall and her staff determined that the word “jet” means a stream of liquid, gas or small solid particles forcefully shooting forth from a nozzle or other orifice. She concludes that the German meteorologist coined the term “jet stream” based on the definition of the word “jet,” long before jet planes flew high enough to verify its existence, even though other meteorologists already theorized it was there.

Here is my take-home kernel of wisdom. Don’t take everything TV weather forecasters say at face value. And you thought I just didn’t believe their weather forecasts!

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

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