‘Weather watching’, or rather using forecasts of it and then responding so as to maximise plant growth and health, is a central task for most gardeners, especially those growing food. So my next object (no it’s not a weather vane), marks the massive progress there’s been in forecasting over the last 50 or so years; it’s one of the first satellites to be launched with the aim of improving meteorological forecasting, the TIROS-1.

Artist's impression of the TIROS 1. Picture by NASA Kennedy Space Center

Artist’s impression of the TIROS 1. Picture by NASA Kennedy Space Center

Launched way back in 1960, the TIROS Program (Television Infrared Observation Satellite) was NASA’s first experimental step to determine if satellites could be useful in the study of the Earth. At that time, the effectiveness of satellite observations was still unproven. Since satellites were a new technology, the TIROS Program also tested various design issues for spacecraft: instruments, data and operational parameters. The goal was to improve satellite applications for Earth-bound decisions, such as “should we evacuate the coast because of the hurricane?”. The TIROS Program’s first priority was the development of a meteorological satellite information system. Weather forecasting was deemed the most promising application of space-based observations.

TIROS proved extremely successful, providing the first accurate weather forecasts based on data gathered from space. TIROS began continuous coverage of the Earth’s weather in 1962, and was used by meteorologists worldwide. The program’s success with many instrument types and orbital configurations lead to the development of more sophisticated meteorological observation satellites. Read more here.

We gardeners have benefitted enormously from improvements in both long and short-term weather forecasting; I especially like the three-day forecasts broadcast on the BBC here in the UK, which usually turn out to be pretty accurate. Of course, with climate change affecting weather patterns, leading, it seems, to ever-increasing ‘unusual’ weather events, the future challenges for gardeners and growers (as well as the general population) are perhaps greater than they were. The worst effects of extremes of wet, dry, wind, hot and cold can be ameliorated with physical changes to the layouts of our gardens to create ‘micro climates’ and we need to be ready to supply extra water and perhaps food for plants in times of drought.

And in these days of ‘big data’ it is also interesting to see how further technological developments could help to improve farming (and in due course gardening?) practices. So called ‘Cloud Farming’ is being trialled in Kenya, Africa to help small holders monitor and manage key elements of their plots in ‘real time’. As a recent blog post on ‘Can We feed the World?’ says:

‘Although a sophisticated technology relying on expensive high-tech equipment, and thus not practical for the average smallholder farmer, cloud farming is increasing our knowledge of what happens on a farm scale, knowledge which could be useful in providing technical assistance on a broader scale. IBM’s EZ-Farm project, which is currently being piloted in Kenya, aims to explore how advanced data collection and analytics can help farmers monitor farming conditions on their smallholdings. Around the farm, sensors and infra-red cameras are strategically placed to monitor water tank levels, the amount of moisture in the soil, the performance of irrigation equipment, and rates of photosynthesis. This data is then streamed wirelessly to the IBM Cloud and can be accessed by the farmer via a smartphone app. The hope is that with access to such information, farmers can modify their practices and make their farms more productive…’

6928926222_9304a04498_zSo, while a weather satellite might seem a bit removed from the essence of gardening, I think it symbolises both gardeners’ historic need to monitor and forecast the weather (perhaps with something as basic as a weather vane), and our continuing need to do this, using technology to arm us with the information we need in more unpredictable times.

 Old School Gardener