Thoughts on the Beaufort Scale

The Beaufort Scale measures wind speed by its visible effects on the ocean. Developed by a British Admiral in 1805, the scale goes from 0 (Calm: Smoke rises vertically) to 12 (Hurricane: Huge waves. Air is filled with driving spray, greatly reducing visibility.) For a large ship – a man of war – the range of 1 – 12 meant wind “just sufficient to give steerage” to “that which no canvas sails could withstand.” (

The Beaufort Scale notes surface water conditions, from 1 (ripples without crests) to 12 (huge waves), but does not attempt to describe what’s happening under the surface. Here there are ripples, waves, breaking waves, undertow, seas, swells, tides, and ocean currents, to name a few. Breaking waves can be further described as spilling or rolling, plunging or dumping, or surging. (

For most of us, ocean currents are both out of sight and out of mind. But they’re very important. An ocean current is continuous, directed movement of ocean water. The currents are generated from the forces acting upon the water like the Earth’s rotation, the wind, the temperature, salinity (hence isopycnal) differences and the gravitation of the moon. The depth contours, the shoreline and other currents influence the current’s direction and strength. The meshing of all of these characteristics is what creates the great flow of the global conveyor belt which plays a dominant part in the climate of many of the Earth’s regions. (

I worry that most people, most of the time, worry only about the surface conditions of the world around us – news from yesterday’s economy, today’s politics — a focus on yesterday and today, but not tomorrow or next week. After all, Sir Francis Beaufort was concerned with sailing ships safely, not with understanding oceanography.

We need deeper understandings of the world we live in – not just the physical world, but as Herbert Simon said in “The Sciences of the Artificial,” the world of human artifacts, whether our economies, our societies, or indeed our civilizations.

One thought on “Thoughts on the Beaufort Scale

  1. Andrew Sullivan has an interesting, related post today: Why To Pass Cap And Trade During A Heat Wave

    Brad Plumer reads through a new study showing that views on climate change correlate with local weather. The study finds that:
    “For each three degrees that local temperature rises above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is ‘solid evidence’ that the earth is getting warmer.”

    Plumer speculates:

    Maybe this explains why national surveys that ask people whether they believe in global warming tend to fluctuate fairly significantly, even over a few short months’ time.

    Bonus finding: This local-weather effect is strongest on people who aren’t particularly partisan, and it’s pretty much non-existent for people who identify strongly with one party or the other. Committed Republicans tuning into Rush aren’t likely to believe in man-made climate change no matter how sweaty it gets, while ardent Democrats won’t stop listening to Al Gore just because there’s a cold snap the day he’s testifying before Congress. But for many people, however irrational, this stuff appears to have a fair-sized impact.