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Dr. Austin’s article in Physics Today

Below is an excerpt to an article written by Dr. Elizabeth Austin, CCM of WeatherExtreme Ltd. and Dr. Peter Hildebrand, owner of a private consulting meteorological firm out of Washington DC. The article was published in Physics today and is titled “The Art and Science of Forensic Meteorology”.

During a severe drought in upstate New York in the late 1800s, a Presbyterian minister, Duncan McLeod, organized a community prayer for rain. Within an hour, small clouds had formed and the temperature had begun to fall. A few hours later a severe thunderstorm moved through the region, bringing almost two inches of rain and washing out a highway bridge. Worse, though, was the bolt of lightning that hit and burned to the ground a barn owned by Phinneas Dodd.

The sole objector to the community prayer, Dodd did not believe in tampering with Mother Nature. He asked McLeod for $5000 to replace the barn, and when McLeod refused, Dodd slapped him with a lawsuit. It was one of the first court cases involving weather and the law. 1 , 2 , 3 In the end, “the defense counsel finally persuaded the court to dismiss the action on the grounds that defendants had prayed only for rain, and that the lightning had been a gratuitous gift of God.” 1

Today forensic meteorologists are regularly called on to help attorneys understand the impact of weather on events. But rather than invoke the supernatural as in Dodd v. McLeod, they rely on scientific methods and techniques. Forensic meteorologists answer questions such as the following: What was the weather at the time of the accident or event? Would the individuals involved have reasonably been expected to know of the impending weather? If an aircraft, ship, automobile, or other vehicle was involved, where was it and how was it moving? The underlying question is, of course, Why did the accident happen?

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