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Alligator and the Weather: Questions & Answers

Before a search plan for the lost Civil War submarine Alligator could be developed, Alligator hunters had to know more about the weather conditions surrounding the sub’s loss in April 1863.  So, they turned to James Eberwine, Marine and Hurricane Program leader at the NOAA National Weather Service office in Mt. Holly, N.J. for help.  Below, he responds to questions about weather and the Alligator.

Question:  What was the state of weather forecasting during the Civil War?

Answer:  Actually, weather forecasting was in its infancy prior to the Civil War, and when the war began appropriations ceased, and service was mostly discontinued. Beforehand, going back to 1753, during the colonial times, the only country-wide organization was the Post Office. Benjamin Franklin, who was appointed Postmaster-General of the Colonies in 1753, used his contacts with postmasters and shipmasters for research on progression of cyclones and ocean currents. As we continue through the years, in 1817, Heinrich Wilhelm Brandes (1777-1834), a German meteorologist and mathematician, drew weather maps, invented isobars (1820), discovered cyclonic wind circulation, rediscovered progression of cyclones, and proposed a meteorological service for the study of storms.

In 1834, James Pollard Espy (1785-1860), chairman of the joint committee to the American Philosophical Society and the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, established a network of observation stations to study storms. Weather maps were being drawn as a result of the network. In 1840 A paper was written showing the storm with isobars and isotherms, essentially as in present day weather maps.  (Source: Monthly Weather Review, January 1931 - Editor: Alfred J Henry)

The beginning of the National Weather Service as we know it today started on February 9, 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a joint resolution of Congress authorizing the Secretary of War to establish a national weather service. (Source: History of the National Weather Service - NOAA)  Also in 1870, the United States was attempting to recover from the most devastating war in the history of the country. The Civil War remained fresh in the minds of the U.S. citizens, especially in the ruins of the Confederacy, where reconstruction was drawing to a close. So, to answer the question about the state of weather forecasting during the Civil War, it was poor to say the least!

Q:  Is it possible to create an accurate picture of a storm that took place more than a century ago?

A:  I guess we'll never be able to create an exact picture of the storm that existed, but we can (using ships logs and what few sources were available) get an idea of the conditions, and then, knowing how the storms develop today, reconstruct what it may have been. The ship’s logs are extremely important, not only from one vessel but several if you can get them. Also, when looking at April 1863, during the war, letters were written to loved ones telling of a cold and snowy severe storm or extreme conditions in Virginia and North Carolina. From those letters we have some idea of what it was on land after the storm had moved through the western Atlantic.

Q:  What tools and information are available to modern mariners to help them avoid the fate of the Alligator?

A.  The National Weather Service ( has an absolutely terrific network of information, which can help save lives and vessels. But as we have seen from Katrina, we must take actions to avoid such situations. The Ocean Prediction Center of NOAA is a tremendous source of information for the mariner who plys the nearshore waters, and is traveling to the distant ports around the world. The dedication of the staff is without question, both from a national standpoint down to the local Forecast Office such as that one I work at in Mt. Holly. When I give presentation to the mariners, I don't spend as much time explaining what makes the wind that generates the waves, but rather where to find the information. They (mariners) are in awe of the many resources in place by NOAA today. I tell them our goal as marine forecasters is to insure that when they leave the dock, they return home safely! 

Q:  How can people protect themselves from severe weather?

A:  Know what is indigenous to their area--earthquakes, tornadoes, tropical storms, etc. And as I mentioned above, become familiar with what resources NOAA has available on the Web site ( and follow the instructions of the National Weather Service and also local emergency managers. Stay in touch with the Coast Guard and don't be afraid to cancel a boating trip if the conditions are going to be marginal. Know your limitations as a captain or small boat owner and NEVER go out in conditions because you are being pressured to do so. AND always make sure you have personal flotation device (lifejacket) for every passenger on board and make sure the children wear them.