Observing clouds

Forecasting hurricanes in the Antilles (Caribbean) became an obsession in the late 19th century.  In Cuba, Pearl of the Antilles, there were two meteorological centers which contrasted in orientation even as they pursued a single objective — hurricane forecasting. The Havana Physical Meteoric Observatory  (OFMH, Observatorio Físico –Meteorológico de Habana) founded by Andres Poey represented the interests of the Creole bourgeoisie so it was positivist in nature with a worldwide perspective. Its friendly rival, the Belen College Observatory (OCB, Observatorio del Colegio de Belen) was established by the Society of Jesus for educational purposes, but eventually it attended to Spain’s naval and maritime needs. Its director was Fr. Benito Viñes, SJ.

Significantly, the need for observatories came about because of educational reform, not scientific policy.

Political conditions were hardly conducive for those engaged in meteorological endeavors because the Cubans were waging their 10-year anti-colonial war (1868-1878) against Spain. Nevertheless, with unassailable persistence the OFMH set up a loose network of stations all over the island to collect meteorological and nephological observations along with systematic studies of lightning, rainbows and atmospheric electricity, which were published in the “Gaceta de la Habana” from 1862 to 1865.

Director Poey had an ambitious plan of creating a system of observatories throughout Spain’s ex-colonies in South America, including Mexico. He was in touch with scientific institutions of these independent republics.He travelled to Peru and Mexico when the latter was briefly under French occupation. He became a member of the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics.  The Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba were not at all pleased.

Director Poey published an annual report in 1869, the first and last, and was summarily dismissed the following year.  As a result, the OFMH lost its importance and was eventually attached to the University of Havana. Historians say there were political reasons for Poey’s downfall. He did not hide his anti-clergy sentiments and, because the OFMH represented Creole interests, Spanish colonial authorities suspected it had links with the Cuban revolution.

The Royal Economic Society was supportive of the OFMH because its atmospheric observations were vital  to the sugar industry. Although progressive landowners supplied the observatory with the latest equipment, colonialism itself created obstacles for the Creole economic elite to guarantee the success of the observatory, or any other scientific enterprise for that matter. Neither could they protect Andre Poey from his political foes.

Under Poey’s watch the OFMH compiled 176 complete booklets of original observations between 1862 and 1869. There were 89 dossiers which contained information about barometric curves, solar radiation, vapor and water pressure, relative humidity,  wind velocity and direction, as well as the quantities and trajectory of cumulous, cirrocumulus, and cirrus clouds and other atmospheric variables, indispensable information for tracking hurricanes approaching Cuba.

However, an inventory taken by auditors after Poey was relieved revealed a huge quantity of notes and booklets containing regular and systematic observations that had remained unpublished. Dr. Anduaga said that might be due “…in part, to a combination of personal, financial, and administrative reasons, but also to a conception that scientific enterprise valued investigative freedom more than functionary discipline.”

However, the author emphasized: “As a point of reference, the Spanish academic network of stations and the Observatory of Madrid did not surpass the OFMH in a variety of observations.” (more)

(Source: Anduaga, Aitor, Cyclones and Earthquakes, ADEMU Press, 2017)