“Unless it was about to cause you bodily harm, rot your rhubarb on the stalk, or carry off your children, weather ought either to be celebrated or ignored.” Tom Robbins
What would our daily conversations be if we didn’t at least once mention the weather? It affects our lives in so many ways from day to day or planning a holiday. ‘It’s too cold, too hot!’ ‘We haven’t seen rain for a while’. We have observed and recorded our weather for millennia - ancient civilisations would record and predict weather patterns using their observations in astronomy, astrology, and changes in the seasons.
Philately, or the collection and study of stamps offers a different and unusual way of learning and understanding our weather processes and systems here on Earth and even how space weather can affect us. This branch of philately or stamp collecting is called Meteo-philately and covers a huge and diverse range of topics including satellites, the Ozone layer, climate, weather, meteorologists, climatologists, space weather and weathervanes. The list is vast, with thousands of stamps issued globally from Australia to Zimbabwe -even the British Antarctic Territory- celebrating or commemorating these subjects (photo 1).
The stamps, the covers (envelopes) and even the pictorial cancellation mark can unravel a historical and educational story about a particular topic or event in meteorological history. The illustrations on the left-hand side of the cover called the cachet are often beautiful and colourful and depicts the event being celebrated or commemorated (photo 2).
We are certainly well acquainted with seasonal weather here in the UK. On the 13th March 2001, the Royal Mail commemorated the 150th anniversary of the first weather map and issued four stamps which when affixed altogether, combine to make up the face of a barometer. The four stamps illustrate stormy weather, fair weather, dry weather and rain. Colourful and imaginative, these stamps include a bright rainbow and illustrations of raining cats and dogs. The first-class stamp was printed with thermochromic ink - when heat is applied with a thumb or finger the dark cloud disappears (photo 3).
With the changing of the seasons comes more dramatic and powerful weather phenomenon across the globe such as tornadoes. Achieving wind speeds of more than 300-miles an hour, tornadoes are a common occurrence in the United States and have often appeared on philatelic material. In 2004 the United States Postal Service issued a set of 15 beautiful stamps called Cloudscapes. The stamps were launched at Blue Hill Observatory in Massachusetts, the oldest continually operated observatory in the US. The stamps feature stunning images of clouds including a cumulonimbus cloud and tornado on the 37-cent stamp (photo 4). Italy experienced a violent F4 tornado on the 16th June 1957 wreaking havoc in the province of Pavia. The 50th anniversary of this deadly event was commemorated with a pictorial postmark in 2007 (photo 5). Australia issued a set of stamps in 1997 called The Dreaming, celebrating Aboriginal myths and included a willy-willy – a dust devil (photo 6).
Predicting our weather wouldn’t be possible without the use of ground-based weather stations, remote- sensing, radars and satellites. In 1968 Canada celebrated the bicentenary of the first fixed- point observations undertaken at Fort Prince of Wales in 1768, Manitoba by William Wales and Joseph Dymond. This was Canada’s first meteorological stamp. The two images on the blue and yellow five-cent stamp illustrate a weather map as prepared by the Meteorological Branch and a composite image of weather instrumentation including a weather balloon and anemometer (photo 7).
In order to understand our weather, scientists extend their research out into our upper atmosphere and beyond. The Sun is the driving force behind the weather systems here on Earth and our nearest star has undergone detailed scientific study for centuries. NASA launched Skylab in the 1970’s with the aim of increasing our knowledge of the Earth and the Sun. Skylab operated between 1973 and 1974 and was America’s first space station. Astronauts undertook various experiments onboard and made observations of our planet and the Sun. A manned solar observatory onboard Skylab called the Apollo Telescope Mount observed the Sun in various wavelengths ranging from x-rays to visible light, vastly advancing our understanding of the Sun.
In 1973, Hungary issued a postage stamp commemorating Skylab (photo 8) and in 1974 the US celebrated Skylab’s one-year anniversary with the issue of a 10-cent postage stamp. The stamp illustrated the space station above the Earth complete with its missing solar panel which was lost during launch (photo 9). Skylab was commemorated again on a stamp in 1981. A set of eight stamps issued in the US celebrating great achievements by mankind in space exploration featured the space station (photo 10).
Philately provides no end of joy and wonder to the curious mind - researching one stamp or postmark, autograph on a cover or pictorial cancellation mark can expand your knowledge on subjects that you may have known little about before. Learning and understanding the subject of meteorology and climate through collecting is fun and enjoyable, so why not give it a try? The miniature world of philately can open a huge window on to our vast, beautiful planet and beyond.
About the Author
Katrin Raynor-Evans is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Geographical Society. She is a member of the European Astronomical Society and Astro Space Stamp Society. She writes articles and interviews for popular astronomy magazines including the BBC Sky at Night, Stanley Gibbons and is the Features Editor for the Society for Popular Astronomy’s magazine, Popular Astronomy. She is co-authoring her first book and recently asteroid 446500 Katrinraynor was named after her.