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CSI: Creative Scene Investigation

CSI: Creative Scene Investigation

For an outdoorsman like Phil “The Forecaster” Chadwick, Artsci’76, a career in meteorology may seem like a logical path. What is less expected are the other doors that his in-depth study of weather has opened, including an intriguing sideline in “artistic forensic meteorology” – the process of reconstructing weather events based on their portrayal in works of art.

“In 1975 I was newly married and looking for a career,” the physics graduate recalls. “Although I’d been painting consistently since the age of 10, I’d already decided that art wasn’t enough to support a family. That was when a poster at Stirling Hall caught my eye: the Atmospheric Environment Service [now the Meteorological Service of Canada] was looking for meteorologists. Amazingly, I got an interview, was offered a position, and that was the start of a 37-year career.”

[photo of Phil Chadwick]

As it turned out, Phil found there was a real, artistic component to the analysis and diagnosis of weather patterns, and his experience as a plein air painter would prove a valuable asset. This conjunction of art and weather became even more apparent for Phil when he first saw Tom Thomson’s painting “Thunderhead.” Immediately recognizing the weather phenomenon being depicted, Phil was surprised to discover that he might have been the first person to do so, an experience that jump-started his interest in what he terms “creative scene investigation.”

“I delved as deeply into the painting as science would allow,” he explains. “My conclusion was that the subject of Thomson’s painting was an F2 tornado with a wall cloud tracking left to right, passing to the north of where he was painting. Many of his brush strokes depict tornadic features that have only recently been understood, and he made his observation in 1913!”

Spurred on to discover more about Thomson’s observations, Phil gathered images of all of his paintings and spent time deciphering clues in the pigments. It quickly became apparent that Thomson was fascinated with weather and climate and their impact on the environment. Phil notes that many of Thomson’s paintings are pure skyscapes with the horizon placed low on the panel; others have a higher horizon but still record snow, ice, and water.

From his analysis of these clues, Phil has been able to deduce the weather before, during, and after a Thomson painting was created, including relative temperature, wind direction and relative speed, cloud cover, and cloud types. He’s also able to tell what time of day the painting was created and the direction of view.

Tom Thomson isn’t the only artist who has left clues about specific weather events for Phil to discover and interpret. John Constable, Paul Peel, and a number of the other Group of Seven artists are just some of the people Phil identifies as creating honest and accurate renditions of the weather events they witnessed.

In addition to creating a personal link between his two passions, Phil has used his forensic meteorology skills to educate others. He notes that Tom Thomson’s painting “The Zeppelins” is ideal for teaching conditional symmetric instability, a weather condition that is sometimes responsible for large precipitation events and which is also abbreviated as CSI.

“Weather and climate have always interested me greatly,” says Phil, who is currently ­working on a book about science and weather in the art of Tom Thomson. “There’s always something fascinating to see and experience, and lots of wonderful patterns to discover within the complexity.”

Follow Phil at philtheforecaster.com and philtheforecaster.blogspot.ca.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2013-1 cover]