Forecasting Justice: How Forensic Meteorology Helps to Solve Crime

In the late 1800’s in upstate New York, Phinneas Dodd sued a local minister by the name of Duncan McLeod for $5,000 for the replacement of his barn. It had been particularly dry in New York that year, and the minister decided to organize a collective prayer to bring relief to the farmers. Though Dodd objected to the prayer as inappropriate tampering with nature, the constituents gathered anyway. An hour after the prayer had concluded, a storm system moved into the area, soaking the town with two inches of rainfall. Unfortunately, a stray lightening bolt hit Dodd’s barn full of hay, burning it to the ground. When McLoed refused to pay for the barn, Dodd took him to court, where the ruling found in McLoed’s favor. It was ruled that the minister had only prayed for rain, not lightening; the lightening bolt had been a gratuitous gift from God.


Written by: Tara Luther, Promega



Fast forward to 1916 when Charles Hatfield claimed he was able to make rain by using chemicals. The city of San Diego hired him to do just that, and shortly after Hatfield began working, one of the worst rainstorms in history struck the city. The storm washed out a dam, causing property damage and even loss of life. Almost $1 million in claims were filed against the city, but a court ruled that the storm was an act of God and not caused by Hatfield’s work.


Where Dodd and the citizens of San Diego failed was on the argument of causation. While the large rain events coincided with the organized prayers and Hatfield’s work, it was impossible to prove that the actions caused the rain to form.


In recent history, the situation in the courtrooms has begun to look a little different. In 2002, Michael Mosley was accused of bludgeoning two people to death in Troy, NY. Mosley had a cut on his hand that he’d claimed happened while he was snowboarding with his son. And since he was snowboarding, he couldn’t possibly have committed the murders. Yet, further investigation revealed that during the time of the murders, it was raining, and there was no snow to be found. While the prosecution could have relied on weather reports to refute Mosley’s alibi, they instead called in a forensic meteorologist who provided more detail, including radar maps showing precisely where the rain had fallen. The jury then found Mosley guilty of the murders, thanks, in part, to the expert testimony of the forensic meteorologist.



What is a Forensic Meteorologist?

Forensic Meteorology is the science of using historic weather records, atmospheric data, eyewitness accounts, and reenactment simulations to determine the weather conditions at a specific time and location for litigation purposes. They frequently visit the scene of the accident or crime to examine the terrain and conditions present.


A Forensic Meteorologist might be called to corroborate or disprove an alibi, to provide context for an accident, or to determine if the conditions could have reasonably been anticipated or were an unexpected event. They may be called to provide context for disputes that arise from weather-related events; either between private parties, or in validating insurance claims, in vehicle accidents, agricultural disputes, weather modification, building collapses, or in something as simple as people slipping and falling. Perpetrators have blamed the weather for a number of crimes, and it is up the experts to verify their claims.


Forensic Meteorologists are held to the same standards as any other expert witness. First, they must actually be a meteorologist. Though this is an unlicensed profession, most who testify voluntarily submit to certification from their professional organization. The other requirement is that meteorology must be relevant to the case at hand, that the analysis is based on reality, their analysis uses logical processes, and that the expert remains objective.



How Does the Weather Impact Crime?

According to an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Austin, a Forensic Meteorologist, when temperatures rise, criminal activity increases. Austin goes on to say that the United States sees significantly higher crime rates in cities when the temperatures are appreciably above average. Dr. Austin also notes that extreme rainfall leads to increased conflict among people, and developing countries are more susceptible to conflict and wars when agriculture is threatened by drought conditions and hot temperatures.


When solving a crime, Dr. Austin says that temperature and humidity conditions around where the body was found are most important for timing a murder.



Can Forensic Meteorologists Assist DNA Analysis?

In her interview with We Love Weather, Dr. Austin tells of a case that she worked on where weather helped to nab the criminal after a crime was committed. While investigators continually looked for ways to gather the perpetrator’s DNA, he refused to drink from cups or lick an envelope they had given him. Luckily for investigators, it had just rained on the day that they were tailing him, so when the suspect spit onto the ground, they were able to scoop the saliva off the top of a rain puddle to collect his DNA.


Currently, there are very few Forensic Meteorologists in the world, but the word is spreading. In Fall of 2018, The Weather Channel debuted a new show entitled “Storm of Suspicion”, which highlights ways that weather and crime are intertwined. Will this show span a new ‘CSI Effect’? We’ll have to watch and see if lightening really can strike twice.



  1. Austin, Hildebrand, 2014, The Art and Science of Forensic Meteorology, Physics Today, accessed January 18, 2019, {}
  2. John Eligon, 2011, Meteorologists Who Offer Not Forecasts but Testimony, The New York Times, accessed January 21, 2019, {}
  3. Gregory N. Jones, Weather Modification: The Continuing Search for Rights and Liabilities, 1991 BYU L. Rev. 1163 (1991). Available at:
  4. Mika McKinnon, 2014, Forensic Meteorologists Solve Crimes You’ve Never Thought About, Gizmodo, accessed January 18, 2019, {}
  5. The Weather Channel Staff, 2018, A Look into the Life of a Forensic Meteorologist, We Love Weather, accessed January 18, 2019, {}


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