The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate

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Updated with a new afterword, including information on the warmest winter of the century.

Is something going on with the weather?

A record-setting heat wave that just won't release its blistering grip...balmy winter weeks followed by a sudden crippling snowstorm...torrential rainfalls deluging areas untouched by flood for decades....And coast-to-coast, an endless parade of dramatically televised weather ...

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Overview

Updated with a new afterword, including information on the warmest winter of the century.

Is something going on with the weather?

A record-setting heat wave that just won't release its blistering grip...balmy winter weeks followed by a sudden crippling snowstorm...torrential rainfalls deluging areas untouched by flood for decades....And coast-to-coast, an endless parade of dramatically televised weather disasters -- each seemingly more extreme than the last.

Examining today's headline-making questions through the authoritative lens of science and history, New York Times science reporter William K. Stevens offers this definitive look at the science of climatic change. He introduces us to the international community of scientists whose newfound consensus -- the earth is indeed getting warmer, and human activity is at least partially at fault -- remains a topic of fierce debate.

How did we get here? How much worse will it get? How dramatically will it change life as we know it, and how quickly? The answers and their implications could not be more profound. And Stevens helps us understand both the science and politics we'll need to know in the coming years, offering an informed speculative glimpse at what may be in store for the end of our new century.

An armchair scientist's guide to the science of climate -- past, present, and future -- The Change in the Weather is an eye-opening and authoritative exploration of today's world and tomorrow's uncertainty.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
I'm writing this as torrential rains come down outside my window. One of the hallmarks of global warming is extreme weather, especially heavy precipitation. William Stevens, a New York Times journalist, gives a history of how humans have come to understand and try to predict both local weather and global climate, leading up to the current scientific and political debates on human-induced climate change. The book opens with the real-life 1995 heat wave in Chicago. First-person accounts from emergency workers freaked out by the numbers of bodies coming in dead or dying from heat stress set the tone. Five hundred eighty-three died by the time the temperature broke. Right now we are 10,000 years into an interglacial period (interglacials, meaning "in between ice ages," have run from 8,000 to 40,000 years in the past). Basically we are living in a comparative climatic Eden that is destined to run out sooner or later, depending on the earth's natural cycles. Most scientists agree that human activity is "forcing" extra warming, and Stevens details the studies and scientific consensus that led up to the Kyoto conference on global warming. Some contrarians claim that a warmer earth might be beneficial -- for example, lower heating bills in the North -- but other effects, such as rising sea levels (both from the melting ice caps and because sea water expands when it gets warmer), could easily submerge low-lying island countries like the Bahamas. The governments of these countries are among the most outspoken proponents of caps on the emission of greenhouse gases. There have been many books on global warming for the environmentalist audience, but this book really reaches out to the general public and shows you how climate is going to effect your life in the near future. (Laura Wood, Science & Nature Editor)
From the Publisher
"A thorough and thoroughly fascinating report ... Comprehensive and colorful."
Kirkus Reviews

"Comprehensive, detailed and even-handed ... [Stevens] demonstrates a newspaperman's ability to present with clarity and brevity exceedingly complex and intricate ideas."
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"A gripping history ... a thought-provoking account."
The Seattle Times

Mojib Latif
The Change in the Weatheris a useful contribution to the climate-change debate, ideal for students wishing to find out more about the field of climate research in general and anthropogenic climate change in particular. A well-balanced assessment of the debate, this book provides a solid basis for discussion and can be recommended to readers outside the field, with or without a scientific background.
Nature
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Over the past decade, a scientific consensus has emerged that global warming is real and is largely the consequence of human activity--specifically, the burning of fossil fuels for energy, transportation and industrial activity. As such, global warming may be the most important political issue and technological challenge of the next two centuries--or so intimates New York Times science reporter Stevens (Miracle Under the Oaks) in this balanced, authoritative and accessible volume. Stevens makes clear, however, that quantifying the impact of global warming will be difficult, which makes developing and implementing necessary international solutions--already challenging because of the conflicting interests of different countries--an intractable problem. The author skillfully describes the complex science of climate: the ever-changing patterns of global flows of air, water and energy. The world already faces extremes of temperature and precipitation. Yet the floods, droughts, heat waves, blizzards and other exceptional weather of the past decade may be just the beginning. Stevens predicts that rising sea levels caused by melting polar ice caps, coupled with increasingly intense storm surges, may threaten coastal cities and island nations around the world. Agricultural patterns and regional ecology may change dramatically. Prevailing winds, weather cycles and ocean currents may shift. Humanity, that most adaptable of species, will be challenged to keep up. Mainstream and contrarian scientists may make different predictions and propose different policies, but few would dispute Stevens's ominous closing sentence: "The experiment is running, and time will tell." (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Stevens, who writes for the weekly science section of the New York Times, presents a well-researched report of climatology. In a story-like fashion, similar in style to his first book Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America, Stevens chronicles the spectrum of controversy surrounding the ongoing "global warming" debate: natural weather variation vs. human impact. Though the author suggests that signs of a warmer world are evident and the consequences of more extreme weather events lie ahead, the book is a nice acquisition to a library's collection because it adds the perspectives of those contrary to his reasoning. The detailed interviews of international scientists and historians also supplement this resource. Recommended for science libraries as well as for weather enthusiasts.--Trisha Stevenson, New York University Sch. of Medicine Lib. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
A science reporter with the , Stevens explains the unusual weather of the past few years in the context of a broader escalation of climatic extremes. He traces the impact of climate on human societies and the long tradition of trying to understand it. He also examines the global scientific community's efforts to determine whether humans have already set changes in motion that we cannot control Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
John Durant
For a decade, William K. Stevens has reported on the science and politics of climate for The New York Times. In The Change in the Weatherhe brings together his considerable knowledge and experience in a wide-ranging account of the relationship between humankind and the weather...Stevens charts the history of our understanding of climate and weather with considerable skill.
The New York Times Book Review
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Stevens excels...He demonstrates a newspaperman's ability to present with clarity and brevity exceedingly complex and intricate ideas.
Dallas Morning News
Challenging yet readable...[Stevens] forces readers to confront the reality that 'normal' weather isn't what it used to be and that the implications are profound.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Fresh, sweeping and up-to-the-minute...[Stevens] is just a flat-out good writer who has done his homework to tell one of the most important stories of our time.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385320078
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/2001
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

William K. Stevens is a science reporter for The New York Times. The author of Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
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Read an Excerpt

Origins

FOR AT LEAST a million years and hundreds of thousands of generations, the ape-people survived essentially unchanged.

The average ape-woman weighed about 65 pounds, and the ape-man about 100, and they stood three to four feet tall. Each had a brain about the size of an orange--roughly as big as that of the species they most resembled, the chimpanzees. Like the chimps, they spent much of their time in the treetops of the thick, lush African forest. The fruits they mostly lived on grew there, and the forest canopy offered safety from ground-dwelling saber-toothed cats and other killers for whom the ape-people were easy prey. Three million years in the future, the inheritors of the ape-people's genes would deduce that the ape-humans' daily routine, like the chimpanzees', was to move through the forest, picking fruit as they went, scavenging an occasional piece of carrion, and killing and eating an occasional small animal. After combing perhaps two or three miles of landscape in a day they would retire to the treetops, there to sleep in relative safety from the predators below.

In most other ways, there was a wide difference between the ape-people and the chimps. The former walked upright, on two legs, the first species of their evolutionary family to do so routinely. But not all the time. The result, as often happens in evolution, was a compromise: The ape-human could neither climb as well as an ape nor walk as well as a modern human. The ape-people, it would seem, lived a two-part existence--in the trees and on the ground. In a departure from the ape lifestyle, their walking ability enabled them to venture farther into open spaces within the forest to look for food; they were not tied so closely to what was available in the trees.

Their world was hardly an Eden. The ape-human probably could not run fast, and so would have been unable to escape from a big cat or hyena without a substantial head start. Constant vigilance was necessary while on the ground, and numerous ancient skulls crushed by carnivores testify that the ape-human was more prey than predator.

Nevertheless, the ape-people have to be judged an evolutionary success: Their kind persisted perhaps ten times as long as modern humans have so far existed.

A little less than 3 million years ago, that long and successful run was coming to an end. Great forces were about to transform not only the world of the ape-people but also the ape-people themselves. No mysterious black monolith, planted on the savanna by some extraterrestrial force to strike the spark of humanity, was responsible. Rather, great ice sheets were beginning to grow far to the north. The Inheritors, with bigger brains amplified by computers, would later deduce that the ice sheets were accompanied by a drop in the temperature of the North Atlantic Ocean of as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit, causing cooler, drier air to blow from Europe over Africa. They would also discover that as the northern ice sheets grew higher, they diverted colder, drier air toward the homeland of the ape-people.

The effect of these far-reaching climatic changes was to make Africa drier. This in turn shrank the forest refuges of the ape-people and expanded the open grasslands. All of this forced a survival crisis on the ape-people and the other animals of their world. They would have to adapt or die.

Out of the crisis would emerge the genus Homo, our genus.

Behind that development lay more than four and a half billion years of an unimaginably complex and violent coevolution of the earth's climate system and the life it shaped, and by which it was reshaped in return.

THE EARTH AND ITS ATMOSPHERE were born of fire and fury, setting in motion vast processes that are still playing out today and that will continue, scientists believe, for eons to come.

As far as modern scientists can tell, a slowly rotating cloud of dust and gases like hydrogen and helium, perhaps 15 billion miles across, a nebula floating in interstellar space, began to contract. Gravity pulled the smaller dust particles toward larger ones and the cloud began to spin faster and faster, flattening into a disk. Gradually, as the particles compressed into a single mass, the nascent sun materialized. Ever more intense compression boosted the temperature of the mass to nearly 2 million degrees Fahrenheit, setting off nuclear fusion. In fusion, hydrogen atoms combine to form helium, and energy is released as sunshine.

As the sun formed, not all the material in the rotating disk was drawn into it; some continued to orbit the new star. From this rocky material, the planets formed. No earthlings were around to see this, of course, but astronomers have observed many such disks around young stars, and they are confident that our solar system formed in the same way.

In the currently favored scenario of the earth's birth and the formation of its atmosphere, everything happened quickly, relative to geological time. Myriad chunks of rock orbiting the sun coalesced into the building blocks of planets. These planetesimals, as scientists call them, then began to merge with each other, and soon a planet took shape. As it grew bigger, its gravity force increased, attracting more and more planetesimals. The shock of the colliding planetesimals created such heat--several thousand degrees--that all of the naturally occurring water, nitrogen, and carbon in the planetesimals and on the new earth was instantly vaporized.

When the proto-planet reached only three-tenths of its eventual diameter of almost 8,000 miles, it began to hold the vaporized chemicals in its gravitational field, and an atmosphere thus started to accumulate. Scientists cannot be exactly sure about what the early atmosphere was like. "We don't have any direct data," says James F. Kasting of Pennsylvania State University, an expert on the early earth and ancient climates. "We're sort of relying on theoretical models we build up partly on computers and in our heads."

But according to the dominant view, a key constituent of the early atmosphere was the one that provokes such contention today: carbon. Reacting with sunlight, it took the form of carbon dioxide, a powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas. Like other greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide lets visible radiation from the sun penetrate to the planet's surface, where it is absorbed and reemitted as infrared radiation. Then the greenhouse gas reabsorbs this heat-producing radiation and bounces part of it back to the surface, warming the planet. Water vapor is an even more potent greenhouse gas, and most of the early atmosphere consisted of water in the form of steam. This combination of factors, along with heat from the interior, might have made the earth some 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it otherwise would have been.

The young earth is thus believed to have been a largely molten ball hidden behind a cloud of steam. For perhaps 100 million years, or maybe in as few as 10 million, it continued to absorb hits by planetesimals big and small. Some were probably the size of full-fledged planets. The single most violent and jarring event in the earth's history took place in this early period, it is widely believed by scientists, when a planet-size body struck the earth a glancing blow, chipping off massive chunks that reaccreted to form the moon.

The formation of the earth and its atmosphere were largely completed between about 4.6 billion and 4.5 billion years ago. If all the time between 4.6 billion years ago and today were compressed into a century, the main period of the earth's formation would have taken between one and a half and three years. For about the next fifteen years (some 700 million years in actual time), heavy bombardment by smaller planetesimals, asteroids, and comets continued. Eventually, as the raw materials of the accreting earth were used up, bombardment slowed and the new planet cooled enough to allow the steam in the atmosphere to condense and fall as rain, forming the first ocean. Asteroids and comets still crashed into the earth from time to time, and if they were big enough, as they often were, they would revaporize the ocean. Eventually it would condense again. This may have happened repeatedly.

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Table of Contents

Introduction ix
Part 1
1. Origins 3
2. Children of the Atmosphere 15
3. The Turbulent Holocene 32
Part 2
4. A World Full of Spirits 53
5. The First Meteorological Revolution 71
6. The Second Meteorological Revolution 84
7. A Primer on Weather and Climate 101
Part 3
8. The Greenhouse Experiment 129
9. Is the World Warming? 153
10. Signs and Consequences of a Warmer World 171
11. Is the Weather Becoming More Extreme? 185
12. Cloudy Crystal Balls 206
13. The Greenhouse Fingerprint 216
14. The Contrarians 239
Part 4
15. Rising Seas 257
16. The Future Impact of Climate Change 269
17. The Political Response 288
18. Horizons 308
Acknowledgments 319
Sources 321
Selected Bibliography 325
Index 347
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