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The extraordinary people who are interested in asking—and answering—such questions are known as climatologists. In a lively narrative ...
The extraordinary people who are interested in asking—and answering—such questions are known as climatologists. In a lively narrative full of intriguing facts, award-winning, internationally known climatologist Randy Cerveny takes the reader on a fascinating tour of some of the world’s most perplexing and provocative climate mysteries, past and present. Cerveny explains the science of climate study—from digging ice cores in Antarctica to counting tree rings in Arizona—and the various specialists whose ingenious techniques help to sort out climate’s intricate components. He also delves into the human impact of weather through fictional introductions to each chapter that depict how climate change might have affected a typical inhabitant of the ancient Sahara or Indus Valley, a peasant during Europe's "Little Ice Age," or an aviation expert probing a deadly jet crash in New York City. Finally, he discusses research that attempts to forecast the weather of the next 10,000 years—essential information for planning the nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
For readers of An Inconvenient Truth, devotees of the Weather Channel, history buffs, popular science fans, or anyone who wonders what makes our weather tick—and how it will impact our future, this engaging book offers much to ponder and to enjoy.
Weather and climate have an impact on us every day of our lives. How unusual was the hurricane season of 2005? Do you need to wear a raincoat to work today? Will there be a heat wave-or a cold snap-this coming weekend? What would a drought in California do to this winter's food prices? Will your friend's spring wedding be rained out? What kind of weather will your children or grandchildren experience? These questions point out the strong influence of weather and climate on the multitude of activities that are a part of our daily lives. But with such an all-encompassing presence in our lives, what can be mysterious about weather and climate?
Time: Spring 2009 Location: New York City, New York, North America
Nine-year-old Toby dejectedly stared out at the miserable, dark clouds and watched them with growing dismay. Soaking rains continued to fall from the leaden skies. As he stared forlornly through the living room window, a growing cascade of wet rivulets spilled down the glass. In the background, he could faintly hear the cheery voice of a local newscaster on the TV.
"Drenching rain will continue all day today and Sunday so all of you with outdoor weekend plans will have to put them on hold for a while. It's going to be a wet weekend! Yes, definitely a good time to stay indoors by the fire with a good book. Traffic on the Long Island Expressway is particularly heavy as motorists negotiate over the water-filled roads-so let's all be careful out there! And now to Dan at the Sports Desk ..."
"Thanks, Ed. And, as we reported earlier, that rain you just mentioned has forced the cancellation of today's big Yankees game with the Red Sox ..."
Toby looked forlornly down at his brand-new baseball mitt, the one that he had hoped would catch the winning home run at today's game.
"Stupid old rain!" he muttered sadly.
A rumble of distant thunder laughed back at him.
After watching or reading the 24-7 reports from newspapers, television, Internet Web sites, or magazines, it would seem obvious that the natural environment around us has changed dramatically in the past few years. Coverage of hurricanes, floods, droughts, and the like has increased exponentially. There is always a weather-related natural disaster occurring somewhere in the world. The reporting of events like the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the terrible European heat wave of 2003, and the massive flooding and tornadoes in Iowa and Georgia during spring 2008 suggests that we live in a world fundamentally different from that of our grandparents or even our parents.
Yet is that really the case? The extraordinary people who are interested in asking-and answering-that kind of question are known as climatologists, that is, scientists who study the long-term aspects of weather. But how do climatologists differ from the guys or gals who stand in front of weather maps each night on television? Is "climate" really that different from "weather"? A favorite author of mine, Robert Heinlein, once proposed that "climate is what we expect, weather is what we get." These are unquestionably simple definitions, but they can be used as a foundation for our discussion.
At its core, climate may be defined as the "collections" or "groups" of different types of weather. Consequently, we can study climate through time such as "How is our weather changing over the past decade or century?" Or we can look at climate through study of a specific type of weather as, for example, "Are hurricanes becoming more intense or more frequent?" In short, "climate" is the general and "weather" is the specific. It is no accident that a substantial amount of the training needed to become a meteorologist-a weather scientist-is essentially the same training required for a career as a climatologist. Not surprisingly, a good climatologist is frequently also a good meteorologist.
Nevertheless, there are differences. In order to study the "general" of climate, we first need to study the "specific" of weather. Consequently, weather research-the study of the immediate atmosphere of today and the near future-is more advanced than the investigation of long-term weather patterns in our atmosphere, which is one of the central cores of climate research. We have been scientifically investigating weather slightly longer than we have been studying climate, perhaps by a hundred years or so. But both fields are young compared to other academic subjects.
This "newness" is real despite recent media attention on global warming and weather change that might give the impression that climatology and meteorology have been around for a long time. In fact, the vast majority of climatologists around the world have come from these other subjects, for example, atmospheric science, geographical science, physics, or geophysics. There aren't very many universities that currently offer degrees in climatology.
Each fall when I start teaching a new class of freshmen about weather and climate at my university, one of the things that I initially stress is the peculiar "newness" of the sciences of climatology and meteorology. Let me demonstrate that for you in a very straightforward, quick manner. First, pick up a basic college physics or chemistry textbook and flip it open to the first chapter. As you start reading, notice the time frame of those first primary progenitors of the field-the "fathers" of that particular science. What you will undoubtedly find in those chemistry or physics textbooks is mention of scientists who lived-and died-several hundred years ago. I'm referring to people such as Sir Isaac Newton or Galileo. Physics and chemistry-while without a doubt critically important-have thus been extensively studied for a considerable time. Given that long time frame, we know a great deal about those specific fields of study. (That's one reason why those college physics and chemistry textbooks are usually quite thick, as well).
Now pick up a climate textbook and open it to the first chapter. As you start reading of the people who are considered the mothers and fathers of the science, you will likely notice something odd, at least compared to physics or chemistry: most of the founders of climatology are still alive and well. The initial fathers and mothers of the science-brilliant people like Stanley Changnon, Yale Mintz, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Stephen Schneider, Susan Solomon, Ann Henderson-Sellers, and others whom you would read about in those first chapters-are likely very much alive or may only have recently passed away. By the way, note that the field of climatology does in addition to fathers have mothers, who are not nearly as prevalent in other physical sciences like physics and chemistry. Thus, the issue at hand is that climatology is a young science.
Even its slightly older counterpart, meteorology, is scientifically "young" compared to many other sciences. Founders of modern meteorology such as Vilhelm Bjerknes, Carl-Gutstaf Rossby, L. F. Richardson, Bob Maddox, and Ted Fujita conducted most of their research within the last century. Many of the major advances in our knowledge of weather have only been made since the turn of the twentieth century.
That means that both meteorology and climatology are also still mysterious sciences, even to their own experts. By mysterious, I don't mean spooky-although sometimes climate and weather studies can involve very strange events or phenomena. Exploding fireballs, massive ice sheets, and towering "black blizzards" are just a few of the mysterious aspects of meteorology and climatology. But by mysterious, I simply mean we don't yet have a complete understanding of all the intricacies of weather and climate, and, as such, they are mysterious.
Mysteries are all around us. Some mysteries can be simply stated as straightforward questions. For example, "Who committed the crime?" or "Where is the missing clue?" are two of the favorite questions found in many mystery books, movies, and television shows. But many important mysteries of today don't need a crime to have been committed. Some of those critical mysteries of our world simply require a basic curiosity in what makes our environment tick. The solutions to these mysteries are based on gaining a fuller understanding of the world around us.
Climatologists and meteorologists have a passion for asking and answering basic questions about our environment. They become, in essence, climate detectives or weather detectives. Sometimes the questions that they ask are seemingly straightforward; such as, "What makes a cloud form?" Other questions can be much more complex, such as "How do changes in one distant part of the world's oceans cause changes in weather around the rest of the world?" All of these questions are mysteries-even today, since we don't know their complete answers. Again, as I am teaching that new class of first-year college students about climate, I point out that we are likely using a different climate textbook than the one from the previous year because we keep finding new answers and even sometimes discover that our old "answers" might not be complete. So our textbooks must be rewritten often.
Back in the 1980s, a group of scientists, for instance, ran an exhaustive set of computer simulations to find out what would happen if we detonated all of the nuclear warheads into the atmosphere. In essence, they were probing the mystery of "What would be the environmental result of an all-out nuclear war?" Their study was given the nickname TAPPS, based on the first letters of the researchers' last names. Now, in those days, computer models of climate were in their very infancy. We basically didn't know back then (all of thirty years ago!) the complete intricacies of our environment. But that climate question of nuclear war was a very critical one for those last days of the cold war.
So in using their simple computer climate model, the TAPPS scientists who were investigating the environmental impact of nuclear war arrived at the sobering concept of "nuclear winter." Nuclear winter, their model's results suggested, would be the catastrophic environmental consequence of all-out nuclear war. The massive amount of radioactive dust and ash from a nuclear war would stay in our upper atmosphere for years, perhaps decades, shielding the earth from sunlight. The end result of that high-altitude dust shield, their model results indicated, would be a new-and long-term, perhaps even permanent-ice age.
Of course, those findings made national and worldwide news. Although everyone knew that, by its very nature, nuclear war would kill millions of people, it appeared from the TAPPS study that such killing was only a part of the tragedy-nuclear warfare would also lead to massive environmental change, catastrophically forcing us into a new ice age. This was compelling new ammunition for pro-peace activists and the results were used to promote a variety of social and political agendas.
Beyond the horrific social implications, the "means" of that nuclear war/climate study-rather than the results-was the critical issue for some scientists. Just how well did the computer model represent the myriad of processes that make up our environment? Dozens of climate scientists carefully studied all aspects of the computer scenarios in computer laboratories around the world. In particular, they were just coming to grips with the idea of "climate feedback"- that a change to our environment could cause "somethings" to happen, which somehow could lead to still other "somethings" that would either eventually amplify or diminish the original change. For example, if the world through some process became slightly warmer, that would lead to a worldwide change in the distribution of rain and snow-less snow would fall around the world. Because snow, as a white substance, reflects sunlight back into space, less snow in a warmer world would result in more sunlight. And that sunlight would instead "soak" into the earth rather than be reflected back into space. The extra heat received on the earth due to less snow would cause the world thus to become warmer than the original warming process would have accomplished alone. This amplified change in climate is called a feedback.
Follow-up scientists to the TAPPS study discovered that the early nuclear war/climate results weren't perfectly accurate because the original computer model for the nuclear war simulations lacked some of these critical feedback processes. Rather than nuclear war resulting in nuclear winter, subsequent scientists began to hypothesize that nuclear war might instead create "nuclear autumn"-a cooling, but not a catastrophic cooling, of the earth. Of course, those results didn't make much news (it seems that finding fewer deaths is never as newsworthy as predicting more deaths), but it does point out the critical fact that we simply didn't-and still don't-understand everything about the earth's climatic system.
Consequently, in contrast to chemistry and physics, where major revisions of thought aren't quite as common anymore (or perhaps somewhat less popularized), the field of climatology appears to thrive on heated discussion, debate, and controversy-and controversy that is often focused squarely in the public eye! For instance, I don't see many Wall Street Journal editorials addressing pros and cons of current chemistry or astronomical theories. I have, however, seen many editorials in that paper over the past few years addressing the science of climate change.
Our interest in the environment around us has led us to try to discover what makes it tick. We may ask, "Has it always been the same?" Is climate only now changing due to humans-or has it always been changing? Have people in the past been able to adapt to those changes-or did they die out, surely a warning to us who are living today?
Solving "weather mysteries" of the past can be extremely valuable to all of humankind. A philosopher of the last century, George Santayana, once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We might now say, "Those who forget the climates of the past are condemned to suffer from them again." Yet historians have notoriously been hesitant to link climate and history. A scholar of history, B. D. Shaw, even wrote, "Climate is one of those ever-present factors in the historical process that most historians prefer to ignore and yet cannot." While there is an intriguing academic scandal of the early twentieth century that may have helped to foster this abandonment of linking climate and history (which I will touch on in the Mystery of the Vanished Harappans), I think in today's world, most people realize that our future comfort and survival on this planet are closely tied to our understanding-and eventual solution-of the mysteries of climate and weather. And learning how past cultures have coped with (or succumbed to) environmental stresses is perhaps a critical key to our own society's future.
As an example of a weather mystery, let's look at what happened to little nine-year-old Toby in the story at the beginning of this chapter. At first, it may seem a simple case of bad luck-the youngster's misfortune in having his weekend outing to a baseball game unexpectedly rained out. But a climatologist might take a look at such an occurrence and dig deeper. She might check to see if there were more anecdotal accounts of weekend rains, and, if there were such accounts, she might then realize that a deeper mystery exists-the Mystery of the Weekend Rains. An inquisitive climatologist might ask, "Does it rain more on the weekends than during the workweek?"
Several years ago, Bob Balling, a colleague at Arizona State University (and an accomplished statistical climatologist), and I investigated that specific mystery. At first glance, one might say, "Well that's a very trivial subject to study-why should my hard-earned tax dollars go to finding out whether or not it rains more on weekends? After all, there are people starving in other parts of the world!" A common enough sentiment in today's world, I'm afraid. But I think I can justify our study's importance in several ways. First, of course, hundreds of activities and events, such as Toby's baseball game, are dramatically affected by weather. Thus knowledge of whether or not it will rain can save the sponsors and organizers literally millions of dollars. Weather also can be instrumental in critical safety and health concerns; understanding, for example, when rains will occur can be, for individuals such as the sick or the elderly, a matter of life or death. And beyond that, such knowledge can indicate whether our activities can have a long-term impact on weather.
Excerpted from WEATHER'S GREATEST MYSTERIES SOLVED! by RANDY CERVENY Copyright © 2009 by Randy Cerveny. Excerpted by permission.
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This is a fascinating compendium of major weather and climate episodes, some of which were sizable catastrophies, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, while others were explanations of the parting of the Red Sea, or the impact of the Little Ice Age. Dr. Cerveny writes about the sciences of meteorology and climatology in an engaging manner that serves to educate the reader by weaving a tapestry of entertaining vignettes with scientific reconstruction. Although written for the general audience, this treatise will serve to complement texts on climate change. It is difficult to put this book down!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 10, 2009
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