Waters of the World: The Story of the Scientists Who Unraveled the Mysteries of Our Oceans, Atmosphere, and Ice Sheets and Made the Planet Whole

Waters of the World: The Story of the Scientists Who Unraveled the Mysteries of Our Oceans, Atmosphere, and Ice Sheets and Made the Planet Whole

by Sarah Dry

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The compelling and adventurous stories of seven pioneering scientists who were at the forefront of what we now call climate science.

From the glaciers of the Alps to the towering cumulonimbus clouds of the Caribbean and the unexpectedly chaotic flows of the North Atlantic, Waters of the World is a tour through 150 years of the history of a significant but underappreciated idea: that the Earth has a global climate system made up of interconnected parts, constantly changing on all scales of both time and space. A prerequisite for the discovery of global warming and climate change, this idea was forged by scientists studying water in its myriad forms. This is their story.

Linking the history of the planet with the lives of those who studied it, Sarah Dry follows the remarkable scientists who summited volcanic peaks to peer through an atmosphere’s worth of water vapor, cored mile-thick ice sheets to uncover the Earth’s ancient climate history, and flew inside storm clouds to understand how small changes in energy can produce both massive storms and the general circulation of the Earth’s atmosphere. Each toiled on his or her own corner of the planetary puzzle. Gradually, their cumulative discoveries coalesced into a unified working theory of our planet’s climate.

We now call this field climate science, and in recent years it has provoked great passions, anxieties, and warnings. But no less than the object of its study, the science of water and climate is—and always has been—evolving. By revealing the complexity of this history, Waters of the World delivers a better understanding of our planet’s climate at a time when we need it the most.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226670041
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,124,435
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Sarah Dry is a writer and historian of science who has immersed herself in the history of meteorology and climate for more than ten years. She is the author of Curie and The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she now lives in Oxford, UK, with her family, and is a trustee of the Science Museum Group and the Oxford Trust.

Read an Excerpt



History can be cruel. Today, John Tyndall's grave in a quiet Surrey cemetery lies unremarked and his books largely unread. During his lifetime, he was a famous and famously controversial scientist who argued that nothing more and nothing less than molecules in motion could explain the deepest mysteries, from human consciousness to the origins of the universe. A gifted communicator, his lectures were standing room only. His books, merging physics and adventure, sold abundantly. He dined with the good and the great, among them Thomas Carlyle and Lord Tennyson.

Despite all this fame, the man whose passionate intensity fanned the fires of Victorian science is today almost forgotten. While the flame of his memory has flickered low, it has not been extinguished. In fact, in the past ten years Tyndall has begun to emerge from more than a century of near-obscurity. Thanks to work he completed in his laboratory in the late 1850s and early 1860s, on what he called the absorption of heat by water vapor and what we today call the greenhouse effect, Tyndall has gained newfound recognition as a so-called "father" of climate science. A handful of articles have appeared describing his discovery. A climate change research center at the University of East Anglia has been named after him, a major academic project is underway to edit his prodigious correspondence, and the first new biography of him to appear in more than sixty-five years has just been published.

Tyndall has only recently resurfaced because the science of which he is being hailed as a progenitor is (somewhat paradoxically) itself so new. Little more than sixty years ago, climate was usually thought of as something that remained stable over time. Climatology was primarily a geographical science. Different places were understood to have different climates, and the job of the climatologist was to study not how those climates changed but what rendered certain regions distinctive. Their tools were descriptive and taxonomical rather than physical or mathematical. Climate science as a science of change rather than continuity (and distinguished from its older form, climatology, by the change of name) only emerged in the postwar period. When it did, it was the product of a blending of several distinct scientific disciplines. The journal Climatic Change was founded in 1977 with an editorial that made it clear that this was a science that existed almost defiantly between disciplines. Meteorology, anthropology, medicine, agricultural science, economics, and ecology were all encouraged to participate, though in fact the new interdisciplinary science centered around the physical sciences of the earth: oceanography, atmospheric physics, and glaciology, in addition to meteorology, with the important addition of the nascent field of computer science. Before this interdisciplinary synthesis, the notion of climate change was an oxymoron.

The modern field of climate science, then, provides us with a challenge. How to tell the history of a new and self-consciously interdisciplinary discipline? Tyndall's increasing visibility as a "father" of global warming — alongside that of other progenitors such as Svante Arrhenius, Guy Callendar, and Charles Keeling — reveals a growing self-awareness on the part of climate scientists that history can be a tool to render this discipline more coherent. In these prehistories of climate science, success rather than failure is emphasized and crucial discovery "milestones" occur with reassuring regularity, like signposts on a journey to a known destination. Ideas tend to beget ideas, free of the complications of politics, economics, or nationalism. Histories told by scientists tend to be rose-tinted, but given the interdisciplinary origins of climate science, there is a perhaps even greater temptation than usual to pick and choose the moments, and in particular the discoveries, which make the most sense of the past, which generate a pleasingly direct line from the past to the present. Tyndall's modest re- emergence is part of a larger attempt by climate scientists to tell a singular history of a heterogeneous science.

The desire to draw straight lines through history is understandable, but these lines are almost inevitably misleading. John Tyndall was not the father of global warming in any meaningful sense. Though he helped confirm the special ability of water vapor and carbon dioxide to absorb heat as it radiated from the earth's surface, he never imagined that human beings might alter the climate on a planetary or even a regional scale. He was unconcerned about the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning coal. Nor did his research prompt his contemporaries to make their own research into human effects on climate. Nor, indeed, was Tyndall strictly speaking the first person to publish on the topic. An American woman named Eunice Foote beat him to it by three years. A "milestone" approach to telling the history of climate science misrepresents the complexity of its deeper history. Sometimes the result is to overemphasize the influence of a particular figure. More often, people and ideas that do not seem congruent with current scientific thinking drop out of this kind of history. The result is an impoverished understanding of the past as well as the present.

Tyndall did indeed help lay the groundwork for our contemporary understanding of the planet, and he more than merits a revival in the popular and scientific imagination, but he achieved his influence in more complex and contentious ways than the story of a singular "discovery" of greenhouse warming captures. What Tyndall achieved was to help change what it meant to study the earth. He did so in a passionately physical way — putting his body in danger and relying on his manic tendencies to enable him to focus on a problem to the exclusion of all else.

He used his physical energy to pioneer new ways to witness and to understand (the two always went together) the wonder of nature: its continuity. No substance better exemplified this continuity for Tyndall than water, a material he studied in all its manifestations with commitment verging on evangelical passion. "Every occurrence in Nature is preceded by other occurrences which are its causes, and succeeded by others which are its effects," he began his bestselling book on The Forms of Water. "The human mind is not satisfied with observing and studying any natural occurrence alone, but takes pleasure in connecting every natural fact with what has gone before it, and with what is to come after it." Tyndall invited his reader to join him in tracing a river to its source, to follow it beyond its many tributaries and up into the atmosphere itself, from which it had fallen as rain. To produce that rain, Tyndall continued, water vapor must have been evaporated, via the action of heat, from the ocean into the atmosphere. This landed him at the ultimate source of all movement on earth. "Is there any fire in nature which produces the clouds of our atmosphere?" Tyndall asked rhetorically, before answering triumphantly that "by tracing backward, without any break in the chain of occurrences, our river from its end to its real beginnings, we come at length to the sun."

And here, with the sun's heat, we arrive at the deeper value in studying water. Constantly transmuted by the energy of the sun, water provides the mechanism by which energy flows through the landscape. In his insistence on continuity, made gloriously manifest in the substance of water, John Tyndall offered his own, Victorian version of interdisciplinarity — a way of thinking across scales of time and place as well as linking what were, even in the nineteenth century, the increasingly divided spheres of the arts and sciences. As such, he provides a window onto what it meant to study the earth and what we have come to call its climate long before a "science" of such matters existed, much less anyone had imagined we might perturb the global climate. Tyndall is a gateway into another way of understanding the history of climate science. His passionate engagement with water as a medium for studying what he called the continuity of nature inspired this book. But rather than revealing the wonder of nature alone, I hope to introduce a wonder of the human sort.

In this book, water traces not the flow of energy but the flow of human activity and thought, from the work of Tyndall and his contemporaries to those scientists who helped shape the earth sciences in the twentieth century. This brings the science alive and it also helps solve the conundrum of how to tell a history of climate science that is faithful to its multidisciplinary nature. Climate science clearly has implications that extend far beyond the boundaries of science itself. So, too, the history of how we've come to understand the planet should matter not just to climate scientists but to all of us. In the life and work of scientists from the past lies the opportunity to understand the origins of our own way of seeing the world.

We are currently engaged in a global effort to understand simultaneously how our planet works and how we have affected and continue to affect it. Some of the tools we use to do so currently go by the name of climate science. This book proposes to tell the stories of a few key individuals in the history of the sciences of water in order to illuminate the broader history of human understandings of the planet over the past 150 years. In doing so, I hope to reveal not only continuities but discontinuities between the present and the past. We are inheritors of both more and less than we know.

* * *

It is now quite easy to see how human beings have made their mark on even the most remote places on Earth. Floating islands of plastic blight the remote ocean. Trash litters distant Alaskan coasts. The invisible rising presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is everywhere. Ice sheets are, as the Danish ice-core scientist Willi Dansgaard memorably called them, the ultimate frozen annals, recording enormous spans of time in their compressed layers of ice, trapping past atmospheres, dust storms, and volcanic eruptions. These icy archives are just one of the records from the past that we have learned how to read. Lake and ocean sediment, underground stalactites, and tree rings also preserve the history of the earth, and of human presence on it. They tell stories of increasing human impact, as well as older histories that predate us.

These records are important and have much to tell us about the past, and, because they help us generate the climate records against which our models can be checked, they enable us to try to peer into the future as best we can. As important as these material records are, there are other records of the past that are equally important in helping us understand our climate today but which remain largely inaccessible and underutilized despite the urgent need to understand climate as comprehensively as possible. These are not the physical traces of past climate but the imaginative traces of past understandings of climate. Our imaginations have shaped our understanding of the planet, and our scientific imaginations have shaped our understanding in particularly crucial ways. In his book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama writes that "even the landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product." We can tell this is true because our attitudes toward landscape change over time. Mountains, once considered horrific, have come to be seen as paradigmatically beautiful. The first settlers in the Americas experienced the landscape as an empty and desolate wilderness, both spiritually and materially vacuous. Today we might call such a landscape magnificent and full of life. Each of us responds to the landscape around us according to the cultural habits we've acquired without noticing. We each have our own taste, a preference for coastline or valley, cityscape or farmland, but these individual differences play out across a backdrop of shared attitudes that change only gradually over time (though they may vary quite dramatically across different cultures).

I would add to Schama's elegant formulation that it is especially those landscapes that seem to be most free of our culture that show its influence. The imaginative understanding of wild spaces that in the West are perceived as lacking human interference have much to teach us. Prime among these are places such as the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the depths of the ocean, and the icy heart of a two-mile-thick ice sheet. Scientific culture works like any other culture to break down and materially change the substrate upon which it lands. This can be seen as a positive outcome: the discovery of order in a place of apparent chaos. It is also possible to see not clarity but distortion at the interface between science and the natural world. We see what we want to see, in other words. More strongly still, we might say that in the act of observing, we change the thing being observed. A glacier is affected only slightly by the presence of people upon it, but their study of glacier motion, their passion for knowing the way the glacier moves in terms of inches per unit of time, obscures and elides countless other ways of knowing the glacier — as an object of beauty, of terror, of passage (as it was to the locals), of uselessness, of unpredictable destruction (in the form of crevasses, avalanches, and dams bursting). By suggesting that truth can be found in the science of glacier motion, for example, Tyndall and his contemporaries also contributed to the idea that some truths about glaciers — for example, how quickly they move — are truer than others. It is a poignant irony that Tyndall himself was such a passionate advocate for the emotional truths to be found atop glaciers, since he played such a central role in transforming them into sources of "merely" physical truths.

There are many ways of going about the task of uncovering the imaginative assumptions that we make about remote places. Historians of these cultural attitudes rely upon a variety of texts to draw them out. Literature is a good source for finding reflections, echoes, and elaborations of such cultural themes. So are painting, photography, and drama, arts that both reflect and enhance the assumptions of the culture from which they emerge. Scientific writings were also once good sources for charting the shifts in how people have felt about the natural world. Until the late nineteenth century, most scientists wrote books for everyone to read; by rereading those books now, we can see what kind of public knowledge there was at the time and, by working a bit harder in the archives, we can try to get a sense of who read these books and what they thought of them.

More recently, most scientists stopped writing for a general public. Instead of writing articles in popular magazines, they began to publish technical articles for their scientific peers in expensive and hard-to-access scientific journals. Where scientists might once have shared a long narrative about the process of gaining new insights — say the expedition to study the motion of glaciers, or a voyage to South America — those stories have been largely removed from modern scientific papers, reduced to the terse terms of the Methods section. That is, at least, what happens in public. In private, stories of suffering and triumph in the field circulate still, at conferences, via email, and over cups of tea and pints of beer. The desire to share experiences, to brag, and to caution is not going to fade away anytime soon. The difference is that it is harder for the public to eavesdrop on them.

In an attempt to redress this loss of access into the experience of science, what follows are stories of scientists doing science. They are not stories of made-up things, or purely imagined or projected understandings of the earth. They are the stories that reveal hard- earned skills in observation, measurement, calculation, and description, and the careful construction and skillful deployment of instruments that are made useful through a combination of discipline, training, and social convention.

* * *

The transformation of a scattered array of fact, theory, observation, and experiment into something that can be called global knowledge is an example of the necessary sleight of hand that animates all science whereby certain bits of understanding — a key experiment, a set of measurements that underlie a mathematical abstraction — are taken to justify insights into the behavior of nature everywhere. But it is especially important in the case of the planet, which is, after all, a singular unit, the only one of its kind, which we have come to think of as self-evidently whole. It is one job of this book to show that the self-evidence of that wholeness is a very hard-won result, the outcome of the work of many scientists working at many different locations at many different times.


Excerpted from "Waters of the World"
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Copyright © 2019 Sarah Dry.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1          Introduction
2          Hot Ice
3          See-Through Clouds
4          Number of the Monsoon
5          Hot Towers
6          Fast Water
7          Old Ice
8          Conclusion Acknowledgments
Bibliographic Essay

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