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Fascinating new book captures 4.5 billion years of climate and weather in 200 pages

From the formation of our planet’s atmosphere to the discovery that humans can change the climate, the history of weather on Earth is riveting and, often, surprising.

In a new, beautifully illustrated book, Andrew Revkin, best known for his decades of science and environment reporting at the New York Times, describes many of the most pivotal moments, critical scientific breakthroughs and important people in the climate’s rich and varied 4.5 billion-year history.

The book, “Weather: An Illustrated History, From Cloud Atlases to Climate Change,” explores the atmosphere’s evolution, the scientists who tried to make sense of it, and the complex and sometimes-turbulent relationship between people and the elements.

Assisted by Lisa Mechaley, an environmental educator, Revkin loosely weaves together this history in 100 short, easy-to-consume vignettes. Think of this book like dining on tapas, boasting savory flavors, some unexpected, that constitute a satisfying whole.

Among many other topics, the book discusses Aristotle’s “landmark” contributions to meteorology. It explains how scientists figured out how rainbows work. It tells the story of inventor Charles F. Brush, who built a giant windmill in Cleveland in 1887 that powered his mansion for 20 years. It presents what is probably the first-ever photograph taken of a tornado. And it even delves into the polar vortex.

Revkin, who is now strategic adviser for the National Geographic Society, discusses this book effort in a short interview below.

What was the motivation for writing the book? 

Most of my stories and books related to climate change or weather have conveyed individual facets of a grand enterprise — chronicling a team camped on sea ice drifting near the North Pole, a scientist probing a core from a salt marsh or ice sheet, a solar lab here, a nuclear plant there, leaked White House documents or global treaty strategies.

Here, I’ve been able to outline humanity’s evolving relationship with weather and the climate system through 100 moments, many of them upending old knowledge and revealing that science is more about the process than some magical set of facts.

Who is its intended audience? 

It may sound pat, but this book was literally written for everybody — in the sense that it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. The chronology shows how research and observations pointing to human-driven global warming are an inherent part of the broader sweep of science illuminating the nature of Earth’s climate system — including the parts that remain unknown and some even unknowable.

It was designed for everybody in another way — with art accompanying every milestone and clarity guaranteed by my co-author, Lisa Mechaley, a longtime middle school science teacher who now helps other busy teachers incorporate environmental insights into lesson plans (and who happens to be my wife!).

In researching all of these fascinating vignettes about our evolving understanding of weather and climate throughout history, what one thing surprised you the most?

I was most surprised, after more than three decades of reporting on climate and weather, by how much I didn’t know — that the worst wildfire in U.S. history wasn’t in the West, that so many amateur scientists played vital roles in knowledge building, that a woman first documented carbon dioxide’s potential to warm the planet and another invented the windshield wiper, that the jet stream was weaponized in World War II.

You write a lot about some of the most important people who made critical, groundbreaking discoveries about weather and climate. Is there someone who, in your mind, stands out as being vastly underappreciated for his or her discoveries?

I loved stumbling on a pioneering insight about the potential for climate to change written by an observant Chinese polymath and government official, Shen Kuo, in 1088 — after he’d seen fossil bamboo in a region with no bamboo.

But I’d have to give top billing to Eunice Newton Foote, a scientist and early suffragette from Seneca Falls, N.Y. At a science conference in 1856, she presented (through a male proxy because she was a woman) experimental results showing CO2’s outsize warming influence. In a related paper she posited, “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a much higher temperature.” She clearly beat out the Irish scientist John Tyndall, who was long presumed to have arrived at this insight first — more than three years later. In fact, John Perlin, a writer affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, just pointed me to new evidence strongly implying that Tyndall was aware of Foote’s work but did not cite it. Perlin and others are holding an online conference on May 17 to discuss her legacy.

One of the common threads in your illustrated history is that our knowledge is always evolving. If you had a crystal ball and could project out to the year 2500, what kind of new additions could you see an updated version of this book covering?

It’d be easy to rattle off predictions — like, say, a chapter on Martian weather, if Elon Musk gets his wish.

But I really can only offer what I hope might be in such an update, rather than what’s likely to be in it.

If humanity continues to build its capacity not only to observe and understand its environment, but also its capacity to understand itself, there’s a decent chance we’ll have developed a sustainable two-way relationship with climate — not jogging the system beyond our capacity to understand the consequence and not overly affected by its vagaries.

That is a big IF, of course.

I know it’s kind of wishful, but I also hope an edition in the year 2500 doesn’t have an item looking back at this time as an oddity because humans by then have become completely walled off from weather by technology.

One of my weirdest experiences in recent years was walking into the Mediterranean zone in the giant glass Flower Dome at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay — dry cool air, olive trees and the fragrance of oregano and rosemary hedges 88 miles from the equator.

I’d hate to think that there will no longer be the pleasure in the first fresh spring rain, the jolt of a lightning flash or the humility that comes when sailing into a gale at sea.

What is your favorite, single most memorable vignette in this book effort?

As you can imagine, this is an excruciating question, given the range of events and insights we discovered. So I’ll offer one that has both memorable artwork and an extraordinary look at Hitler’s dim view of meteorologists — a stance that did not serve him well on the Russian front:

Weather has often played an unpredictable role in the outcome of wars, as when a change in the winds helped Britain’s fleet defeat the more powerful Spanish Armada in 1588. But sometimes its importance, even when highly predictable, has been underappreciated. This has been especially true when it comes to invasions of Russia, so famed for notorious cold and paralyzing soggy thaws that historians of war have written of “General Winter” and “General Mud” as battlefield foes in that country. Whether in Sweden’s failed 1708 invasion during the Great Northern War or Napoleon’s try in 1812, the cold was generally not the only, or even the decisive, factor. But it was always there, killing, crippling, and debilitating troops.
In Germany’s attempt to crush Russia in 1941, Hitler’s overconfidence led to a delayed approach to Moscow, allowing winter to join the fray. In his 2011 book, The Storm of War, historian Andrew Roberts recalled how, on December 20, 1941, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels appealed to German citizens for warm clothing to send to the front: “Those at home will not deserve a single peaceful hour if even one soldier is exposed to the rigors of winter without adequate clothing.”
It was too little, too late.
Hitler’s dismissive attitude toward his weather forecasters could well have contributed to the disastrous setback. In a monologue on meteorology recorded late on the night of October 14, 1941, he made his views clear:
“One can’t put any trust in the [meteorological service] forecasts. . . . Weather prediction is not a science that can be learnt mechanically. What we need are men gifted with a sixth sense, who live in nature and with nature — whether or not they know anything about isotherms and isobars. . . .”
In his account, Roberts noted that Hitler’s library contained many books on Napoleon’s campaigns. With some irony, he added, “Yet he did not learn the most obvious lesson from his predecessor.”