If you want to really understand the climate, and how it is changing, to what extent do you have to understand weather? I thought about this question, and similar ones such as: how much do you have to understand about the weather, and anyway what’s the difference, as I read this new book edited by Adam Scaife which explores 50 significant events and phenomena, each of which is explained “in half a minute”.
Neither Scaife’s Introduction, nor Julia Sligo’s Foreword, say what the relationship between weather and climate is; indeed, the combined phrase “weather and climate” occurs frequently as if there is no real need to bother about differences, although I did note that weather is forecast, whereas climate is predicted. But I suspect that this question of difference is one that people do ask, as they puzzle over what to think about climate change. Such puzzlement is entirely understandable, especially given how much weather changes and how unpredictable it is, despite the best efforts of the UK Met office (where Scaife works as the Head of Monthly to Decadal Prediction).
This is a nice looking book, both inside and out. It is well set out, with good use of colour, and the illustrations are attractive. It makes you want to open it, and, once open, to turn the pages. It embodies a neat idea: each of the 50 topics is summarised in 300 words (the equivalent of 30 seconds worth of text, written by experts on weather and/or climate), and one picture. There are 7 sections: the elements, the global atmosphere, the sun, weather watching and forecasting, can we change the weather?, weather cycles, and extreme weather. Each begins with a glossary of terms (I think it’s essential to read these before moving on), has a two-page profile of a key contributor to our understanding, and discusses at least 4 phenomena.
Whilst reading the book, I learned things I did not know, and also learned more about some things I did know, and I am sure I’ll not be alone in this. And yet, I wonder how effective the book will prove to be. For example, I think that a lot of people will find the 30 second claim rather unrealistic.
It usually took me longer than 30 seconds to read the text, sometimes well over a minute. There are two main reasons for this: [i] some of the text is quite idea-dense, as though squeezing it into 300 words had meant compromises with readability; and [ii] much of the material is just unfamiliar, and absorbing it slows you down. But, you should slow down if you want to understand these complex issues, and as you get into the book, the 30-second claim looks more and more like a marketing gimmick. This is a pity, as this is a look to linger over rather than speed-read. 90-Second Meteorology would have been just as good a title.
I was a little surprised that each section didn’t have a suggestion for further reading – even if it was only to the Met Office website. And this raises another issue which is that the printed page has obvious limits when it comes to explaining phenomena like atmospheric systems which are 3-dimentional and dynamic.
The entry on Jet Streams is a good example. Whist the text is informative (and I learned something from it), how much more helpful it would have been to have had a reference to a website where there is a dynamic representation of a jet stream moving across a globe – such as: ow.ly/XxlnZ . A similar argument can be made about weather forecasting with sites such as ow.ly/XxlDF showing the forecast movement of cyclones and anti-cyclones (and much more) across the north Atlantic. Then there is the quite mesmeric ow.ly/XxlOH that shows weather across the planet at a variety of heights in a number of projections.
By all means buy this attractive book, but don’t think its brief explanations will really satisfy you. You will want to read more – but perhaps that’s a measure of a good book.
30-Second Meteorology. Adam Scaife (Ed) Ivy Press ISBN: 978-1-78240-310-4