Monmonier: Air Apparent

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Mark Monmonier, Air Apparent : How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1999. 309 pages with notes.

This book is an appreciation and short-course in weather mapping, or weather cartography, its growth from the first synoptic ("in one look") weather maps in the late eighteenth century to the marvels of animated computer graphics that are so routine now on televised weather programs. Along the way the author discusses how meteorologists settled on maps showing temperature boundaries (with isotherm lines), pressure centers (with isobaric contours), wind direction and strength, and cloud conditions. None of those were obvious, nor were the methods for showing them easy to settle on. The focus is on how weather forecasting has improved, particularly in the twentieth century.

Invention of the weather map around 1816 raises perhaps the most intriguing question in the history of environmental cartography: What took them so long? The "so long" here is 33 years, give or take, and the "them" is the members, subscribers, and scientific heirs of the Meteorological Society of the Palatinate, which from 1781 to 1792 compiled weather data collected thrice daily by 39 volunteers in 18 countries, mostly in Europe. because of the persuasive enthusiasm of Karl Theodor, a Bavarian politician and amateur meteorologist who recruited observers in universities, academies, and monasteries stretching from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Pyshmen, in the Urals, comparable data on pressure, temperature, wind, cloudiness, humidity, precipitation, and magnetic inclination were available for plotting and contouring in the society's Ephemerides, published at Mannheim between 1783 and 1795 in 12 volumes that included 40 illustrations of weather instruments but no maps. Although an article in the second volume reported the general west-to-east movement of low pressure across Europe, apparently no one considered weather data worth mapping until 1816, when Heinrich Wilhelm Brandes (1777-1834), a professor of physics at the University of Breslau, sent the Annalen der Physik (Annals of Physics) a short letter proposing daily weather maps of Europe for a full year. As he described in an article published three years later, Brandes followed through – with 365 weather maps for 1785.

Why the Palatine observers never mapped their data has a simple answer: lacking exemplars to mimic and spatial hypotheses to test, no one thought that cartographic snapshots of barometric pressure and wind might prove revealing. Interested in describing climate, not in forecasting weather, they had little sense of the atmosphere as a geographic phenomenon. Like eighteenth-century meteorologists elsewhere, they focused instead on celestial influences as well as on local links among weather, magnetism, insects, and health. [pp. 18—19]

This history of weather mapping and forecasting includes a look at how weather maps were created, printed, and distributed, first in newspapers, then by telegraph, later by fax, phone, or television.

American weathercasting began on October 14, 1491, on WNBT-TV, an experimental station (later WNBC) serving at best a few thousand viewers in New York City. Hawking Botany Wrinkle-Proof ties, a cartoon character named Wooly Lamb introduced the forecast by singing, "It's hot. It's cold. It's rain. It's fair. It's all mixed up together. But I, as Botany's Woolly Lamb, predict tomorrow's weather." The forecast that followed consisted of a single screen with several lines of text, but no map. As far as I can tell, the distinction of telecasting the first weather map belongs to the British Broadcasting Corporation, which for a brief period in 1936 transmitted to far fewer viewers simple weather charts with isobars and pressure centers as well as temperature, sky conditions, and precipitation for a handful of unnamed cities in the British Isles and the adjacent continent. As Woolly Lamb presaged the weathercaster's role as an entertainer, the BBC experiment demonstrated television's ability to deliver timely weather maps to a mass audience. Although World War II interrupted the new medium's development, postwar prosperity stimulated a new industry in which news programs with weather reports became a standard feature. [pp. 178—179]

The author describes weather radar and how it changed the look of the forecast map; the role of newspapers in distributing weather maps and instructing the public in reading them; the growth of the government's weather bureau and its importance to commerce and maritime activities, how satellites changed the nature of weather mapping, among other topics.

One of the most vivid memories of my adolescence is standing with neighbors in front of our house in Baltimore on a warm summer night in 1958, looking upward in hope of spotting Russia's 3,000-pound satellite Sputnik III. The previous year the Soviets had taken an early lead in the space race by placing Sputnik I in an elliptical path roughly 500 miles above the earth. But even though America saved face four months later by successfully launching the 18-pound Explorer I into a similar orbit, our Cold War rival clearly had the more powerful rocket. This memory survives because the moving speck of light meant more than a blow to national pride: the oceans that once made isolationism an option offered no protection against intercontinental missiles with atomic warheads. Without massive investment in military technology and science education, defense experts argued, the United States might lose much more than the race to the moon. Perhaps they were right, but it's plain today that the principal beneficiaries of the congressional largess that followed have been telecommunications, mapping, and meteorology. [p. 117]

Monmonier's writing is serviceable if not entirely lively. Occasionally his discussions are a bit technical for the general reader, but not impenetrably so. Some chapters seemed to me more successful than others, but all were engaging enough (although I thought that the chapter on hazardous plumes was digressing a bit far from the theme). Also, when he described the important impact of computers on meteorological cartography I thought his understanding less comprehensive than with some of the other topics.

All things considered the book makes a good impression and the story it tells is interesting and informative.

-- Notes by JNS

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