The modern fascination with weather is also epitomized by tornado chasers on the Plains, politically charged conferences on climate change and the Weather Channel on cable television. In the age of CNN and MSNBC, weather disasters receive the breathless, moment-by-moment, you-are-there coverage once reserved for wars. In the comfort of our living rooms in New York City and San Diego and Dubuque, we watch live TV images from the southeastern U.S. as Hurricane Floyd pounds beach mansions into pulp. Pundits, meanwhile, exploit every atmospheric disastera Chicago heat wave, a California monsoon, a Northeastern blizzardas material for debate: Is the weather changing? Are we to blame?
Likewise, I suspect that today's weather craze is no mere craze; rather it reflects the larger cultural mood circa the Millennium. Whereas Half Dome and the Grand Canyon just sit there, mute marvels of geologic change a millimeter at a time, and whereas astronomical objects typically creep at an imperceptible pace across the evening sky, the weather is ever changingthe perfect natural entertainment for the "MTV generation," accustomed to films and videos with high-speed plots and millisecond editing. But the craze also reflects a deeper sentiment akin to the feelings poured into the environmental movement: a desire to escape from our increasingly artificial livessurrounded as we are, from cradle to grave, by the chrome-and-concrete, claustrophobic womb of Civilization. Our nomadic and agricultural forebears hauled carcasses of woolly mammoths or bags of berries home in the face of blinding rainstorms and shuddered in awe at every flash of lightning. The spirits were angry! True, few moderns would wish to return to prehistory, with its short, brutish lives. But many people today, huddled around "entertainment centers" in their air-conditioned homes, suffering through unhappy marriages and disappointing careers, wish nothing more than to recapture our ancestors' sense of awe--the sense that they were part of something greater.
To devoted weenies, myself included, nothing is more enthralling and educational than the nonstop melodrama of the atmosphere--the skyrocketing growth of thunderstorms, the writhings of the jet stream, the balletic choreography of fronts and air masses. In textbooks, Newtonian equations and Avogadro's law and fluid mechanics look dry and inscrutable, but in the heavens they come to vivid, sometimes violent, life. Nothing dramatizes the physical process of moist adiabatic cooling better than the formation of a cumulonimbus; nothing epitomizes angular momentum more shockingly than a tornado's buzz-saw mayhem. Weenies old enough to have obtained driver's licenses may spend every spring and summer in the Midwest chasing ominous-looking convective clouds that, they pray, will soon sprout twisters. "I have only one purpose in lifeto chase and photograph severe storms," one chaser declares on his personal Web site. "I am glad when I can contribute to scientific research and education about storms, but the driving force behind my lifelong passion is the incredible power and beauty of the storms themselves.
How times change. At age 11, every day after school in southern Ontario, I rummaged through my parents' mail for the latest edition of The Map. Ah, there it was: a thin publication, approximately six by nine inches when folded, with a return address that mentioned the U.S. Weather Bureau and Government Printing Office. I ran to my room, leaped on the bed and happily unfolded it. Before my eyes lay a green-and-white depiction of the U.S. and southern Canada, littered with hundreds of hieroglyphlike symbols. Each town had its own hieroglyph, which sported a little feather and was surrounded by numbers. The Map also featured big grayish blobs and long, bold black linessome lined with jagged edges, others with little domesarcing across several states. The blobs marked regions of precipitation. The jagged lines were cold fronts; the domed ones, warm fronts.
Blessed with this wealth of meteorological data, I set to work with a ruler and a pencil. My favorite maps showed major storms over the central plains or Rocky Mountains or American Southwest or Midwest. Western storms often moved toward the northeastern sector of the country and southeastern Canada, sometimes passing over my home in southern Ontario. After a few days of tracking a storm's progress, monitoring its speed and direction, I'd forecast whether it would pass overhead--and if so, when. Unfortunately, thanks to the sluggishness of mail delivery, the maps typically depicted weather that was a few days old; I was frequently upset to discover that the storm had already come and gone. I was too ignorant to take account of other factors such as the jet stream, which refuels and guides storms.
But I've never forgotten my first successful storm forecast: I calculated that a major disturbance would arrive within a few hours, that very evening. I ran to the barometer that hung on my bedroom wall and tapped the glass case: the needle plunged. That night I awoke in the bedroom darkness to hear the faint growl of an approaching thunderstorm. A successful forecast! At a time when most other kids' horizons were defined by the distance to school, the softball diamond and the candy store, I was monitoring humidity in Santa Cruz, rainfall in Madison and wind directions in Orlando. A year or two later the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) canceled circulation of the daily weather map. Saddest day of my childhood.
Franklin's behavior was very American: he wished not only to understand the vortex but to control it. The 19th century also brought a swarm of schemes for "controlling" weather, such as meteorology pioneer James Pollard Espy's proposal to fight droughts by starting forest fires, which (he reasoned) would initiate atmospheric convection, triggering rain-bearing thunderstorms. Rainmakers were highly visible hucksters in the farm belt.
In the 1940s, when the modern science of "cloud seeding" to make rain fall (by sprinkling dry ice, silver iodide or other chemicals into clouds) was invented by scientists at General Electric, it inspired similarly unrealistic hopes for the future of weather control. A physicist and an air force officer proposed using missiles to destroy tornadoes. Addressing the American Meteorological Society in 1953, Col. Rollin H. Mayer said the nation could develop "a fleet of airplanes loaded with missiles waiting to attack tornadoes." Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir claimed that cloud seeding could bring about "important changes in the whole weather map," including the diversion of hurricane paths. There were also speculations about warming the Arctic by diverting warmer ocean waters toward polar regions or by sprinkling dark-colored substances (which would absorb sunlight) on the ice to warm it and about washing pollution from Los Angeles skies by finding a way to generate thunderstorms near the city. The military was keeping an eye on weather control, too: Gen. George C. Kenney, former head of the Strategic Air Command, said, "The nation which first learns to plot the paths of air masses accurately and learns to control the time and place of precipitation will dominate the globe."
This is not to deny that meteorology has made progress. Two historic anniversaries are coming up this April: the 40th anniversary of the first weather satellite and the 50th anniversary of the first computerized weather forecast. On April 1, 1960, the first TIROS weather satellite transmitted to the earth blurry but enthralling images of cloud patterns. These images dramatized better than any amount of meteorological data what the "Bergen school" of meteorologists in Norway had argued in the early 20th century: that weather obeys certain geometries, with masses of cold air and warm air engaged in intricate dances, sliding over and under each other, generating specific types and distributions of clouds that had previously seemed like so much confusion and anarchy, so much meaningless fuzz and splatter spread across the blue heavens. (From their work stemmed the concept of cold and warm fronts.)
Satellite imagery has made a big difference in anticipating severe storms such as Floyd. Veteran meteorologists grumble, however, that weather satellites have made little difference, so far, in the understanding of "routine" weather such as precipitation. We lack adequate three-dimensional atmospheric data, both from space-based sensors and from ground-based devices like wind profilers, which can map wind speeds and directions at different heights
A half-century after the first computerized "weathercast" was made, computers are essential tools of weather forecasting, digesting Niagaras of data that no one human mind could juggle. Unfortunately, the dream of high-precision, long-term (say, many weeks ahead) forecasting has largely soured, thanks to the discovery in the 1960s of "chaos." (Nowadays every schoolchild has heard of the "butterfly effect," in which a minor weather phenomenonas trivial as a butterfly flapping its wingscan unleash a far grander phenomenon, extremely disproportionate in energy to the input, perhaps a typhoon half a world away.)
That weather remains so mysterious, so hard to predict, surely accounts for much of its presentand pastpopular allure. Early settlers viewed American weather as almost transcendentally majestic, like the national topography: grandiose canyons, a 1,000-mile river, vast mountain ranges, the surreal wind-carved natural monuments that adorn the landscape of the Southwest. Also, American weather was quite unlike anything the ancestors of Native Americans or their European successors had seen in their lands of origin. This is especially true of tornadoes, which are almost uniquely American in their frequency and ferocity: it is hard to think of a weather phenomenon, save lightning, that is quicker to inspire thoughts of the wrath of Jehovah.
A few years after the presidency of Andrew Jackson, Father Pierre Jean de Smet accompanied settlers from Indiana to California and witnessed a tornado a mile high, a sight surely as baffling to them as Moses' encounter with the burning bush: "In the twinkling of an eye the trees were torn and uprooted, and their boughs scattered in every direction. But what is violent does not last. After a few minutes, the frightful visitation ceased.... All was calm and we pursued our journey." Another twister awed naturalist John James Audubon: "The whole forest before me was in fearful motion. I saw, to my great astonishment, that the noblest trees of the forest bent their lofty heads for a while, and, unable to stand against the blast, were falling into pieces.... The horrible noise resembled that of the great cataracts of Niagara, and it howled along in the track of the desolating tempest." To some, such ethereal visitations embodied God's wrath. A St. Louis tornado in 1927 was "a visitation from a merciful and loving Providence," a preacher assured his flock. "Whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth. Chastisement here is better than chastisement hereafter.
Like many visionaries, chasers realize how odd their pursuit seems to most Americans. They even make fun of themselves; one Web site is devoted to "weather weenie" jokes and anecdotes about their peculiar fascination--for instance, leaving a party early to record the precipitation, naming a pet cat after a town struck by a famous tornado and listing "Top Ten" flaws with the film Twister (No. 4: "I never had two women fighting over ME during a chase"). One chaser is even reputed to have insisted that his wife name their children after famous hurricanes (Opal, Andrew and so on). Storm chaser Web sites publish their poetry and songs (a tune called "Inflow," by Taz Fujita: "You see it coming like a nightmare/Darker than your fears/You scream as the gust front overtakes you/But no one hears"). The storm chasers' accounts are not all poetry, yet they are today's folk poets of the nation's heartland, struggling to express in words the same feelings of startled wonderment that welled up within the early pioneers as they confronted the surreal gigantism of both America's landscape and weather.
Weather's unpredictability makes it easier to anthropomorphize; hence much of its fascination. Part of the thrill of watching a hurricane is wondering: "Where will it strike?" We give hurricanes human names and attribute to tornadoes the traits of living creatureswillfulness, cunning, evil. In a sense, our attitude toward nature is psychologically atavistic, a relic of an epoch when we were all animists and believed all of nature was alive, when we imagined gods and spirits hiding atop the thunderclouds and within the raindrops. Nowadays, when faith in gods is far weaker, weather's indeterminism seems to satisfy something in our souls. In an era when science purports to be explaining so muchheredity via DNA, feelings via neurochemistryit is satisfying to ponder sciences that yield less readily to the determinists' agenda. Turn to the Internet or the Weather Channel and witness the dark parade of indeterminism: an unexpected lightning bolt that ends a life, an unexpected rainstorm that floods a state, an unexpected tornado that devastates a town. Although some observers foresee "the end of science," this purported endshould it ever comeremains very far off for meteorology, the branch of the physical sciences that touches our lives most intimately.