Maps of all kinds have fascinated me for as long as I remember. Even today, I can relieve any hint of boredom by pulling out an atlas and exploring some known or unknown place. I keep a world atlas and North America road atlas next to my couch so I can find the locations of places and cities mentioned in the news or on a TV program or in my reading materials.
When it comes to weather maps. Well! I am as happy as can be. I still remember my first weather map -- a Chicago-area map used by Windy City weathercaster P.J. Hoff in the 1950s on the late night news. It was a circular look at the city and immediate suburbs with a few cloud cutouts attached and local temperatures and other information written on it in black crayon. My favourite feature was the little string which, when pulled, lifted a flag with the predicted high temperature for the next day up above a similar flag which contained the predicted low. Simple, but a real prize for a 10-year-old future meteorologist.
I was in my early teens when I first held an official U.S. Weather Bureau Daily Weather Map. Unfolded to its fullest extent, it filled my desktop. In the centre and dominating the page was the surface weather map for the date. Smaller maps indicated the previous day's maximum/minimum temperatures for selected US cities, precipitation totals and areas with rain/snow hatch-marked and snow-on-the-ground isolines. Also included was the North American 500 mb map. If I remember correctly, the map also contained a simple station model key to the plotted data. I think my first map had on its back side, a large chart giving the complete key for the weather symbols, a regular feature, I was to find, on the Sunday map.
When I saw that Mark Monmonier had written a book on the history of weather maps, I had to get a copy for review. Published by the University of Chicago Press, Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict and Dramatize Weather covers a variety of subjects relevant to the display of weather information and the forecasting of weather, including those maps which portray more than just the surface weather features.
The author Mark Monmonier, Distinguished Professor of Geography at Syracuse University, has written several books on mapping and mapping history. Air Apparent is the first of his works that I have read, but, based on this one, I will be looking for others.
In the Preface, he states that the book is "a broad synthesis intended for the amateur weather enthusiasts likely to appreciate an excursion through meteorology's cartographic history as well as for cartographic historians and map enthusiasts curious about a neglected but momentous area of map use."
I believe Professor Monmonier succeeded in his stated purpose with this very readable and fascinating book. It definitely opened many new areas for me concerning the history of the science of weather depiction and forecasting. The book looks at the early history of the mapping of weather information, the role the telegraph played in early mapping and forecasting dissemination, the increasing role of weather satellites and radars, the entry of weather maps into the print and television media, climate mapping and pollution impact mapping.
Living in the age of air and space travel, many of us find it hard to realize that for centuries, scientists and naturalists did not comprehend the need for plotting weather maps. Monmonier correctly points out that the early studies and mapping of weather data did not consider forecasting as the prime goal. As he writes: "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." Nor were they aware of the daily dramas unfolding overhead across the continents. Weather was a local event, extending only to the horizon.
Interestingly, it was Edmond Halley of comet fame who produced one of the earliest maps, albeit one focused more on climate information than daily weather. I was surprised, however, that the author did not link Benjamin Franklin's early insight on the structure of storm systems as being a contributing factor in the understanding that weather had an important spatial structure -- a concept that would one day give birth to the daily weather map.
Monmonier paints an interesting account of the American reluctance to accept the Norwegian concept of weather fronts and frontal systems, which may have been partially motivated by US Government budget concerns. The acceptance of the frontal theories by the US Weather Bureau in the 1930s was finally forced on them by the growing US airline industry who demanded more airport weather stations, more forecasts and more reliable upper air measurements. As well they demanded "more explicit depiction of air masses and fronts, which pilots and company meteorologists considered real and relevant." When Bureau Chief Charles Marvin balked, the airlines took their complaints to President Franklin Roosevelt. A commission charged by Roosevelt to look into the matter agreed with the airlines and recommended adoption of frontal theory and replacing Marvin as Chief.
Professor Monmonier develops the evolution of the distribution of weather information from the simple, purely surface depiction on paper weather maps to today's complex mix of multimedia and computer technologies. He devotes chapters to the significant influence of satellite and radar to viewing scales of weather phenomena both larger and smaller than those evident on the standard-scale weather map.
But a weather map is just a picture of "stale" weather data, of interest only to a few scientists, unless it can convey information of use to special interest groups and the public. Thus, Monmonier shows us how the weather map and attendant forecast have been presented to the public via the newspaper (since 1896) and television (the first weathercast occurred in 1941) and now the internet with its many useful features and far ranging links.
I have only a few complaints with the book and they are rather small. First, the chapter on Downwind Danger, which deals with mapping air quality hazards could have been relocated, either preceding or following the chapter on mapping climate. I felt its current position was misplaced and disrupted the flow of the material on daily weather mapping and forecasting. I would also have welcomed more on climate mapping and its history.
Only one statement in the book really bothered me. This was in the brief discussion of global climate change which I feel was not really relevant to the whole book's focus. It could have been dropped without loss because it had little to do with weather/climate mapping. Monmonier wrote: "Scientists remain sceptical about global warming for a variety of reasons." Qualifying this statement to say some scientists remain sceptical (and many of those are supported by the energy industries who fear restrictions on fuel usage) would have made me feel better. While some disagreements are still being discussed as to the direction and magnitude of climate change resulting from energy-production and industrial carbon dioxide emissions, most will agree there is reason for concern. The author's footnote for this statement refers to two of the known energy-industry-sponsored skeptics. While I tend to concur with Monmonier's quoting and agreement with a statement of David Laskin that the issue appears to have been given an independent life of its own by the media and it is not a visage of the end of the world, I still feel we must take the global prospects of major climate change seriously -- whether natural or human-caused.
Finally, I wish that Monmonier had included a figure showing the US Weather Bureau daily weather map of the 1960/1970 period. I no longer have any copies of the many issues I had received over the years. As I read Air Apparent, many memories or those maps surfaced in my thoughts, and I longed to once again see its familiar format.
I read this book while flying cross-country: half eastbound and the remainder on the return trip. Never has a flight been so pleasant (except for the cramped leg-room). Any weather historian or map junkie will join all weather enthusiasts in finding this book an indispensable addition to their reading list. If your vice is watching TV weathercasts, you will gain many insights into the evolution of what you see presented daily. If you remember, and miss, the days of the "official" US daily weather map coming in the mail, you will enjoy this book's ramble down memory lane.
Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict and Dramatize Weather. by Mark Monmonier, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL, 1999, , ISBN 0-226-53422-7.Order Air Apparent Today!
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
July 19, 1999
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