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Watchers of the skies | TLS

Watchers of the skies


Peter MooreTHE WEATHER EXPERIMENTThe pioneers who sought to see the future396pp. Chatto and Windus. 20.978 0 7011 8799 6 Patrick NobbsTHE STORY OF THE BRITISH AND THEIR WEATHER314pp. Amberley. 20 (US $34.95).978 1 4456 4452 3

Published: 20 May 2015

Drax power station, East Yorkshire Photograph: Panoramic Images/Getty Images

We hope you enjoy this free piece from the TLS, which is available every Thursday in print and via the TLS app. Also in this weeks issue: coming face to face with Saul Bellow; a place for Mark Rothko; girlhood in the banlieues of Paris; the verve of Sonia Delaunay and much more.

When two Englishmen meet, wrote Samuel Johnson in 1758, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm. It remains an insightful observation, not for what it says about the British obsession with weather that was a truism even then but for what it says about the value of natural knowledge. Talking about the weather in the present tense is a more or less futile undertaking, but it was as far as the science of meteorology had advanced in the millennium and a half since the appearance of Aristotles influential treatise, the Meteorologica, in the fourth century BC. Since then, the sky had remained an unknowable blue wilderness, populated by meteors (any bodies in the air or sky that are of a flux and transitory nature, according to Johnsons Dictionary: hence meteorology), but as the nineteenth century dawned, things began to change. In 1802, Luke Howard gave clouds the names we still use today (cirrus, stratus, cumulus), and in 1804, Francis Beaufort devised the standardized wind-scale that now bears his name. People were looking at the skies in new ways, as Peter Moore observes at the outset of The Weather Experiment, his gripping account of nineteenth-century weather science, and by the middle of the century the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade (better known today as the Met Office) was ready to issue the worlds first official weather forecast.

Except there was nothing official about it. Robert FitzRoy, the Met Offices first director (who made his name as captain of the Beagle when Charles Darwin was aboard), had been so dismayed by the effects of a severe storm in 1859, in which 133 ships were sunk across the Irish Sea with the loss of more than 800 lives, that he took it upon himself to issue bespoke weather warnings, for which he coined the term forecasts. Prophecies and predictions they are not, he wrote; the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of scientific combination and calculation. The first of FitzRoys forecasts appeared in The Times on August 1, 1861, and although it was innocuously worded the general weather for the next two days was predicted to be fine it would prove to be one of the most contentious statements in the history of Victorian science.

The story of FitzRoy and his forecasts forms the centrepiece of Moores highly readable account of the transformation of modern meteorology from a science of description to a science of prediction, a science of the future tense. But while this transformation was welcomed by the wider public at least at first it troubled many of FitzRoys scientific peers, for whom the idea of weather prognostication posed a threat to the hard-won dignity of natural knowledge. For, as the weatherman Michael Fish can attest (after his famous dismissal of the severe storm that hit South-east England in 1987), when predictions are overturned by nature, the entire scientific edifice becomes tainted by association. Sure enough, FitzRoys hit-and-miss forecasts soon became the subject of press derision, and his efforts to defend them (in letters signed off as the Clerk of the Weather), along with a growing series of health and financial worries, slowly drove him to despair. On a spring morning in 1865, he locked himself in his dressing room and cut his throat with a razor.

Even today, weather forecasting remains a hazardous and very public sport

In response to FitzRoys suicide the Met Office suspended all forecasts, not least because, as Moore observes, the weather-forecasting system existed only in FitzRoys head. It took decades for them to be resumed, but even today, with supercomputers capable of processing 16,000 trillion calculations per second, forecasting remains a hazardous and very public sport. In one of the books most revealing passages, Moore interviews Dame Julia Slingo, the Met Office Chief Scientist, who sees so many parallels with what is happening now and what happened with FitzRoy; we are the only science that really has to predict and that brings trouble. No wonder the official who took over from FitzRoy was quoted as saying that the best thing for meteorology would be for everyone to stop observing for five years.

The Weather Experiment is not the first book to have been written about FitzRoy he has been the subject of three recent biographies as well as a novel, Harry Thompsons This Thing of Darkness (2006) but Moores achievement is to imbue him and his work with palpable narrative life, while surrounding him with a large supporting cast of contemporaries (FitzRoys Meteorological Galaxy), many of whom deserve books to themselves: not least the star-crossed American storm theorists, William Redfield and James P. Espy (The Storm King), whose bitter, lifelong professional rivalry offers a valuable reminder of the under-appreciated role that personal malice and ill feeling have played in the history of science.

The Story of the British and their Weather, by contrast, casts the weather itself as the unstable protagonist. In a series of fifty-six meteorological case histories, arranged into thematic sections (such as Snow, Cold and Great Freezes, Heat and Drought, Floods and Deluges), Patrick Nobbs curates an impressive historical gazetteer of British weather, from the London tornado of 1091, which destroyed around 600 houses in newly Norman Southwark, to the winter storms of 201314, which saw record-breaking winter rainfall the heaviest since records began in 1766 flood the Somerset Levels and much of the lower Thames Valley. Nobbs narrates some extraordinary episodes, such as the Derby Day storm of May 1911, in which a 100,000-strong crowd at Epsom racecourse was besieged by a ferocious electrical storm that left seventeen dead and many more injured; or the deadly flash-flood of 1952, in which a wall of boulder-laden water descended from Exmoor onto the coastal town of Lynmouth, washing entire streets of stone-built houses into the sea. Like Moore, Nobbs is continually alert to the narrative potential of archive material, although the thematic arrangement leads to unavoidably close repetition: after fifteen back-to-back accounts of record-breaking winters, the book moves on to Heat and Drought, and a sequence of equally record-breaking summers. A chronological structure would have eased the congestion, while allowing for a fuller and more nuanced discussion of the underlying history, such as the move towards a statistical approach to understanding weather and climate. As an uninhibited weather enthusiast, Nobbs is somewhat prone to statistical flights February 1894 ranks overall as the second-coldest February after 1947, and is the eighth-coldest month since 1659 as well as flashes of unintended humour (East Grinstead was cut off from the outside world), but the books real achievement lies in its calibration of a certain kind of Britishness, in which a national weather memory is refracted through a sequence of nostalgic tropes: hosepipe bans; the wrong kind of snow; fainting guardsmen; rain at Wimbledon; Big Bens failure to chime; bricks in cisterns; betting on a white Christmas. These are presented as a kind of meteorological mirror held up to a people who instinctively expect the unexpected, as Nobbs characterizes the British, although Peter Moore points out that FitzRoy, for one, had no patience with such parochialism:

For him the weather was not a trivial matter. It was not a shower in Surrey or a blustery wind at Epsom. Instead it was a lightning strike at Rio, a pampero in La Plata, a hurricane squall in the Strait of Magellan or storm after storm at Cape Horn.

Weather, of course, is a global system. As both books amply demonstrate, most British weather is imported from abroad, with depressions over Scandinavia funnelling cold Arctic airmasses south in winter, or high pressure systems over Western Europe cooking up deadly heatwaves in summer. Sandwiched as they are between a continent and an ocean, and assailed by the vagaries of the Atlantic jet stream, the British Isles are uniquely placed to experience daily meteorological drama. No wonder Britons encounter an average of six weather forecasts per day, FitzRoys enduring legacy going some way towards disproving the dictum, made famous by Mark Twain, that everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

Richard Hamblyns most recent book, Tsunami: Nature and culture, was published last year. He is a lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London.

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