Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 830-831
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Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather
Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather. By Mark Monmonier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. xiv+309; illustrations, figures, notes/references, index. $27.50.
Mark Monmonier's book describes the changes in the ways that meteorologists have represented atmospheric conditions affecting the weather on maps and charts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It traces, in the author's words, "the evolution of the weather map from simple hand-drawn plots of temperature, pressure and wind direction to a varied menu of customized displays" (p. x), such as one finds in newspapers like USA Today, on the weather channel, and on dedicated websites. These changes have been pushed predominantly by meteorologists wishing to place weather forecasting on a systematic and scientific basis. The Bergen school, led by physicist Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862-1951), was crucial to this development. Bjerknes pioneered the use of hydrodynamic theories in the explanation of atmospheric phenomena. After World War II, with the availability of extremely powerful computers, complex multiparametric mathematical models were developed to predict the evolution of atmospheric phenomena over several days.
On the demand side the military has, of course, been an important user of weather forecasts. In the nineteenth century, storm warnings were also [End Page 830] particularly sought after by shipping companies. The advent of the airplane called for the prediction of the weather not just on the surface of the earth but miles above it. Today the audience for information on the weather is vast, and reaches from the individual planning a day's outing to the government agency trying to deal with possible climatic changes due to global warming (if such there is) and the hole in the earth's ozone layer.
The story of weather maps, as Monmonier tells it, is very much a story of electronic technologies. In his view, the most important innovation in this regard was the telegraph, which shrank space literally and figuratively. It enabled meteorologists to chart the state of the weather hundreds of miles away, to track its evolution, and to be forewarned of impending dangers. With barometers and thermometers supplemented by balloons, kites, airplanes, and satellites it has become increasingly possible for meteorologists to build pictures of the state of the weather at any point on or above the surface of the globe and to foresee its changes.
While Monmonier recognizes that predicting the weather depends on an important technological infrastructure, he does not explore in any detail the nature of the interface between this infrastructure and the compilation and use of weather maps. His attention remains focused on the end-product, the representation of the weather on a map, and his aim is to tell a story of technological progress, glossing over the difficulties of implanting new imaging technologies inside the practicing meteorological community. Take, for example, the technique of Doppler radar, an extremely powerful satellite-borne technology for following cloud movements and for measuring the speed and direction of winds within a storm. Monmonier states that this technique's "transition from research tool to operational network took three decades, two billion dollars, and a sweeping reorganization of the weather service" (p. 145). He makes little or no attempt to tell us why.
This book is directed, in Monmonier's words, at "a mixed audience of cartographic historians, weather professionals, and intelligent lay readers" (p. xii). Historians of science and technology will find it a useful reference book (with some superb maps and color images and valuable website addresses) and a source of ideas for further research.
Dr. Krige is the Melvin Kranzberg Professor in the School of History, Technology and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He previously directed the Centre de recherche en histoire des sciences et des techniques in the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, Paris.
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