Dr. Fred Bortz

The Coming Storm: Extreme Weather and Our Terrifying Future by Bob Reiss

(Hyperion, 2001)

Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth by Dr. Bob Sheets and Jack Williams

(Vintage, 2001)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Other Wind- and weather-related reviews on The Science Shelf include the following:
For readers who like nothing better than the adventures and perils of people facing severe weather, we offer two titles. Those who like their science and technology straight will enjoy Hurricane Watch by former National Hurricane Center Director Dr. Bob Sheets and Jack Williams, founder of the USA Today Weather Page. Those who prefer their science spiced with politics will favor former Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Reiss' The Coming Storm.

Hurricane Watch is a readable and informative paperback original about the history of hurricane prediction and the benefits of preparedness. The book weaves together several threads: stories of legendary storms (including the calamitous Galveston hurricane of 1900 and 1992's Hurricane Andrew) and the people who faced them; tales of famous scientists and forecasters (including Christopher Columbus); clear descriptions of hurricane structure and movement. Readers learn about instruments to measure hurricanes and techniques to predict their course and intensity. They also discover how government agencies disseminate information and coordinate public response to weather emergencies.

Today the National Hurricane Center combines satellite imagery, aerial reconnaisance, an extensive data-gathering network, and computer modeling to predict the path and power of these deadliest storms on earth. Though imperfect, their forecasts and their timely issuance of watches and warnings save countless lives, even when property damage is extensive.

Are hurricanes becoming more common or severe because of global warming? Dr. Sheets and Mr. Williams say that no one can be sure; but Mr. Reiss includes stories of deadly tropical cyclones, as well as tornadoes, winter storms, floods, killer heat waves, wildfires, droughts, melting glaciers and thinning polar ice caps in his 1988-2000 chronology and twenty-first century projections of a changing climate.

The Coming Storm recounts the evolving -- often clashing -- views of scientists, diplomats, politicians, lobbyists, and industrialists in the face of the accumulating evidence that our planet's climate isn't what it used to be. No single extreme event can be blamed on a warmer Earth, but the totality of data suggests that a new climatic regime has begun, triggered by an increased "greenhouse effect" due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests.

The greenhouse effect is essential for life as we know it on Earth. Carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane in the atmosphere permit solar energy to pass through to warm the planet's surface. That heat then radiates outward as infrared energy that those gases can absorb, just as the glass of a greenhouse does. Without that beneficial trapping of heat, the average surface temperature of our planet would be well below freezing; but an increase in greenhouse gases could be too much of a good thing.

That was what climate-modeling expert Jim Hansen told a Senate hearing On June 23, 1988, one of the most oppressive days of a miserable Washington, DC, summer. Though it was too early to predict precise changes in the world's weather and their likely consequences, it was not too soon to develop policies to prevent the worst eventualities.

From that day forward, writes Mr. Reiss, the debate over greenhouse gases and global warming moved from the scholarly realm of science to the contentious political arena. Since then, scientific evidence for human-induced global warming has continued to build, but interpretation of that evidence and its implications for international policy has been influenced by short-term economic and political agendas. That is where the "Terrifying Future" of the subtitle may lie. Relentless extremes of weather may trigger economic collapse and political upheaval in large but unstable nations -- a coming geo-political storm.

Ph.D. Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of eight books for young readers, including Dr. Fred's Weather Watch: Create and Run Your Own Weather Station.