Excerpt: 'Weather Matters: An American Cultural History Since 1900,' by Bernard Mergen

In winter the observatory and adjoining visitors center are usually coated with snow and ice. The buildings resemble a Gothic wedding cake. The instrument rooms and labs are a jumble of records, supplies, and humorous signs that initiate the visitor into the culture of a research institution. "Big Empty Box" is attached to what looks like an air-conditioner, and "Bimetal Box" contains supplies. These are insiders' jokes on stupid questions from visitors. Bryan begins our orientation with similar "ice-breaking" jokes about being the "world's worst weather observer" and "world's highest paid weatherman."

He then explains why Mount Washington is important for meteorological observation. Its elevation makes it a kind of permanent weather balloon, transmitting data visually and numerically twenty-four hours a day. Its location exposes it to many of the storm tracks across New England, and New England is the "exhaust pipe" of the nation's weather.1 Later in the afternoon, sharing a chair with the observatory's mascot cat, Nin, I look at the logbooks. For almost seventy-five years, visitors have written comments such as "fine day," "high clouds," and "gale winds." Confined by nature to the prosaic, the steady accumulation of such observation ascends to poetry. I glance out the window. The sunset is a soft apricot line on the western horizon. Thus it is with the history of weather. The simplest daily occurrences of sun, wind, clouds compose its raw materials; a hand shielding eyes from the brightness, or a finger pointing to the sky, is the beginning of a weather chronicle.

Weather Matters is about the ways in which Americans of the past century have coped with weather. In that century, meteorology became one of the premier environmental sciences, weather reports emerged as computer-generated works of art, forecasts based on thousands of variables and covering areas as large as the globe and as small as neighborhoods were developed, weather disasters came to be anticipated and the loss of life and property kept to a minimum, and artists and poets struggled to offer alternatives to the reduction of weather to numbers and formulas--but people never stop praying for rain, or sunshine, or snow, or to be spared from tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, and blizzards. Many of those prayers are mere incantations, others deeply pious appeals to God, while some are spontaneous expressions of faith in the promised order of science. While some believe in miracles, others believe in the miracle of General Circulation Models (the complete statistical description of atmospheric motions over the earth) and Advanced Weather Interactive Processing Systems (AWIPS).

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