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

What remains is a cultural history of meteorology and weather, subjects I did not think were covered adequately in the existing literature. For the twentieth century, the only institutional history is Donald R. Whitnah's History of the United States Weather Bureau, published in 1961. Kristine C. Harper's doctoral dissertation, "Boundaries of Research: Civilian Leadership, Military Funding, and the International Network Surrounding the Development of Numerical Weather Prediction in the United States" (2003), is indispensable for understanding the origins of the current weather establishment. Frederik Nebeker's Calculating the Weather: Meteorology in the 20th Century is a fine survey of the science, but it lacks institutional, political, and cultural contexts. James R. Fleming sets the standard for the history of meteorology and climatology in Meteorology in America, 1800–1870 and the several volumes he has edited. Mark Monmonier's Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather is a fascinating account of the ways atmospheric scientists visualize their subject. Only two recent books attempt what I would call cultural history of weather, geographer William B. Meyer's Americans and Their Weather and writer David Laskin's Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, neither of which devotes more than seventy pages to the twentieth century. Gary Fine's ethnographic study of the work culture of meteorologists was published just ashy book was going to print; it should make important contributions to our understanding of how the weather is perceived, marketed, and managed.

This book is meant to complement the existing scholarship on the history of meteorology and weather in the United States and to strike out in new directions. It also addresses the major questions of environmental history, namely, the ways in which nature in the form of weather has affected humans, and how humans have thought about weather and acted upon it. Chapter 1, "Talking about Weather," introduces the U.S.Weather Bureau in its principal role as forecaster, and the struggle that ensued over definition of terms, public acceptance of meteorological authority, and the meanings of uncertainty. In its complexity and chaotic behavior, weather interacts with three other mysterious human activities-- religion, politics, and play--in numerous ways, and weather chatter becomes, by turns, profound, ridiculous, and sublime.

Chapter 2, "Managing Weather," is chiefly concerned with the ways in which weather has become part of the nation's economy. It continues the story of the Weather Bureau's attempt to market its knowledge but adds the history of the American Meteorological Society, founded in 1919, which helped to legitimize the work of the Weather Bureau but also challenged its authority. As the atmospheric sciences grew, new groups with vested interest in the weather emerged: meteorologists in private business, media weathercasters, and promoters of various weather-related businesses. These communities were not fettered by the bureau's quaint notion of public service and aggressively worked to control what the public should think about weather. Some particularly entrepreneurial individuals advocated weather modification through geoengineering projects on various scales and with questionable results. I touch on a few of them to illustrate the most audacious aspect of selling the weather.

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