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


This book is the first real cultural history of weather in the United States, providing a comprehensive look at our obsession with the weather. The author maintains that weather has such a strong hold on the American imagination because it has been elevated to "quasi-religious" status -- it illuminates the paradoxes of order and disorder in daily life and it brings together disparate forces, such as scientific law, chance and free will.

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The wind is blowing steadily at 70 miles per hour, the temperature is about 10ºF below zero, it's 2:30 in the afternoon, January 16, 2003, on top of Mount Washington, New Hampshire. I take a few steps away from the shelter of the observatory, and the wind shoves me forward like an automatic revolving door, only much harder. There's no stepping back. I do a couple of glissades but go where the wind blows. Swinging around, I stumble back under the trellises that protect observers from windblown pieces of ice from the observatory tower. All the antennae are covered with rime flags whose delicate filaments stretch out toward the wind. They look like white iron filings on a magnet. I'm standing at 6,200 feet in the middle of a cloud. It is the beginning of my two-day EduTrip offered by the Mount Washington Observatory.

The meteorological division of the U.S. Signal Service and its successor, the U.S.Weather Bureau, made observations here from 1870 to 1892. The observatory was rebuilt with private funds and has operated as a nonprofit research and educational institution since 1932. The observatory cultivates its mystique as the place with "the worst weather on earth." Its great claim to fame is the 231-mile-per-hour wind recorded at 1:21 p.m. on April 12, 1934, which remains a world's Record for a surface station. Wind, cold, and, for a few hours a day, the view of the Presidential Range and the White Mountains are what the observatory is selling. In summer, tourists are allowed to drive up the narrow seven-mile road, but in winter EduTrippers ride up in a big Bombardier snowcat.

Bryan Yeaton, an energetic young man in a bright red parka, greets us in the parking lot at the base of the mountain. Yeaton does education programs for the Mount Washington Observatory and produced The Weather Notebook, a nationally syndicated radio show about weather that aired from1997 to 2005. He introduces the other participants and staff. My fellow worst-weather seekers are a retired couple recently settled in New Hampshire for its outdoor activities and two guys in their forties from Massachusetts. One was a commercial fisherman, the other is a computer programmer; their trip is a Christmas present from their wives. Ken Rancourt is a research meteorologist for the observatory who doubles as the Bombardier driver. His assistant, Wayne, looks like the actor Mark Wahlberg and mentions this resemblance when he is introduced. When he speaks, he reveals several missing teeth. The next day, as I am inching down the icy moun- tain on rented crampons, he speeds past me on a Flexible Flyer, providing an explanation for his dental condition.

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).

Weather is, as others have noted, well suited to the electronic age--constantly in motion, frequently fast-moving (aided by time-lapse photography), ubiquitous, and visually beautiful. In a culture that enshrines freewill but expects conformity, weather offers a third alternative, chance, to explain the fate of nature and humanity. Even meteorologists acknowledge that weather is chaotic. Weather re- minds us of who we are and what we value. This is why there are so many different kinds of weather, so many different maps of what we think we see. This book is organized by the perception, marketing, and management of weather in the United States since 1900. The focus is on weather in American life in the past 107 years, with occasional brief excursions into the nineteenth century when it seems necessary to make a point about contemporary issues. By perception Iman, simply, how owe see and understand the largely invisible phenomena we call weather. What tools do we use to describe it? What do we do with what we think it is? How do we depict it?

Marketing, too, is fairly straightforward. I realized when I was reading about why and how the Weather Bureau began to study snow that the bureau, like all government agencies, needed to justify its existence to taxpayers and their congressional representatives. The bureau sold the only thing it had of value--knowledge. Like any business, it sought to create a monopoly on its product and succeeded for many years, partly by controlling the language used to discuss weather. Hence, the emphasis in this book is on words and how they are used to make the ineffable seem normal. Businessmen and businesswomen found ways to market sunshine, wind power, snow, and other "products" of weather.

Management of the weather is here taken to mean all attempts to predict, create, and protect against weather. We manage weather when we dress in the morning, open an umbrella, or write a poem or paint a picture of it. Obviously, these rough categories overlap in significant ways. As the manuscript grew and I looked for ways to keep it within reasonable limits, seven chapters became five. Sections on drought, floods, climate and climate change, risk and natural hazard mitigation, including weather insurance, were shortened or eliminated. Each deserves its own book, and there are already many books and articles that cover these subjects quite well.

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.

Chapter 3, "Seeing Weather," looks at the history of sky awareness, the fascination with clouds, and weather-themed photography, motion pictures, painting, and sculpture. One of the most important developments for understanding our relation with nature in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century may, I think, be found in the work of artists such as Walter De Maria, James Turrell, and Dozier Bell, who strive to use elements of weather to place an observer in a living landscape created by a fusion of science and art. Philosopher Edward Casey's ideas on the meanings of place offer ways to understand how weather may enable us to achieve a sense of harmony with nature. The chapter concludes with a section on the exhibiting of weather in museums and science centers. Chapter 4, "Transcribing Weather," examines the work of more than fifty American poets and novelists who have used weather in various ways to explore the meanings of human existence and our relationships with nature.

The pervasiveness of weather in literature and the arts raises in another way the question of obsession. Are we obsessing on the weather or the idea of weather? The answer, of course, is both, and poems by Wallace Stevens, Richard Hugo, Howard Nemerov, Carol Muske, Naomi Shihab Nye, and others lead us into mental and spiritual towers where real and imaginary winds blow. Weather in the work of novelists--George R. Stewart, Gore Vidal, Rick Moody, Jean Thompson, Clint McCown, Paul Quarrington--is the avatar of chance. Necessity, the laws of science and religion, and freewill, the cornerstone of Western philosophy, are challenged by the chaos of weather.

Chapter 5, "Suffering Weather," looks at the times and places where weather is most troublesome. Episodes of disaster are just part of the story, however, and I am interested in showing how we accommodate and acclimate to everyday weather on our own and with the help of the National Weather Service and the media. I begin the chapter with an account of my own quest to understand the extreme weather obsession of storm chasing. I look at some of the social and cultural meanings of tornadoes and hurricanes, then explore the impact of everyday weather on our lives. Efforts by the air-conditioning industry and the Weather Service to protect us from any weather-caused discomfort only underscore the highly personal meaning of weather. Each of us experiences weather differently. This book is full of quirky facts and eccentric personalities. I sought to bring the past alive by quoting from some of the more colorful commentators on weather. Their anecdotes stand alone.

Nevertheless, there is coherence to the story I tell, and that is that weather is the part of the physical environment closest to us. We are enveloped by air that is the medium for our life and communication. It is so much a part of us, our thoughts, our languages, our feelings, that we are mostly unaware of it, but we ignore it at our peril. Weather is obviously more than what atmospheric science says it is, but how much more?

My argument is that we live simultaneously in at least four weather systems, the one we feel with our senses, another that we learn about in science classes and National Weather Service reports, a third from the media that interprets the first two for our consumption, and a fourth in which our minds work to synthesize our experience and the knowledge acquired from art and literature. We express all these in meaningless banter and eloquent art. The paradox of weather is that it is both quotidian and unique.

As someone once said about sex, weather is what we think about all the time when we're not thinking about something else. Maybe it's also what we talk about when we are thinking of something else. "How's the weather?" often solicits more than meteorological commentary. A word on the wind is sufficient to establish a relationship between speakers, a mood, a tone, an atmosphere within the atmosphere. Weather can be a metaphor and a met language. "Hot enough for you?" may be an indirect inquiry into sensitive questions of health, well-being, success, or failure. We deem weather a safe topic, unlike religion and politics, but weather is religion and politics. Weather raises the most fundamental questions about the origin and purpose of life, the ability of humans to predict and control nature, and the place of science in public policy. To talk about the weather in the twenty-first century requires us to at least consider the possibility of anthropogenic climate change. Weather is a commodity, its products--water for people and agriculture, solar and wind energy, snow for winter sports and sun for summer-- marketed and managed.

By some estimates, trillions of dollars are made and lost annually by weather-dependent businesses. Insurance losses from hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, and other weather-related disasters are increasing dramatically. Media attention to weather is extensive, compelling, and sometimes misleading. In short, we cannot escape weather even if we want to. This book began as a challenge from Nancy Scott Jackson, at the time and acquisitions editor at the University Press of Kansas. Why, she asked, are Americans obsessed with weather? I hope this book answers Nancy's question. The preponderance of evidence leads to the conclusion that some Americans are obsessed by weather, but fewer than are obsessed by genealogy, NASCAR, or sex. As a nation we are more possessed by weather than obsessed. We possess weather from within, in our lungs, blood, and mind.

You don't need to have an opinion about it, but if you already love weather, then this book will provide you with some new perspectives on what you already know and give you something to talk about with other weather weenies. If you are indifferent to weather and the people who talk about it, this book offers plenty of evidence for why you are.