What the Weather Is

Charlotta María Hauksdóttir's Topography Study XVI, 2018; from Hauksdóttir’s book A Sense of Place: Imprints from Iceland
Charlotta María Hauksdóttir
Charlotta María Hauksdóttir: Topography Study XVI, 2018; from Hauksdóttir’s book A Sense of Place: Imprints from Iceland, to be published by Daylight in January 2020

At the end of July 2019 in the English Lake District, half a mile from the spot known as the wettest place in Britain, the river was low, the waterfalls silent. A heat wave was scorching Europe and there were wildfires across the Arctic Circle. Clare Nullis, from the UN World Meteorological Organization, reported that the flow of searing air from the Sahara would reach Greenland, where the ice sheet built up over thousands of years is disappearing. “In July alone, it lost 160 billion tonnes of ice through surface melting. That’s roughly the equivalent of 64 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Just in July. Just surface melt—it’s not including ocean melt as well.”

In the eight detailed, immensely readable essays of Waters of the World, Sarah Dry shows how over the past 150 years scientists have slowly come to see climate as a global system, and to recognize how human activity contributes to changes in the complex interactions of ice, oceans, and the atmosphere. Until the late twentieth century, climatology was chiefly a geographical subject that aimed to define the distinctive qualities of the apparently stable climates in different regions. Climate science, by contrast, developing after World War II, reconfigured the discipline as the study of change rather than continuity, drawing on oceanography, atmospheric physics, meteorology, glaciology, and the new field of computer science. “Before this interdisciplinary synthesis,” Dry writes, “the notion of climate change was an oxymoron.”

Dry is a science historian and a trustee of the Science Museum Group in London, but she is also a biographer, the author of a life of Marie Curie (2003) and of The Newton Papers (2014), the strange story of Isaac Newton’s manuscripts. In Waters of the World, too, she takes a biographical approach, grounding her study in the personal quests that lie behind leaps in understanding, which must be followed by the lengthy, meticulous testing of new theories. This makes for dramatic storytelling and also brings out a secondary theme: the tension between objective research and subjective response—the restless curiosity and passionate sense of wonder that so often drives those who study the natural world.

John Tyndall is a case in point. Dry introduces him, aged thirty-nine, “in the place he most loved to be”: climbing an Alpine glacier, the Mer de Glace, in December 1859, carrying a notebook, a flask of tea, and a hard biscuit crammed into his pocket. Tyndall was an experienced climber who found the mountains an escape from his life as a professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution in London. Sometimes working in a blizzard, he set…

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