Tag Archives: meteorology

Afterthought on “The Cure for Catastrophe” by Robert Muir-Wood.

(See my earlier blog entry on November 20.)

This book afforded me the unusual pleasure of finding a friend within the pages! Well, not exactly – I found a surname: Redfield. Who did I know by that name? Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Redfield Marsh, mentor, good friend and fellow Penn State graduate! In 1975, she made a phone call that changed my life. She was teaching at a small public college in New Jersey. Would I consider interviewing for a job? Mutual connections at Penn State had given her my name. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I knew that Libby had grown up spending her summers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, surrounded by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Might she be related to William Redfield, mentioned in Muir-Wood’s book as a self trained “amateur” scientist of tremendous acumen, one of the first observers to recognize that hurricanes have a circular structure and move along somewhat predictable paths? Yes! William Redfield (a storekeeper from Middletown, CT) went on to become the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848 and now the world’s largest general scientific society.

Between the time of William Redfield and Elizabeth Redfield Marsh, the Redfield family produced a number of distinguished scientists. Her father, Arthur Redfield, was a meteorologist. Libby’s chosen academic field was geography, and she wrote about rural planning. The family tradition continues. One of her sons teaches geography and environmental studies at a private college in Pennsylvania. Another is a physician.

Here are some reasons why this personal anecdote seems important NOW:

  • Science as a basis for public policy is being denigrated by climate deniers, the anti-vaccine lobby and other groups. This disturbs me greatly. If not science, then what will be the basis for our decisions? I don’t dispute the role of values and intuition, but IF there is scientific data available on an issue, it should be carefully considered. We ignore it at our peril.
  • I love science as an expression of the human spirit. It lifts me up.
  • I value “citizen science”. Enthusiastic “amateurs” make important contributions in fields like entomology, ornithology and digitization. (Take my word on that last one.) I subscribe to the notion that children are all born scientists. The Redfield family was unusually successful at keeping scientific passions alive.

So here’s to the memory of Libby Marsh (1923? – 2009) and her scientific ancestors, amateur and academic! May their efforts be remembered and appreciated.

“The Cure for Catastrophe – How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters” by Robert Muir-Wood

Published by Basic Books, 2016, 278 pages plus extensive documentation.

This book carried me across the shock of the election. I snagged it from the New Arrivals Shelf at Stockton. It is a fine example of one of my favorite genres, science for non-scientists.

One important thing I learned is that denial (as in Climate Change denial) is nothing new. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was “re-branded” into a fire. True, highly destructive fires broke out, but the source of trouble was an earthquake. The City of San Francisco did not want to study the fault on which it stands.

What catastrophes does Muir-Wood discuss? Fires, earthquakes (and associated tsunamis), hurricanes (and their storm surges), other types of floods, and drought. Makes you wonder how humankind has persisted. He leaves out tornados and the mysterious derecho.

The point of this book is that most casualties during floods, earthquakes, etc. result from poor decisions. Housing in flood plains. Skyscraper apartment houses build without reference to building codes or advanced engineering principles.

Muir-Wood throws EVERYTHING at the problem, especially (to my delight) literature and history. Writing about a series of storms, he wisecracks “Gabriel Garcia Marquez could not make this up!”

The day after I started reading “The Cure for Catastrophe”, I found two related articles in the New York Times (November 4, 2016). On page A4 “Italian Town Still ‘Broken’ by Quake Years Ago” and on page A15 “San Francisco Sues Over Sinking Skyscraper, Symbol of a Rush to Build”.

Each of these stories can be understood better if analyzed from Muir-Wood’s point of view.

Why did this book help me shake off my post-election gloom? Because Muir-Wood is a super intelligent technological optimist. He can see a path forward to improved safety and health for all. He provides examples of people, cities and countries that are improving their catastrophe management. He invented the term “risk culture”, I think. And he was kind enough to forego use of the phrase “internet of things” until very late in his discussion. I haven’t quite integrated the IoT into my mental toolbox.

Read this book! And use it to demand good, science based public policy from our elected officials.

“SuperStorm – Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy” by Kathryn Miles

Published 2014, 332 pages, 8 color plates.

Maybe I should get the personal stuff out of the way first? Sandy was not our first weather catastrophe in 2012. South Jersey was hit hard by a derecho on June 30. It was a rogue thunderstorm with “straight line winds”, and it was not predicted. My husband and I woke around 1 am to an impressive display of heat lightning. A glance at the Rain-dar cell phone weather app showed that a storm was closing around us. The wind hit hard, thunder and lightning exploded, and we hurried downstairs, frightened. I don’t think the action lasted more than ten minutes. Our electricity was off. We wandered back to bed, relatively unconcerned. In the morning, we discovered the intensity and extent of the damage. Personally, we were lucky.

And regionally, we were (sort of) lucky. When Hurricane Sandy came lumbering through five months later, the weaker trees had already fallen down and lots of utility poles and wires and transmission towers were newly repaired.

Hurricane Sandy was very different from the derecho. Sandy was predicted. We listened to days and days of analysis. Remembering our 48 hours without power after the derecho, we stocked up on batteries, water and food that wouldn’t require cooking. Institutions made plans and battened themselves down. The local college closed its dormitories and sent the students home. Sandy was not officially a hurricane when it hit the East coast. The eye passed over us almost innocuously. The colossal storm surge did much of the damage, and the worst winds and rain missed our neighborhood.

The book Superstorm is a detailed, comprehensive discussion of the storm, with emphasis on meteorology and forecasting. The book follows several interesting threads, like the sinking of the tall ship Bounty and the heroic efforts that saved all but two members of the crew.

Superstorm is organized chronologically and emphasizes science but reaches out into politics, history, psychology and other fields in order to deal with important questions about human behavior. How do you explain the uncertainty inherent in weather forecasting? What motivates people to evacuate, on the one hand, or to defiantly remain in the face of danger? How do you communicate when your audience is already saturated with internet and social media chatter that ranges from informative to just plain bizarre (like conspiracy theory)?

Read this book! I would really like author Kathryn Miles to tackle the issues that emerged after Sandy. Where should we rebuild? Are there parts of the coast that must be abandoned? How much money should be invested in putting houses and businesses back into their pre-storm condition? How much should be invested in infrastructure changes? How do you manage reconstruction to minimize fraud?

Another set of issues emerging after Sandy surrounded the definition of a hurricane. Criteria for wind speed, wave height and “eye” structure don’t tell the whole story. In the future, there will be more emphasis on storm surge prediction.

This book is another in a series of high quality “science for non-scientists” books I’ve read lately. (See my posts of June 19, May 3 and January 29, 2015.) Is this a genre? If so, it’s one of my favorites. This is the kind of book I could aspire to write.