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The Weather Machine How We See Into the Future

Popular Science
By: Andrew Blum(Author)
207 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
The Weather Machine provides a fascinating glimpse into the surprisingly complex infrastructure behind the modern weather forecast.
The Weather Machine
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  • The Weather Machine ISBN: 9781784700980 Paperback Sep 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • The Weather Machine ISBN: 9781847923400 Hardback Jun 2019 In stock
Selected version: £10.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Shall we take an umbrella… or evacuate the city? The Weather Machine is about a miraculous-but-overlooked invention that helps us through our daily lives – and sometimes saves them – by allowing us to see into the future.

When Superstorm Sandy hit North America, weather scientists had predicted its arrival a full eight days beforehand, saving countless lives and astonishing us with their capability. Their skill is unprecedented in human history and draws on nearly every major invention of the last two centuries: Newtonian physics, telecommunications, spaceflight and super-computing.

In this gripping investigation, Andrew Blum takes us on a global journey to explain this awe-inspiring feat – from satellites circling the Earth, to weather stations far out in the ocean, through some of the most ingenious minds and advanced algorithms at work today. Our destination: the simulated models they have constructed of our planet, which spin faster than time, turning chaos into prediction, offering glimpses of our future with eery precision.

This collaborative invention spans the Earth and relies on continuous co-operation between all nations – a triumph of human ingenuity and diplomacy we too often shrug off as a tool for choosing the right footwear each morning. But in this new era of extreme weather, we may come to rely on its maintenance and survival for our own.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A fascinating glimpse into a hidden world
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 2 Oct 2019 Written for Hardback

    Checking the weather forecast is like flushing your toilet. A banal activity we all engage in a few times a day. But does anyone of us really know what goes into making it? Andrew Blum is fascinated by infrastructures. His previous book Tubes explored the physical infrastructure that keeps the internet running. Here he delves into the infrastructure that enables weather predictions. Most of us might have an inkling it involves satellites and computer models, but that does not begin to describe the globe-spanning collaborative network that hides under the bonnet.

    Blum’s particular mission statement does have one corollary: the weather itself is almost absent from this book. If you are interested in the basics of weather patterns, where rain comes from, how storms develop, what the deal is with areas of high and low pressure, etc. you will have to look elsewhere. Of course, seeing how big of a topic meteorology is, this omission is understandable.

    For this book, Blum takes the opening of the first telegraph line in the USA in 1844 as the starting point of his history of modern meteorology. Their sensitivity to foul weather and the instantaneous exchange of information meant its operators were the first to collect weather observations over larger areas. With it came the almost spontaneous realisation that weather was not a local phenomenon, but moved across the country.

    From these early beginnings, Blum introduces one of the founding fathers of weather modelling, the Norwegian Vilhelm Bjerknes (see also Inventing Atmospheric Science). His work at the turn of the 19th century is still relevant today, underlying our current models. Visions of a “forecast factory” filled with humans working in parallel to compute weather patterns were floated, but the reality lagged behind. The manual calculations were too time-consuming to be of practical use and there was a chronic lack of observations to do the calculations with.

    Though this first part of the book makes for fascinating reading, a moment’s reflection suggests that it is somewhat lacking in its coverage. A pioneer such as Francis Beaufort – he of the wind scale – is barely mentioned (see e.g. The Weather Experiment). The deeper history of weather observations and early instruments, before the 1800s, is left out (see The Evolution of Meteorology for a more in-depth and technical history). The humble weather balloon, which is still let up in droves to this day, receives scant mention. And what of the ubiquitous weather station?

    Delving into Bjerknes’s history entails a trip to Norway, where Blum visits the island of Utsira, home to one the nation’s oldest weather stations. His reporting here is full of atmosphere but surprisingly thin on factual information. What instruments do you actually find in a modern ground-based weather station? What do they measure, and how? How have they changed over time? Blum remains vague on the specifics and interested readers might want to consult e.g. Setting Up a Weather Station and Understanding the Weather or the more in-depth The Weather Observer's Handbook.

    Fortunately, the book hits its stride when Blum moves on to the invention of both rocket technology in the wake of World War II, and the satellite technology of the Cold War. As with many scientific disciplines, war and military funding provided much of the impetus for technological development. This seems a topic closer to Blum’s heart, and he explores the different types of satellites, the logistical challenge of updating and moving around this space fleet, and the different agencies responsible for this. Despite living in Europe myself, I was previously only familiar with the US agency NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) but not its European counterpart EUMETSAT (the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites). Blum visits the German headquarters, witnessing data collection from a satellite in action, while back in the US, he travels to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to marvel at a new type of satellite to measure soil moisture, but misses out on the launch due to (ironically) bad weather.

    The final stretch of reportage sees Blum delve into the weather models and forecasts. As also argued in A Vast Machine, data and models go hand in hand. With increasing amounts of data from all corners and layers of the globe, models have grown in complexity and power to the point that we have virtual models of the planet that produce reliable forecasts a week into the future.

    In the US, Blum talks to scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), while in Europe he visits the undisputed leader in this field, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF). The latter is an especially fascinating organisation, both in the way it is run, as what it is running on (some of the world’s fastest supercomputers). Lastly, there is The Weather Company in the US who provides forecasts-on-demand over the internet to all the major players (Google, Facebook etc.) and has become increasingly reliant on models over humans.

    Alongside all the gadgetry, Blum takes the time for interesting reflections. I mentioned the continued entanglement of military and meteorological interests. But more importantly, there is the continuous cooperation between all of the world’s countries. Meteorology seems to be one of the few areas where nations put aside their differences to work towards a greater good without any financial gain involved. Even so, the increasingly expensive and complicated infrastructure sees power and knowledge becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer players. Entirely different developments that have meteorologists scratching their heads are the spectres of both crowd-sourced and private data in the hands of large technology corporations seeking to profiteer from it.

    Overall, I think The Weather Machine is somewhat lacking when it comes to the early history of meteorology but hits its stride when it gets to the satellite era and beyond. Blum features a pleasant mix of accessible information with on-the-ground interviews and impressions, and I breezed through this book in a day. If like me, you know little about modern meteorology, this absorbing book provides a fascinating glimpse into a world largely hidden from view. But do not be surprised if new questions arise after reading this book.
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Andrew Blum is the author of Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet, described as 'utterly engrossing [...] the year's most stimulating and original travel book' (Independent) and a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. He writes about infrastructure, architecture, design, technology, urbanism, art, and travel. Since 1999, his articles and essays have appeared in Wired, Popular Science, Metropolis, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, New Yorker and many more publications. He has degrees in literature from Amherst College and in human geography from the University of Toronto, and lives in his native New York City.

Popular Science
By: Andrew Blum(Author)
207 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
The Weather Machine provides a fascinating glimpse into the surprisingly complex infrastructure behind the modern weather forecast.
Media reviews

"This fascinating book reveals the existence and origins of surely one of our species' greatest creations, and Andrew Blum is the perfect writer to share both the remarkable human stories and the astonishing technical wizardry behind it all."
– Mark Vanhoenacker, bestselling author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

"Andrew Blum is a master of revealing the hidden systems behind technologies we take for granted. In the The Weather Machine, he takes on the daily forecast, and the result is deeply researched, tightly written, compulsively readable, and totally fascinating."
– Seth Fletcher, author of Einstein's Shadow: A Black Hole, a Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Unseeable

"Exhilarating [...] A hurricane-force tour of one of the most astonishing but under-appreciated facets of the modern world"
– Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins

"Sharp, stylish and often surprising. In this absorbing book Andrew Blum tracks the development, from wild dream to astonishing reality, of the quietly revolutionary technology that shapes our everyday lives."
– Peter Moore, author of The Weather Experiment

"Clear and entertaining [...] A highly readable and accessible entry into the world of meteorology; of interest to everyone who is affected by weather."
Library Journal (starred review)

"Thanks to Blum's immersive research, readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into something often taken for granted."
Publishers Weekly

"A bright look at weather forecasting [...] A solid popular account with plenty of quirky detail about this 'new way of seeing into the future.'"
Kirkus Reviews

"A lucid and approachable guide to the satellites, scientists, and supercomputers that make up the forecasting system we so often take for granted."

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