A Book for the Weather-Child in All of Us

Published August 1, 2005

Review of Skywatch West: The Complete Weather Guide
by Richard A. Keen
Fulcrum Publishing, August 2004
$24.95 paper, 261 pages, ISBN 1555912974

We all assume we know what snow and rain are, but do we really?

In a few short minutes of reading, Skywatch West will give you numerous “eureka” moments as you learn the full story of hail, sleet, glaze ice, graupel, and diamond dust.

The book is worth its modest price of $24.95 for its gorgeous full-color weather pictures alone. The more-than-two dozen thunderstorm photographs could easily grace the walls of an art gallery.

The book reads as though you were interviewing a jolly upbeat weatherman (aren’t they all?) about the real causes of the various weather phenomena you think you understand. In reality, most of us do not understand these things at all. Hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, sea storms, and whirlwinds will delight you.

I guarantee that you will recapture your childhood sense of wonder when you read Keen’s chapter 4, “Light in the Sky.” Even meteors are not what you think they are! Which also goes for “why the sky is blue” and “twilight’s red, yellow, and purple.”

Of all the lights in the sky, none gives the cool shivers like the aurora borealis, or northern lights. No one but a very sharp professional meteorologist can explain the aurora borealis. It is as complex as it is beautiful, but Keen does it justice.

He will enhance your appreciation of rainbows and harvest moons and convince you that one day as the sun sets on the ocean, you may actually see a “green flash.” Best of all, you will learn why stars really twinkle and be able to explain it to friends and family.

Keen’s 30-page chapter on climate change is the best in print. With a child-like ignorance of political distortion, Keen explains climate in complete, objective terms with a clear analysis of facts and trends, science and speculation that prove he has no allegiance to anything but unadulterated accuracy.

The chasm that exists between politically motivated climate change scare-mongering and scientific reality is vast. Were excerpts of this chapter to be read by the entire U.S. population, a few dozen environmental advocacy groups might go out of business for lack of financial support. A few paragraphs of his objective analysis are worth reprinting here:

“So far, human beings have burned up more than 10 cubic miles of oil, raising the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere about 30 percent above its ‘natural’ content of two centuries ago. Theoretically, this amount of additional carbon dioxide should warm the Earth about one-quarter of a degree Fahrenheit. This is the degree of warming that would happen if the greenhouse effect raised the temperature and left everything else in the atmosphere the same. It’s not that simple, though.

“A warmer atmosphere evaporates more water from the oceans, and water vapor is also a greenhouse gas. As a matter of fact, water vapor is by far the main greenhouse gas in our atmosphere–there is 30 times as much vapor as carbon dioxide, and its contribution to the greenhouse effect is proportionately larger. So, in some theories, an increase in the vapor content of the atmosphere should further raise the temperature, changing that quarter-degree warming to one or two degrees (or even more).

“The greenhouse story gets even more complex due to the predilection of water vapor to condense into clouds. More moisture (due to the initial slight warming) should form more clouds. More clouds reflect more sunlight, reducing the amount of solar energy reaching the planet. At some point the reflected sunlight might outweigh the greenhouse effect, and limit the carbon dioxide warming. Another complication is that clouds form where air is rising, but since what goes up must come back down, there’s going to be big holes between these clouds. These holes can let sunlight in, but they also let infrared radiation out.

“All of these factors are called ‘feedback’ effects, and a positive feedback is one that would result in a larger warming than the initial quarter-degree due to carbon dioxide alone.

“The point at which clouds cause the warming to level off, if at all, is a hot topic among researchers. Some forecasters put enough positive feedback mechanisms in their computer programs to raise the warming to 3 or 4 degrees, while others prefer to include negative feedbacks (such as reflective clouds) that virtually eliminate any warming.”

While Keen pokes a little fun at the silliness of today’s climate modelers grappling with unattainable data for the many variables that can each control outcomes, he still can’t resist employing his less-sophisticated but likely more-accurate crystal ball. After considering the future of El NiƱos, 200-year sun cycles, a doubling of CO2 levels from pre-industrial levels of 280ppm to about 500ppm by century’s end, and a neutralization of all the potential feedback effects, that would likely leave us about half-a-degree warmer than we are today.

This marvelous book about weather and climate, floods and droughts and atmospheric legerdemain has but one drawback. If you pour over it with childish ferocity as I did, its binding may give way to your enthusiasm. So treat it gingerly, because you will want to revisit it often.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.