The Weather Doctor's Book Reviews
National Audubon Society
First Field Guide:
by Jonathan D.W. Kahl
As I understand it, a field guide is intended to help its user enjoy the outdoor experience while in the field and later back at home. As such, it is first and foremost a visual book with enough descriptive text to tell the reader basic details of what they are seeing. A first field guide then is intended as an introduction to the subject for a younger audience or an audience who may not be yet learned enough in the topic to use the appropriate complete field guides.
My first exposure to field guides, and "first" field guides came with the Golden Science Series in the 1950s, particularly their volume Weather, which was my first real weather book (in fact I wore it out and eventually purchased my second copy in the late 1960s). In those days, illustrations were mostly drawings although they were very informative and at times superior to photographs in identifying a concept. The format of that guide was a handy pocket size with sturdy paper stock, a boon to a book meant to venture into the outdoors. I have used it in many ways for over four decades now.
I have reviewed the National Audubon Society First Field Guide: Weather, one of six First Field Guides currently available in the series, with the above criteria for a field guide in mind and in relation to that early field guide of mine.
The National Audubon Society First Field Guide: Weather was written by Jonathan D.W. Kahl, professor of meteorology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee who has also authored the introductory How's The Weather? series (which I have also reviewed). This Guide is a small volume (approximately 150 pages), well illustrated and printed with a durable cover and good paper stock for a field guide. I find it much more comfortable in my hand than the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather, which is awkward in shape and thickness. This attribute can be important for young readers with smaller hands.
The Guide is comprised of four sections: "What is weather" -- a short, basic overview of the atmosphere; "How to look at weather" -- an overview of weather and weather phenomena; "Field Guide" -- the specific topics of the guide, a series of identifying photographs and short descriptions; and "References" -- a short list of resources and a small glossary. A good additional feature of the guide is a laminated reference card with thumbnail photographs of the major topics. Such a card should prove very useful for their animals and plant guides. While it could be improved for viewing the atmosphere, it should still prove a useful aid to the beginning weather watcher.
Overall, I found the quality of this guide very good in illustrations, text, organization and useability. The written materials are generally of good quality and of adequate depth for a field guide. However, I found several aspects of the book disappointing and frustrating, both as a user and as a professional, particularly since it is aimed at a young audience for their first exposure to the subject and thus it can be a major influence in drawing them to the topic. Most of my frustrations are due to a lack of tight editing of text and pictures and general editorial sloppiness.
While most of the photographs and drawings are spectacularly beautiful, many are too small to be used to identify what they intend to illustrate. For example on page 40, a picture of a detailed surface weather map is presented, but it is so small that none of that detail is recognizable. (Indeed, is anything on it recognizable to the untrained eye?) On the facing page, a visible-wavelength satellite photograph claims to show the moon's shadow during a solar eclipse on it. I certainly cannot pick out this detail, even after extensive search.
Other illustrations are off the mark or poor examples of what they intend to show particularly for a field identification guide. In my mind a guide should show the most basic images that allow the user to identify the phenomenon in question, using arrows or other marks to indicate particular points of identification. Roger Tory Peterson once remarked that drawings were often more useful in a field guide that photographs because a drawing could emphasize specific detail. I found many times in this Guide instances were I would have preferred a drawing instead of a photograph (or at least accompanying one).
In particular, on pages 74-75, the photos of mammatus clouds are striking in their colour but I have seen more detailed photos elsewhere that would be more appropriate for identification purposes in a field guide. On page 145, the photograph accompanying "Sundogs" is not as helpful in identifying the phenomenon as the photo on page 55, which also shows the user where to look in the sky for the sundogs.
I question the choice of using a photo of industrial stacks and cooling towers to illustrate air pollution when the text beneath speaks of urban photochemical smog. I am also doubtful that the photograph illustrating storm surge is really an example of this phenomena and is, in fact, a large, wind-generated wave (albeit a spectacular one) unassociated with a hurricane hitting the breakwater. (Skies are unusually clear for a tropical storm or hurricane situation, even for the eye sections of those storms.)
Some other illustration concerns: If the photo illustrating "Mirages" is of a mirage, what type is it and where is it? It looks like a fuzzy cloud photo. Next, the detail of the microburst hitting the ground is hidden behind the text box, losing the identification purpose of the illustration. The snow squall photo has no snow -- either on the ground or falling. The picture of ball lightning on page 95 does not indicate where exactly to look. I assume the ball lightning is the bright spot in front of the pole but that could be a low sun. Where exactly is the thunderstorm in the top satellite picture on page 89? (I know but will a novice weather watcher find it without assistance?)
I also find a number of problems with descriptions and definitions. The description of surge danger does not make sense: "Surging ocean waters generally do not come closer to land than a mile or two from the coast...." Then why are storm surges so dangerous to shoreline properties and residents? (Because they do strike the coast when conditions are right.)
I also have trouble with the defining of nitrogen oxide gases formed during lightning as pollution. While nitrogen oxides are pollutants when released from human activities such as driving vehicles or burning of fuels, these gases when generated by lightning are major natural sources of beneficial nitrogen fertilizers required by all plants.
In the section on Drought, the "Look For:" subsections states: "Periods of lower-than normal [my italics] rainfall, often accompanied by high temperatures." Such a statement is very misleading. In many areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, rainfall could be much below normal in accumulation, and the region still have lush green vegetation under non-drought conditions. Droughts are extended periods of abnormally dry weather (usually with little or no rainfall for more than two weeks) causing a serious water shortage in the given area.
I also am uncomfortable with a number of the definitions in the glossary -- particularly: condensation, convection, downdraft, temperature, velocity and wind. With several good subject-specific glossaries available for reference, to print incomplete or incorrect definitions is inexcusable. For example, the definition of condensation has this extra phrase added: "In below freezing temperatures, water vapor may convert directly to solid water (ice)." While the statement is factually true, this process describes deposition not condensation.
My last criticisms of the National Audubon Society First Field Guide: Weather are aimed at what the Guide lacks, omissions that easily could have been included with another 15-25 pages, at most, added to the book.
The first missing element is a more complete field guide to the wind. Wind is only briefly mentioned in the Guide and then mostly as a feature of storms, yet it is one of the most important weather elements. I realize that wind is harder to see, and therefore to show, than clouds and precipitation, particularly in a non-animated form as a book, but with good drawings, the concepts are easy to convey to a young audience. This Guide lacks detailed mention of topics such as the Beaufort wind scale or the Buys-Ballot law or any number of local wind phenomena such as the sea/land breeze circulations, although the idealized concept of global wind patterns receives a full page of text.
I also miss the inclusion of those basic weather charts which can help one forecast their local weather such as the barometric pressure tendency/wind direction/cloud type charts that were so common in weather guides in the past. One of my great joys as a youth was to be able to forecast my local weather using weather observations and charts such as these. Similarly air masses and fronts could have received more space in the field guide section. After all, they are more common local weather events to weather watchers across North America than tornadoes, hurricanes and tropical storms. It is like leaving sparrows out of a bird field guide.
Finally, allow me to lament the lack of sections on meso-meteorology and micrometeorology and microclimatology (perhaps because most guide authors appear to be experts in clouds, precipitation and storms). Of all the weather field guides I own, only my oldest (the Golden Guide) has even a small section on any of these topics. And yet, these aspects of weather and climate are often among the most perceivable aspects of the weather variability we see out of our windows and doors. These are ideal topics for a field guide. Indeed, When I taught a class on basic weather, I included a microweather field trip, and I could have spent more than the allotted two hours describing the details of the microweather of a forested hill.
I conclude on a positive note. Despite my various frustrations with the National Audubon Society First Field Guide: Weather, I found it a delightful and appealing book that I will use to talk about weather with my grandchildren and other beginning weather watchers. I hope the small problems with this edition will be corrected in future printings so that it will have a long and successful history of introducing weather to new generations of weather watchers.
National Audubon Society First Field Guide: Weather. by Jonathan D.W. Kahl,
Chanticleer Press, Scholastic Inc, New York, 1998, ISBN 0-590-05488-0.
National Audubon Society First Field Guide: Weather Today!
Reviewed by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
June 5, 1999
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