Climatologist Elaine Wheaton begins her book But It's A Dry Cold with the question: "What is it about weather that fascinates people?" I have always felt the reason is that the weather is one of the strongest influence we humans experience. Weather, and climate, control our lives in many ways, seen and unseen. It can show us the most awesome forces of nature and it can show us some of the gentlest. And weather can run us through a gamut of emotions from fear to comfort, from sadness to anger, from despair to elation.
In But It's A Dry Cold, Wheaton answers her question from a perspective of a lifelong resident of the Canadian Prairie Provinces (Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and a research climatologist: "Winter and summer and all points between, the prairies have some of the most changeable and exotic weather in the world. We're captivated by it. We're sometimes held captive by it too."
Her goal in writing this book is: "to improve the understanding of weather and climate, and to work toward harmonizing our activities with the conditions and consequences of our natural environment....But It's A Dry Cold attempts to transfer some of this knowledge to those who live and experience prairie weather in their everyday lives."
I really enjoyed reading But It's A Dry Cold. The book is a well written summary of those weather conditions that typify the prairie environment in Canada: blizzards, dust storms, tornadoes and hail; extremes of heat and cold; and the continued spectre of drought. The text is supplemented by many interesting photographs and drawings and a variety of sidebar tidbits including some well-placed humour.
I have only two problems with the book. One is on technical matters which I will discuss shortly. The other, and the main one, is that I wanted more, particularly more stories of outstanding events and how the people who experience them reacted. The people of the prairies are a special breed to endure such extremes and their stories are often as enlightening as scientific facts.
Among the topics discussed are: blizzards, snowstorms, dust storms and tornadoes; and the Prairie seasons. Wheaton focuses two full chapters on the subjects of drought and future climate changes, both very important topics to prairie residents and one on the work of a climatologist. The book ends with an interesting weather and climate quiz, including some photographic puzzles, and a series of climate maps for the region.
In the chapter "Living with Drought," Wheaton shows us the difficulty of accurately defining drought in simple terms because of the many possible perspectives with which one may view the phenomenon: dropping of well water levels, impacts on specific crops, impacts on livestock, drying of wetlands and loss of top soil. Drought on the Prairies is a regularly occurring phenomenon with an irregular cycle. Wheaton points out that because of this, "planning and response tend to be haphazard when it should be ongoing." While we have learned some lessons, we often forget them in the periods between droughts as if they were gone forever.
In the chapter "The Outlook for 2040 A.D.," Wheaton looks at a possible environmental future that Prairie residents may face based on the latest research into climate change. Much of what she said about planning and response to drought could have been repeated here. We do not plan for the impacts of know weather extremes or expected climate changes and then are surprised when they disrupt our lives. The chapter, which comprises nearly 20 percent of the book, is a call for more research and greater planning to the residents of this region. Like drought, the impacts of climate change can be softened if the potentials are addressed now before they are upon us.
It is in this chapter that I disagree technically with a few of the author's statements. Wheaton has perpetuated (as have many others, including other professional atmospheric scientists) many of the incorrect concepts in the Greenhouse Effect analogy. In particular, she states: "They are referred to as "greenhouse gases" because their effect on the earth is similar to the heating process of a greenhouse....The glass in the roof and sides of the greenhouse is relatively opaque to re-radiated heat radiation. Heat is thus trapped in the greenhouse."
Professor Alistair Fraser at Penn State University has attempted to correct this incorrect description of the role that the so-called greenhouse gases play in moderating the Earth's temperature. On his website Bad Meteorology, he states:
"The primary mechanism keeping the air warm in a real greenhouse is the suppression of convection (the exchange of air between the inside and outside). Thus, a real greenhouse does act like a blanket to prevent bubbles of warm air from being carried away from the surface....Whether the topic is a real greenhouse or a car, one still hears the old saw that each stays warm because visible radiation (light) can pass through the windows, and infrared radiation cannot. Actually, it has been known for the better part of a century that this has very little bearing on the issue."
"The correct explanation (as offered above) is remarkably simple and easy to understand, namely: The surface of the earth is warmer than it would be in the absence of an atmosphere because it receives energy from two sources: the sun and the atmosphere."
If the greenhouse gases did trap all the infrared (heat) radiation and prevent it from escaping to space, the Earth would soon become an incredibly hot planet like Venus. Which brings up my other correction. The figure on page 123 illustrates the Goldilocks Effect of carbon dioxide on mean planetary temperatures: Venus which has too much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere is too hot; Mars which has too little, is too cold. But Earth which has just the right concentration, has a mean temperature that is just right for life. The mean global temperatures for Venus (450°C) and Earth (15°C) are correct, but the figure for Mars (1-5°C) is too high, the correct figure should be around minus 50°C.
Elaine Wheaton finishes the book with the chapter "Life As A Climatologist" in which she describes her career: what she has done; where she has been; and what questions she is asked. The variety of questions that people ask is a good indication of the breadth of influence climate has on the functioning of our society. The chapter is a must read for anyone interested in the field as a career (although I do wish the demand for climatologists was as great as she suggests).
I believe Elaine Wheaton satisfied her goal for But It's A Dry Cold and perhaps gone beyond it by bringing knowledge of Prairie weather and climate to those of us who do not live in this part of the world. If you are a resident of the Canadian Prairies (or the American Plains States) or are just interested in an area of extreme weather which can dominate the lives of all who live there, But It's A Dry Cold is a must read.
But It's A Dry Cold: Weathering The Canadian Prairies by Elaine Wheaton, Fifth House Ltd, Calgary, Alberta, 1998, ISBN 1-894004-01-9.Order But It's A Dry Cold! Weathering The Canadian Prairies Today!
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
September 22, 1999
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