Dr. Fred Bortz

The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate


by William K. Stevens


(Delacorte, 1999, $24.95, 384 pages)

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Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Other Wind- and weather-related reviews on The Science Shelf include the following:
The curtain rises on the dimly lit stage. Flashes illuminate the backdrop and a rolling rumble fills the hall. The Change in the Weather, a drama in many small acts, has begun. We in the audience willingly face uncertainty, mystery, and clues both false and true, for we know in the end we will sort everything out and return to our normal world.

Yet the world we return to is somehow different -- or at least we see it differently.

That is the goal of every author, and New York Times science reporter William Stevens achieves it admirably in this challenging yet readable book. He forces his readers to confront the reality that normal weather isn't what it used to be, and that the implications of The Change in the Weather are profound for the world of the twenty-first century.

The greenhouse effect and consequent global warning are not millennialist fantasies. Even the "contrarians," whom Stevens gives their due, admit that the average temperature of the world is rising. Their disagreements with mainstream scientists are about the magnitude, details, and consequences of the increase, and the role of human activities in it.

The signs of change are everywhere. The 1990s dominate the list of the hottest years since weather record-keeping began; but the increase in temperature is only part of the story. More energy in the world weather system means more severe extremes. Cities around the world are suffering record heat waves, floods, droughts, and blizzards. Severe storms are more frequent and extreme. Spring is coming earlier and fall later in the far North. Plant and animal ranges are shifting toward higher altitudes and the poles. Ice sheets are melting, and glaciers are receding. Large scale cyclic phenomena, such as El Nio, may be growing stronger and more frequent.

How much of this change is due to human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels? That is difficult to quantify, because the Earth's climatic history is one of constant change, even without human intervention.

Though scientists are becoming better at modeling the complex land-air-water climate machine of our planet, their predictions are full of uncertainty. Some forecasts are as dire as the loss of entire nations and coastal communities to rising sea level and surging tides. Others are as benign as bountiful harvests in favored agricultural areas. On one hand, changes may be gradual and reversible. On the other, we may experience a sudden and irrevocable transition to a new climatic pattern.

How different will the world of our great-grandchildren be, and will we humans be prepared to adapt our lives and political institutions to the changes in global weather? Though Stevens offers several possibilities, he doesn't venture a guess about which prediction will come to pass. Like his readers, he sits in the audience and watches the drama unfold, offering only this closing comment: "The experiment is running, and time will tell."

Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz is the author of many books for young readers, including Dr. Fred's Weather Watch: How to Create and Run Your Own Weather Station, McGraw-Hill, 2000.