Air Apparent

by Mark Monmonier

Cover image

Publisher: University of Chicago
Copyright: 1999
Printing: 2000
ISBN: 0-226-53423-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 232

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Subtitled "how meteorologists learned to map, predict, and dramatize the weather," Air Apparent is a history of weather maps. Mapping the weather is a surprisingly new field, dating only from the early 19th century when a combination of scientific understanding and the ability to combine scattered observations made it practical. They're also a particularly tricky problem since weather is inherently three-dimensional, and even to the present day nearly all of our maps are two-dimensional. Monmonier starts with the earliest observational maps and the attempts to use them for prediction and tracks developments up to the late 1990s, with TV weathermen and (simple) interactive web data viewers.

I got a copy of this book after Paul Krugman mentioned it. I don't know a lot about weather forecasting or weather maps, but I remembered finding the science of weather fronts and maps of them fascinating in high school, and I hoped I'd get the same feeling from this. Unfortunately, I probably need to stop reading Monmonier's books; they always sound interesting, but I don't enjoy reading them.

One thing that's important to know is that this is not a history of meteorology. One can't hold that against the book, of course, because it never claimed to be. But it has just enough of a history of meteorology mixed into its history of map-making to make at least this reader wish he were reading that other book. I like maps, I really do, but I was hoping for either a book that melded a history of the science of weather forecasting with the maps that were used in that science, or a book that dove deep into the effective and ineffective ways to make weather maps (ideally, Edward R. Tufte for maps). This is neither; it's little more or less than a detailed history of the making of weather maps. Each time it gets close to a clear explanation of the underlying meteorology, it finds a map to examine and skips the rest of the explanation.

I kept almost understanding the underlying science, but not enough to really understand the goals of the map makers, or why one presentation was better than another, or how those presentations were used to make forecasts or track weather data. I think I would have found this book more interesting in conjunction with a full history of meteorology, but I suspect that a history of meteorology would include enough about the maps to render this book largely redundant for the casual reader.

The other problem I had with this book is that it's very dry. Monmonier is clearly trying, and clearly cares a lot about his topic, but the book has no flow. I kept getting lost in the barrage of names, arguments over technique, and struggles for government funding. It's hard to put a finger on why the book didn't grab me; the closest I can come is that it's a book stuffed full of facts. Monmonier did exhaustive historical research on weather map making, saved numerous quotes from original documents, and laid it all out chronologically. That's fine if you just want the information, but I was looking to be entertained in the process, and that didn't happen.

I think the problems get worse in the second half of the book, when weather satellites and computers enter the picture and the laborious, manual map-making fall out, although maybe I was just exhausted with the book by then. The early history of weather maps at least has the benefit of showing the logistical struggles behind creating an effective weather service: insufficient observation points, slow communication methods, and the need for skilled map-makers to turn measurements into visual representations. Once computers and satellite photography enter the picture, the science matters even more, and I think the reader needs a better understanding of the underlying science to make sense of the results. Air Apparent has a tendency to provide a brief introduction to the type of data, a detailed chronological history, and then a discussion of the ways of presenting and representing that data, without ever getting the reader to care about the data itself or see how it ties into forecasting.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the history of meteorology seems to be full of sensible, careful people who largely did sensible, careful things with the data they had available at the time. This is great for the advancement of science, and not so helpful at making a history engrossing.

I wish I could say that I was glad I read this book for the information, if not the presentation, but unfortunately I didn't retain much. I needed some sort of structure or frame on which to hang all of the specifics, some sense of story or controversy or at least scientific understanding, and I didn't get it. It took me a couple of months to finish this book because I kept setting it down to read other things, and I only finished it out of a combination of stubbornness and knowledge that other people liked it.

If the topic sounds interesting, well, this book exists, and it's gotten several good reviews. But I'm afraid I can't recommend it.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-02-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21