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THE WEATHER MACHINE by Andrew Blum review

  • Written by  Richard Smyth
  • Published in Books
THE WEATHER MACHINE by Andrew Blum review
10 Jan
2020
by Andrew Blum • The Bodley Head • £16.99 (hardback)

The final chapter of Andrew Blum’s fascinating study of the technical and human infrastructure that props up the global weather-forecasting network, is genuinely – and surprisingly – moving. Reporting from the quadrennial congress of the World Meteorological Congress in Geneva, Blum notes that, ‘seeing meteorologists from all over the world gathered together in a common cause, what seems strangest of all is how plain it made the fact that this was the only world we had – that this was... our only home’. The sense of international community is ‘palpable and thrilling’.

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And yet the collegiate spirit of this enterprise is under threat. Whereas once each country’s Met Office had a fixed value as a data-point in a globe-spanning spider-web of information, the concentration of weather data first through the deployment of satellites and, later, through the development of supercomputed climate models, has led to a power imbalance, with wealthy nations (and wealthy corporations) exercising disproportionate influence. Inrushing streams of crowd-sourced data from citizen-science projects further complicates the picture. Can the ‘weather machine’ – built through centuries of visionary innovation, scientific diplomacy and military know-how – adapt to this new world? ‘It must,’ he concludes, ‘because we need weather forecasts like never before.’

Blum, by turns a curious and authoritative guide, leads us through the first conceptual leaps in weather forecasting and the development of a theoretical meteorology. As storm-lashed Norwegian weather stations are superseded by space-race technology and then by the hulking supercomputers of the modern day (the world-leading ECMWF ‘forecast factory’ in Reading, for instance, can run more than 90 trillion calculations per second), Blum’s wonderful book succeeds in making the science and industry of forecasting the weather – what one interviewee describes as ‘the application of classical physics to the atmosphere, on a rotating globe, with gravity’ – at once vitally human, technologically awesome and urgently, thrillingly relevant.

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