Phew!

E.S. Turner

  • Sunny Intervals and Showers: Our Changing Weather by David Benedictus
    Weidenfeld, 162 pp, £14.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 297 81154 1

David Benedictus is the Editor of Readings for BBC Radio’s Book at Bedtime. His Sunny Intervals and Showers is ill-suited for late-night reading, since it is not good to have the mind quickened from torpor by such speculations as ‘What happened to all the water in Noah’s Flood?’ or ‘Can the beatings of a butterfly’s wings start a typhoon?’ or, on a more practical level. ‘Could I have dealt with a mischievous fireball in the kitchen as summarily as that (unnamed) Smethwick housewife who “courageously sent it packing, and suffered nothing more serious than a burnt frock”?’ Still less does it assist slumber to reflect on the implications of that 1990 Sun headline (surely the longest Sun headline ever written) which said: ‘Britain has gone sex-crazy as red-hot lovers rush to do it in the great outdoors, say experts.’

Much of this book belongs to one of those articles called ‘Fifty Amazing Things You Never Knew About the Weather’ (No 50: Did you know that yellow rain can be caused by the mass voiding of faeces by honey bees?). Other items have seemingly escaped from Christopher Logue’s ‘True Stories’ in Private Eye: not just the tale about the Smethwick housewife but the one about Mr Elephigio Chikwana, of Harare, a spiritual healer whose speciality is to hoe up the ground at the point where lightning strikes and uncover the magic eggs of the Mabanganana bird. There are stories, also, which seem to emanate from ‘Beachcomber’, like that of Joseph Furtenbach, a mathematician of Ulm (and obvious ancestor of Dr Strabismus of Utrecht) who, in order to prove that the ‘Earth rotates, fired a cannon vertically and then sat on the mouth of the weapon (what this has to do with the weather is not clear, but no matter). Some of the information in the book, as the author admits, may be useful for settling bets in pubs. A chapter on weather lore contains all the old saws one could possibly want, and more. It is odd that, when the writers of old guidebooks so often talked about seaside airs being ‘elastic’, there was never a jingle on the lines of ‘When airs are elastic, coughs are less drastic.’

Is there an underlying plan to the book? The candid answer must be: not that you would notice. But Mr Benedictus is a lively performer, dedicated to the pursuit of oddity. His interest in weather was stimulated in the Great Storm of 15 October 1987 when a fine lime tree from a nearby avenue took off and landed on the roof of his garage. He has gathered many tales of that night, which was nearly as productive of anecdote as the Blitz. But Mr Benedictus enjoys the further stimulus of one who has been struck by lightning, even though it did no more than set his hand tingling. He is sufficiently interested in celestial fire to include a learned discussion on how lightning is formed. However, he is not the sort of enthusiast, one feels, who would emulate Faraday and instruct a bemused cab-driver, ‘Follow that thunderstorm!’ (one story the author has missed). One imagines he would have liked to share the bracing experience of the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), who stood defiantly on a tower on the Puy de Dôme in an electric storm. As the Prince raised his hat his hair stood on end, and when he lifted his cane electricity danced at the end of it. (Dr Walford Bodie used to do that sort of thing in the music halls.)

Gradually, it emerges that Mr Benedictus worries, as we all do, about the way the weather is going, though he does not let it get him down. Today, he says, every journalist is a scientist and every scientist is a scaremonger. He warns against the practice of speaking airily about ‘the hottest day since ...’ or ‘that notable April of 1712 when ...’ Yet he boldly describes the weekend of 5 December 1952 as ‘the most serious pollution disaster in the history of the world’. There were 4,000 deaths attributed to Britain’s ‘Killer Smog’, to be sure, but has Mr Benedictus checked on all the great volcanic fall-outs of history? He rather readily accepts a statistic thrown up by the Thunderstorm Census Organisation of Huddersfield to the effect that each square mile of Britain is struck by lightning on average twice a year. And are we really to believe that ‘a curious effect of the current sophistication of information is that when Londoners read of high humidity they start to perspire’? If they do, it is surely better than rushing out into the open spaces in a state of priapism, as that Sun headline would suggest. (Yes, in this context Mr Benedictus dutifully quotes Byron, ‘What men call gallantry, and the gods adultery,’/ Is much more common where the climate’s sultry,’ but this is one of several hares he starts but does not dispatch.)

So to more serious matters, like weather forecasting. The book contains a prodigiously dull photograph of the Meteorological Office’s latest ‘Supercomputer’, which has all the allure of a group of closed lockers hastily pushed into a cloakroom. This is presumably the source of all that prosaic information which is turned into melodrama in the television weather bulletins. Many of us have grown to yearn for a simple map with the words Hot, Wet or Windy superimposed on it, rather than the logorrhoea and legerdemain which so fatally confuse what should be a simple message. But the technology will not be stayed now. In his last chapter Mr Benedictus includes in a diverting roll-call of ‘Great Men of Weather’ the first British television weatherman, George Cowling. ‘He set off at 5 a.m. every morning from the Air Ministry to the Shepherd’s Bush studio of the BBC with his meteorological chart for the day; on top of his Civil Service salary he received an appearance fee of ten shillings.’ Cowling was in it, one may be sure, for the public good, not as a first step to a career of opening supermarkets.

Can technology improve the accuracy of forecasting, rather than the manner of presentation? We should be wary of optimism. Mr Benedictus has done some sketchy homework on electronic dolphins (DOLPHINS: Deep Ocean Long Path Hydrographic Instruments). These are robotic submarines which will traverse the ocean at 7000 metres, occasionally surfacing to check position with passing satellites and send data home. Also on the way is doggie (DOGGIE: Deep Ocean Geological and Geophysical Instrumented Explorer). This sort of thing reflects brilliant advances in acronymics, but what will it eventually do for meteorology? The author moves swiftly on to report the 1987 researches of ‘a cynical group of students at Sheffield Polytechnic’. They decided ‘to test their theory – about which many of us have speculated – that forecasters would produce more accurate results if they were content to announce that tomorrow’s weather would be just the same as today’s.’ Mainly they were concerned about whether it would rain in Sheffield the next day. And the result? The Sheffield Weather Centre correctly forecast rain 67 per cent of the time, the Meteorological Office 65.4 per cent and the students 65.7 per cent. Which is a suitable point to bring in the item from a later chapter about the American Congressman who asked Steve Schneider of the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research: ‘Do you mean to say that you guys have spent a billion dollars of our money telling us that winter is cold and summer is hot?’ The answer was: ‘Yes, sir, and we’re very proud of that.’ An alternative question could perhaps have been: ‘Are you guys content to be paid for being right only half the time, like lawyers?’

What bedevils the forecasters is the behaviour of such natural ‘scapegoats’ as El Niño (‘The Little Boy’ or ‘The Christ Child’), a warm-water current which strikes the Peruvian coast around Christmas time. The sea temperature rises steeply and huge whirlpools are formed. ‘In a delicately balanced atmosphere in which the beating of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon, it is obvious that so violent a change in the sea water, and the currents which eddy from it, will have significant consequences,’ says Mr Benedictus. We still do not know what causes El Niño, he says, and are thus unable to programme our computers accurately: ‘and the evidence of global warming, such as it is, may be more closely related to any of these [natural mysteries] than to the acknowledged, observed and recorded hole in the ozone layer.’ And talking of that notorious hole, Mr Benedictus is not too bothered by the theory that 90 million tonnes of methane belched and farted every year by cattle contribute significantly to it.

When it comes to global warming, the author is happy to indulge in the game, which we have all played, of imagining the worst possible effects: the coastal nuclear power stations submerged and sending out toxic emanations (divers will do their ‘courageous best’, he thinks), and the London Underground submerged for eternity (which he feels may alleviate some frustration). At this stage the book is decidedly not a book for bedtime. There is also the impending trouble of too little water, rather than too much; washing the car with Perrier water is simply not good enough.

‘Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,’ complained one of those American wags. Has Mr Benedictus any plans in that direction? Obviously, he is on the side of those who want to halt the chain-saws in the rain forests, even if it means paying the marauders to desist; which could be the signal for one of the biggest blackmail operations yet. The author endorses in the main the Green programme. But he is keen on an idea he thinks we should seriously investigate, and that is to restock the ozone layer by pumping more of the stuff into the stratosphere. It is the brainchild of Leon Sadler, who propounded the idea in Chemical and Engineering News in November 1987, and it was supported ‘by the sensible Fred Pearce in his fine book Turning down the heat (1989).’ On the assumption that the ozone layer contains about three million tonnes of ozone, Sadler computed that a replenishment of 5.4 million kilogrammes per day would make up the shortfall within 100 years. ‘There are no problems,’ says Benedictus, ‘about producing ozone in such quantities, or about shooting it into space. It could easily be done by commercial and military aircraft going about their regular business. It sounds too good to be true – perhaps it is – but nobody to date has cared to try it.’

What a vision! Why leave the task to aircraft on their regular business? Why not send up the equivalent of thousand-bomber raids from the East Anglian bases on this heroic mission alone? Sleep on it.