Invisible, insistent and inevitable, wind permeates our lives and cultures—from “Blowin’ In The Wind” to Gone With The Wind, from manned flight to the Dust Bowl. Bill Streever, whose earlier dissections of nature include the books Cold and Heat, begins his narrative by citing Daniel DeFoe’s account of the massive windstorm that devastated England in 1703. Still a record-holder for ferocity, it uprooted forests, sank entire fleets of ships and made windmills spin so rapidly that the friction set them ablaze.
Throughout history, Streever observes, people have aspired to learn the composition and course of winds. They were abetted in their curiosity by such technologies as the telegraph, weather balloons, anemometers and barometers, networks of fixed and mobile weather-reporting stations, radio, automated buoys, radar, weather satellites and computers. Among the forecasting pioneers he singles out for praise are Robert FitzRoy (who captained the ship from which Charles Darwin made his discoveries), William Ferrel, James Espy, Vilhelm and Jacob Bjerknes, Lewis Fry Richardson (a Quaker who abandoned forecasting when he saw it being used as a weapon of war), Jule Charney and Edward Lorenz.
To lighten his detailed explanations of how the imperfect science of understanding winds developed, Streever intersperses them with a running, present-tense chronicle of the voyage he and his wife (or “co-captain”) made in their sailing yacht from Galveston, Texas, to Guatemala, with the two of them constituting the entire crew. As one might expect, the wind figures prominently, and sometimes ominously, in their journey.
Today, data collected and transmitted through thousands of smartphones and fed into incredibly fast computers strive to make generally reliable weather forecasts even more accurate, Streever reports. But still the wind keeps its secrets.