Sandlin (Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, 2010, etc.) offers a lively account of early investigators who, through both “grinding stupidity and unaccountable insights,” eventually came to understand and learned to coexist with—but never tame—the furious force of tornadoes.
Today, SUVs laden with all sorts of gizmos, plus many “weather tourists,” travel the roads of Tornado Alley (Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa), part of a deep American “tradition of obsessive hunting” for the elusive twister. More elusive was hard information beyond folk tales on why tornadoes were so destructive, wiping out towns and killing hundreds in a minute. Sandlin starts his tale with Benjamin Franklin and his casual fascination with “whirlwinds.” But the real story begins with James Espy, America’s first official meteorologist. In the 1830s and beyond, Espy came up with ideas both accurate and silly: Tornadoes might be caused by convection, warm air rising to meet cold air. Therefore, the climate of the continent could be controlled by the judicious building of very large fires. Espy feuded with other early tornado devotees over matters trivial and substantive before yielding to a younger generation just as contentious. In the late 1800s, John Park Finley and the military’s Signal Corps developed a system of weather forecasts. Yet Finley feuded with Henry Hazen, who believed massive dynamiting would destroy tornadoes. All involved seemed to have feuded with Washington politics and bureaucracy, to the point that while America’s heartland became increasingly populated, and tornadoes a greater threat, in the first decades of the 20th century, the federal government kept no records of tornadoes at all. While later investigators with more sophisticated technology made significant gains in our understanding of tornadoes, Sandlin’s story is really one of how science gets done amid, and despite, clashes of ego and political interference.
Well-constructed history of the politics and personalities of weather.