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The Extraordinary Ways Weather Has Changed Human History

From determining the outcome of wars to wholesale destruction of lives and property, weather affects our lives in a shocking number of ways.

Since the beginning of human history, we have been buffeted by weather and climate change, sometimes to a shocking extent. And we’ve only just begun to understand the whys and hows. In his new book, Weather: An Illustrated History, Andrew Revkin, with Lisa Mechaley, traces 4.5 billion years of weather and climate in 100 entries, from major weather events, to climate change, to the people who started to figure out how our planet works.

When National Geographic spoke to him from his home in the Hudson Valley, New York, Revkin explained how Ben Franklin became the first storm chaser; how weather has affected the outcome of wars; and some of the weird ways extreme weather events can mess with us.

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How did you decide which moments in history to include in your book?

Well, my wife is an environmental educator and she helped me write this. It became kind of … I wouldn’t say a competition, but a game. It became intriguing. Here I’d been writing about climate change and big weather events for 30 years, and you might think I could just dive right in. But the more I poked around, surprises kept emerging. So we created a Google document and just kept adding things. “Oh, well, look at what we just found in 1602!”

For instance, in the early 1600s Galileo invented the idea of temperature. It’s not just cold, less cold, fine, warm, hot, really hot. That was essentially how the Greeks and everyone before them in Western and even in Eastern science or philosophy was thinking about temperature. Then Galileo came up with the idea of increments that are measurable. And that, to me, became the kind of item that I was trying all along to look for. Many of the entries are transitional, transformational ideas, not just the worst storms, the hottest day.

Another example of that was Shen Kuo, sort of China’s Ben Franklin. He was everything: He was an inventor, military strategist, regional politician, and he showed this amazing insight that many people in this arena have shown, which is they look at something and they go, “Wow, that’s interesting. Why is that like that?”

He looked at a riverbank that had collapsed and there was fossilized bamboo. This was a part of China that was dry and they have no bamboo. And in his memoirs, a couple of years later, he put together those ideas. He said, “Maybe this area had a different climate.” It seems inconsequential now, but back then, it was a fundamentally new idea.

The other key element to the book was that we decided early on to look at our relationship with weather and climate, not just insights and not just records. And I started thinking, what are the things that have changed our relationship with climate and weather? And that’s where air conditioning came in, and the umbrella, and looking at harnessing the wind.

You mentioned Ben Franklin, I think in three entries, more than any other person.

Ben Franklin had the kind of mind, like Galileo, that saw things and saw patterns and wondered about them. He wrote a long treatise on waterspouts and then he was out riding with his friends in Maryland and there was a whirlwind. So they’re chasing this whirlwind. He had heard that if you shoot a gun through a tornado or whirlwind, it could disrupt it. And so he tried to do this with his whip—I just felt it made him the first storm chaser.

He’s among the first people who deduced that there must be a Gulf Stream. Because he spent so much time going back and forth from America to Europe in his diplomatic work, he noticed that the ships were faster going East than West. Then he talked to the sea captains and put some data around it. That’s the second part, actually doing the work.

Why It’s Hard to Forecast the Weather

Weather forecasting is a tricky business. Jason Samenow, weather editor for the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post, explains how forecasters rely on computer models to help predict the weather, and why their forecasts may be more accurate than you think.

I think that most of us feel like we’re pretty much in control most of the time. But one thing we can’t control is the weather. How much has weather determined the course of human history?

On every level, climate change on long time scales has really powerfully shaped human history; it’s in the section in the book on the exodus from Africa. People at Columbia and other universities looked at things like seabed records in the Red Sea or near North Africa and found that there’s sort of a wobbling weather pattern over time. The Sahara Desert, as National Geographic has written about many times, was sometimes grassland and green. There are stone carvings there, people and paintings of people swimming in lakes in the Sahara.

Weather shapes our communities and our responses to the environment in different ways. The Dust Bowl was a long and extraordinary drought, with human landscape changes exacerbating the conditions to create the dust. And that had a pretty transformational impact that reverberated for a long time.

Talk about the role of weather in the outcome of conflict. Can you explain that?

Weather has influenced wars throughout history. For the book, we chose a World War II example: Russia and winter. Winter was always Russia’s biggest ally. Anyone who tried to invade Russia near winter, if they didn’t get the job done quickly, they were going to be in deep trouble.

When the Spanish Armada tried to attack England, it was stray changes in the winds that favored England and contributed to the defeat of the Spaniards. There are more examples throughout history.

There are some really strange ways that weather has messed with us through the ages; most bizarre to me in the book was the hail story. Apparently, hail can commit mass murder.

There is this one mysterious case high in the Himalayas where someone looked into a lake and found a horrific scene of slaughtered people preserved there. The presumption was that it was warfare. But then a crew of scientists from National Geographic took a closer look at the forensic analysis. All the wounds were from the top down, from some large kind of object, and the presumption was that it was hail. There was nothing around to indicate it was a weapon. You think about hurricanes and flooding, but hail causes some of the biggest financial losses every year, very consistently, in the United States.

In the mid-1800s, scientists started figuring out that global warming was happening and even said it was not a bad thing. Can you talk us through the advent of this realization and at what point it became clear that warming wasn’t good?

From the 1820s through the mid-1800s, there was already the basic concept that there are these gases in the atmosphere that trap heat. And the next step was in the 1890s, when scientist began to calculate, “Oh, we’re burning a lot of coal. We’re adding carbon dioxide to the air.”

The Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius ran the numbers in a rough way. Around the turn of the 20th century, it was estimated that a couple of billion tons of coal a year were being burned. He was the person who really wrote the first paper tabulating that that would lead to substantial warming over a long time period.

What’s interesting to me about this is that the moment in history when knowledge emerges, and where in the world the knowledge emerges, can really shape perceptions of what the knowledge means. And so at that time, his conclusion was that colder parts of the world would enjoy a warmer climate and would be able to grow more crops, people would have more to eat: Warming was a good thing.

One of the insights that emerged for me in this book, after 30 years of writing about climate change, was that it is important to step back and examine your own perceptions, your own cultural moment—how much is related to my beliefs and my norms, and how much is related to actual data. I think it is a very important thing—especially with all of the polarization today—for everyone to just take a pause and reflect a little bit that even the guy who pioneered this idea—it was the peak of the Industrial Revolution—at the time thought it was a good thing. It was really from the ‘70s onward when the downside of climate change started to emerge, and also when our environmental movement emerged.

This is a big transition we’re going through as a species. And one of the key underpinnings of the book was that nearly all of our experience in history with weather and climate has been in one direction. We either got out of the way, or invented things like air conditioning and the umbrella to cope.

Now it’s a two-way relationship. We’re changing the system even as it’s changing us, and that’s a big deal. To me, it’s not surprising that it’s taking time for this to sink in, and for there to be divisions in what to do about it. And then you add on to that, of course, that for most of the world, the main issue is a lack of energy, a lack of access to things that make our lives convenient, and that’s all led me to a different sense of what’s going on than I had in the 1980s.

Seeing the timeline of change in science that’s set down in your book, does it make you feel hopeful or less than hopeful about our future on this planet?

I wake up in the morning optimistic, and usually after dinner, sometime in the evening, I still get kind of sapped by what I’ve learned during the day. But then I always stumble on something that feels like … I’m not even sure hope is the right word ... that feels like a source of possibility for the human species.

The thing that makes us feel so frustrated sometimes is the diversity of our reactions, the inability to have everyone feel the way we do about something that we feel is important. But that diversity, I think in a way, is actually a good thing. If we all marched in one direction, that would probably get us in trouble—if we all pursued nuclear, if we all pursued renewables, we would be less likely to get anywhere.

The hardest thing about climate change is that it’s so big in timescale and geographic scale. The good thing about climate change is that it’s so big and diverse that everyone can do something to play a role and tweak trajectories toward more positive outcomes.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.