Cloudspotter’s Guide

This review appeared in the Sunday Times on 28 May 2006

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide, Sceptre, £12.99, pp. 320

One of my favourite Peanuts cartoons features Linus and Charlie Brown lying on their backs, gazing up at the passing clouds. When Charlie asks Linus if he can see any shapes in them, Linus replies that he’s just spotted the outline of British Honduras, the profile of the painter Thomas Eakins, and a remarkably detailed tableau of the martyrdom of St Stephen: “there’s the Apostle Paul standing to one side. What about you, Charlie Brown?”: “I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I just changed my mind.”

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, is definitely more a Linus than a Charlie Brown, and his Cloudspotter’s Guide (as well as his Society’s award-winning website, from which most of the photographs in this book have been sourced) is a fount of esoteric simulacra, including an impressive Grim Reaper, complete with scythe, the Norse god Thor flailing his hammer, and “an Abominable Snowman, who is upset that his pet seahorse is ignoring him”. I have to admit that it took me a while to spot the sulking seahorse, but as Pretor-Pinney points out, it requires a certain cast of mind to see unusual shapes in the clouds, a fact that Charlie Brown found out the hard way.

As is apparent from the outset, the Cloudspotter’s Guide is no dry treatise on the science of nephology, but a playful journey through clouds and their meanings, written in celebration of the varied beauty and distinctive personalities of the ten principal cloud genera, as defined by the World Meteorological Organisation — although it’s hard to imagine anyone at the WMO referring to cumulus humilis as “our fluffy friends” or to nimbostratus as “Steady Eddie”. Pretor-Pinney certainly likes his clouds. Thankfully, he has also taken the trouble to understand them, and beneath the occasionally cloying whimsy lies a solid core of well-explained meteorology that gives this book tremendous value as a popular account of the subject. He is particularly good on the complexities of cloud formation, and his account of the life-cycle of a cumulonimbus (“the Darth Vader of the cloud world”) is a gripping piece of scientific explication, beginning, as does the cloud it describes, with the airborne dust-grains on which water vapour condenses into microscopic droplets, and ending with the “all-consuming fury” of a thunderstorm. Woven into the physics lesson (“wake up at the back”, our author exhorts) is the terrifying story of Lt.-Col. William Rankin, the only man to parachute through an active storm cell and live to tell the tale. It was during a routine flight to his squadron’s headquarters in North Carolina that Rankin, a fighter pilot in the US Air Force, was attempting to crest the summit of a towering cumulonimbus when his engine suddenly failed. He had no choice but to eject, even though the outside temperature was —50°C, and he was wearing only a lightweight flying suit. His ten-mile journey back to earth took nearly forty minutes, during which he was hurled around by convection currents inside the cloud, pelted with thousands of freezing hailstones, attacked by blades of in-cloud lightning, and almost drowned by the blinding rain. He would also have had plenty of time to wonder how the cumulonimbus that was trying to kill him could ever have given rise to the happy expression “to be on cloud nine” (it was due to an international cloud classification published in 1896, in which cumulonimbus, the highest cloud of all, was ranked number nine on the list).

But even more unnerving than what clouds can do to us is what we are now doing to the clouds. Cloud seeding — the scattering of silver iodide crystals onto the upper reaches of rain-bearing clouds — is a proven technique that was used to some effect during the Vietnam War, when monsoon clouds above Laos and Cambodia were drenched with chemicals in order to prolong the rainy season, rendering Viet Cong supply lines impassable. The secret was exposed by the New York Times in 1972, but in spite of a subsequent Geneva convention limiting all environmental modification for hostile purposes, the US Air Force has recently produced an intelligence briefing entitled Owning the Weather in 2025, which paints a terrifying picture of future aerial warfare, in which cloud cover, fog-banks, hailstorms and lightning strikes could be summoned against an enemy on the ground. “It sounds like something from a science fiction novel”, as Pretor-Pinney observes, while noting that Kurt Vonnegut’s older brother, Bernard, was a member of the team that pioneered cloud seeding in the late 1940s. But this is no science fiction, and according to the WMO, some 24 countries around the world are currently engaged in weather modification trials, with China outspending them all. Given southern England’s worsening water shortage, I predict future newspaper headlines accusing Beijing of stealing our clouds.

As well as being thoughtfully and entertainingly written, the Cloudspotter’s Guide has been well designed, with clear graphics and insets used to explain the trickier points. So if you’ve never really understood the causes of advection fog, there’s a drawing here just for you. There are, inevitably, one or two slip-ups, especially when it comes to units of measurement, which veer unhelpfully between metric and imperial, with rainfall given in inches on one page and centimetres the next, but on the whole this is a wonderfully witty and informative tribute to the mutable majesty of clouds: long may they rain.

Richard Hamblyn


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