March 30, 2017


Eye of the Storm: NASA, Drones, and the Race to Crack the Hurricane Code. By Amy Cherrix. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     There are storms, and then there are STORMS, and then there are STORMS. The latest entry in the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series focuses on the last category: hurricanes, which “can release the energy equivalent of ten thousand nuclear bombs and produce enough water to wash entire communities from the map.” Unlike some scientists, those pictured and discussed in Amy Cherrix’s book are not engaging in any abstruse or difficult-to-understand endeavor. They are working on something that affects people all over the world and that, to the extent we understand or fail to understand the phenomenon, can lead to massive destruction and loss of life – or protection of millions of people.

     Cherrix explains the basics of hurricanes clearly and simply. The lower the pressure in their centers, the stronger the storms are, and the tighter and more organized a storm is, the faster and more dangerous it becomes – a fact Cherrix aptly explains by suggesting that readers imagine an ice skater spinning faster and faster by pulling her arms closer to her body. Cherrix tells the difference between a hurricane watch and warning, explains the scale used to measure the storms’ winds, notes that the winds around the eye are the strongest, and states that the storms have killed a frightening number of people in the past 200 years: they have claimed two million lives.

     All this, though, is prologue to the book’s main topic, which is the search for better ways of forecasting not only the timing of a storm but also the danger it poses to human settlements: “It’s not enough to predict when a storm will happen. The future is predicting how strong.” This is crucial not only for damage control but also because of human nature: erroneous predictions that lead to evacuations that turn out to be unnecessary can cause people to disbelieve future predictions that may be far more accurate – and if people then do not leave, because the earlier predictions were wrong, the storm may prove far deadlier.

     Cherrix gives plenty of examples of the enormous dangers posed by hurricanes and other tropical storms (similar storms are designated differently in different parts of the world). For example, she discusses the Bhola cyclone of November 1970, which smashed East Pakistan in the middle of the night, striking without warning because the area it hit had poor communication, creating a 35-foot storm surge, and resulting in a terrifying half a million deaths. Cherrix explains that the government’s failure to help people after the cyclone had a great deal to do with the warfare that resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in December 1971: “A single storm has the power to divide countries and create nations.”

     Nor are devastating storms confined to poor countries. Inevitably, Cherrix cites the case of Hurricane Katrina, discussing its effects on New Orleans and other hard-hit areas, and quoting from the investigative congressional report issued after the poor handling of the storm and its aftermath became abundantly evident: “The response to the Katrina catastrophe revealed – all too often, and for far too long – confusion, delay, misdirection, inactivity, poor coordination, and lack of leadership at all levels of government.”

     If there is plenty of blame to go around when hurricanes and other massive storms strike, there is also a great deal that scientists can do and are doing to mitigate the storms’ effects. Cherrix explores ways in which scientists study the storms, the technology they bring into play to evaluate and try to predict storms’ strength and direction, and the increasing use of drones to evaluate conditions that spawn and nurture these massive weather systems. “Field science isn’t always as exciting as jammed chutes and last-minute malfunctions – it usually includes more mundane tasks like taking notes,” Cherrix points out. True, and she does a good job of balancing the exciting and the mundane in Eye of the Storm, giving a good sense of the dedication of the scientists trying to make hurricanes more predictable and therefore less deadly – while at the same time showing just how far we still are from being able to forecast these events with enough accuracy to be sure of protecting lives and property.

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