October 26, 2017


Al Roker’s Extreme Weather: Tornadoes, Typhoons, and Other Weather Phenomena. By Al Roker. Harper. $16.99.

Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. By James M. Deem. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

     There have been many books covering the same territory as Al Roker’s Extreme Weather, a new release written by the weather anchor of the Today show. Roker’s is distinguished not so much by the writing style, which is pedestrian, as by the well-thought-out explanations of various forms of extreme weather – and the well-chosen examples of the problems weather can cause. For example, Roker explains that “wind speed” is actually three kinds of speed in meteorological terms, since “wind rarely travels at a steady rate.” He then gives brief definitions of gust speed (“the fastest speed measured”), sustained wind speed (“an average of speeds recorded over a period of two minutes”), and maximum sustained wind (“the highest wind speed that lasts for at least one minute”). Knowing these terms then helps a lot in following Roker’s discussions of weather phenomena in which wind plays a major part, such as tornadoes and hurricanes – and derechos, which most books like this cover lightly but which Roker treats in greater-than-usual detail. As for hurricanes (more accurately, as Roker points out, “tropical cyclones,” since “hurricane” is only one name for this type of weather), the brief but well-done explanation of why cyclones rotate is headlined “Corio-WHAT?” And that enticement to reading about the Coriolis effect is typical of the approach here: Roker does everything possible to draw readers into the text, not relying solely on the sorts of photos that, as dramatic as they are, have appeared in many other books. Actually, a few of the photos here are not ones that readers will likely have seen before, such as the picture of “red sprites,” a type of “transient luminous event” caused when storm electricity is not released as lightning but instead produces an effect rarely observable from the ground (the “red sprite” picture was taken by a NASA satellite). As for lightning, Roker includes four pictures of different types – and, again, these are not always shown in books of this kind. But the explanatory material is what really matters here. Roker spends considerable time discussing why and how climate change affects weather, not looking to score political points but simply showing how certain alterations in our planet’s overall climate can cause changes in weather conditions. Admirably, he also devotes considerable space to weather conditions that do not have the drama of tornadoes or cyclones but that “kill more people in the United States than the worst storms” – meaning cold, heat, drought and fog. Yes, fog, which causes loss of visibility that can lead to injuries and fatalities. Roker explains “advection fog,” “radiation fog” and “evaporation fog” (with pictures of each), and on a lighter note talks about “frozen fogsicles” that form an ice shell on vegetation “if fog forms when the air is below the freezing temperature.” A few things in Al Roker’s Extreme Weather are slightly puzzling, such as a Saffir-Simpson hurricane-rating scale that differs from the one usually seen on TV and online – for example, Roker says a Category 3 storm has winds of 111 to 129 miles per hour, but the usual scale says 111 to 130. However, there is nothing substantive in this book that will likely provoke differences of opinion about how dangerous weather phenomena occur and just how damaging they can be. And Roker’s discussion of weather-related occurrences that “can strike suddenly, long after the initial danger has passed” – events such as floods and landslides – is particularly welcome and especially thought-provoking. Adults as well as young readers will gain much from Roker’s knowledge and the clarity with which he communicates it.

     One of the most devastating phenomena about whose effects modern humans have direct, incontrovertible evidence was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24-25 in the year 79 C.E. Magnificent on one level and terrifying on another, the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and nearby areas provide amazing insight into the everyday lives – and the exact manner of the deaths – of thousands of residents of the Roman Empire at its height. James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ash, originally published in 2005 and now available in paperback, is sobering and fascinating and an outstanding introduction to one of the world’s great archival sites. From the deadly eruption itself and its expulsion of “a mixture of rock fragments and gas that rolled over the ground at temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit,” eventually covering Pompeii with “more than twelve feet of volcanic debris,” to the rediscovery of the buried city in the mid-18th century, Deem explains what happened and what the results of the rediscovery were – not all of them positive: “Some tourists stole bones from the skeletons and other artifacts as souvenirs. …[O]f all the coins and jewelry found at the Villa of Diomedes, only two items have been preserved to this day: a necklace and a gemstone. The rest have disappeared without a trace.” Mount Vesuvius continues to have its effects: a funicular (a cable railroad in which ascending and descending cars balance each other) opened in 1880 to take tourists to the top of the mountain, but a 1944 eruption wrecked it beyond repair – although the book’s photos of it remain highly intriguing. Indeed, everything discovered in and about Pompeii and Herculaneum is amazing, with the plaster casts of people at the moment of their deaths the most involving, if morbid,  of all. The book is packed with photos of these casts, of the areas where they were found, and of modern archeologists exploring the city with a great deal more care than did the explorers of earlier times. Seeing the remains of the victims of the eruption is truly astonishing. There is the soldier whose sword remains prominently alongside his right leg, and the woman who died on the beach while carrying gold jewelry and wearing two wonderfully preserved rings. The silver hoard found in one house, the wine jugs in another, and the human remains everywhere, tell a story of mundane existence suddenly, dramatically and terrifyingly turned into an excavation for the ages to come. And Mount Vesuvius is not necessarily done with the area yet, as Deem points out: it is dormant, not extinct, and a million people now live in its vicinity and could become its next victims. Bodies from the Ash is a solemn reminder of the power of nature, a tremendously interesting foray into the past, and a warning of how much we still do not know about predicting, much less preventing, some of the greatest disasters that the Earth is capable of visiting upon humans and their settlements.

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