In his fascinating nonfiction book “And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind,” author and biologist Bill Streever explores the crucial role wind plays in the rhythms of life on Earth, from animal migrations to weather disasters.
‘And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air’
by Bill Streever
Little, Brown, 297 pp., $26
You can’t forecast the weather unless you know which way the wind blows — and why and how it blows. Which is why “And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air” is also a history of weather forecasting.
Bill Streever, an affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, intertwines these scientific histories in terms palatable even for laymen. When the going gets technical, Streever is there with an analogy to clarify. He gives a taste of how obtuse the writings about wind and weather can be, but he brings the reader an understanding of what is important.
Along the way, Streever sprinkles in surprises and makes historical connections: Raquel Welch and David Letterman both worked as television weather reporters. Robert FitzRoy, the man responsible for the first published daily weather forecast — a term he coined — was also the captain of the Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin to fame.
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Published in the Times of London on Aug. 1, 1861, that pioneering forecast was inspired by a weather disaster, often a motive for advances in the study of weather.
After an 1854 storm wrecked the French-British fleet in the Crimean War, Britain’s Meteorological Office began operations. As the first director of the Met Office, FitzRoy mostly kept weather statistics.
Then a storm in 1859 wrecked 133 ships. The most famous was the Royal Charter, a sail and steam vessel carrying freight and passengers returning from a gold rush in Australia. More than 400 crew and passengers, including women and children, died when 100-mile-an-hour winds and storm-tossed waves threw the ship onto rocks along the Welsh coast, where it broke apart.
FitzRoy realized that advance storm warnings might have been enough for the Royal Charter captain to decide to stay in Ireland, where the ship started that fateful day, saving hundreds of lives. FitzRoy moved from keeping statistics to attempting forecasts.
Advances in technology have propelled forecasting and wind knowledge forward, and Streever’s book blends disasters, technological progress and the people who brought meteorology from the days of observing animal behavior to the mathematical forecasting that today is worth $31 billion, according to a 2014 U.S. government estimate. The value of improved forecasting comes from being able to steer clear of weather disasters (to save more ships and lives) or from direct benefits — improved crop yields, more efficient aviation and better management of infrastructure such as wind farms and flood gates.
Where wind played a role in historical events, Streever takes note of it, from the Dust Bowl to gas warfare in World War I to the Wright brothers, who chose the North Carolina coast for their first airplane flight because of its steady wind.
Streever, a biologist, includes the part wind plays in carrying life aloft and across oceans, from birds and spiders floating on wing and web, to Portuguese man-of-wars herded across water as the wind pushes against their “pneumatomophores,” a gas bladder floating above the trailing tentacles that often sting those enjoying the beach.
The author takes his title from a line in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and includes vignettes of his own sailing adventure — a trip from Galveston, Texas, to Guatemala. He calls this a “voyage to understand the wind,” and he’s given many opportunities to do just that. He and his co-captain encounter fair winds, no wind, storms, currents and the eclectic cruising community afloat in Mexican and Central American ports.
His book would be a fine one, even if he had stayed in port. Maybe an even better one. These interludes often disrupt his coherent flow of information and the reader’s emerging understanding of the atmosphere.
But sailing has for centuries carried goods and people about the world, and it’s easy to forgive a sailor carried away by the importance of the wind.