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When it comes to weather, there's still much to learn

August 18, 2009

New book details weather’s involvement in Earth’s history, from T-Rex’s extinction to the parting of the Red Sea

Everybody watches the weather. Whether it’s to track a major storm or to learn if record heat will continue into the weekend, we make following the weather a part of our daily routine. But once the weather passes, it’s usually forgotten. We look, instead, to what tomorrow will bring.

Now, Randy Cerveny, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, is bringing past weather to light in a new book that shows how weather played a major role in key turning points in history. Along the way, Cerveny, a President’s Professor in geographical sciences at ASU, plays the role of history’s detective in piecing together clues to reconstruct major turning points of our past and to project the weather into the future.

In “Weather’s Greatest Mysteries Solved!” Cerveny outlines several major events in history and details how weather played a role in them. The book explains such mysteries as why T-Rex became extinct, how human life was nearly wiped out 73,000 years ago and details the factors that contributed to the great American dust bowl of the 1930s.

“It has been said that ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,’” Cerveny says. “Perhaps now we can add that those who forget the past weather and climate are doomed to experience them again. Hopefully, this book sheds light on some of the major climate and weather changes that people have – and are – experiencing.”

Cerveny takes the reader on a fascinating tour of some of the world’s most perplexing and provocative climate mysteries, past and present. They range from widespread calamities, such as what caused the Mayan civilization to disappear, to smaller scale weather phenomena, including intense microbursts that can down an airplane.

Each chapter begins with a first-person account of a major event, as Cerveny provides an insider’s perspective into the event and then lays out the forensic evidence of what happened. Along the way, he explains the science of climate study – from digging ice cores in Antarctica to counting tree rings in Arizona – and the various specialists whose techniques help sort out climate’s intricate components.

“Anyone interested in mysteries, or wants to learn something from piecing together very odd and divergent clues like tree rings and ice cores to come up with what makes our world tick will be interested in this book,” Cerveny says.

Cerveny presents an engaging look at climatology making the point that the weather does, indeed, have an impact on humanity. Sometimes it nudges it in a new direction, other times it reduces it to rubble.

In one chapter, he outlines the evidence of a major event on earth that nearly killed all humans. The massive eruption of the Toba volcano, in Indonesia, happened about 73,000 years ago, long before recorded history. Only a few thousand ancient humans survived the eruption and the ecological disruption that followed. It single-handedly almost wiped out 1 million years of human evolution.

Cerveny estimates from ice core evidence that Toba may have erupted continuously for six days (Mt. St. Helens, for instance, erupted for nine hours), spewing megatons of material into the air, covering landmasses and extensively blotting out sunlight.

“Temperatures across the globe perhaps plummeted by as much as 16 C (24 F) particularly in regions away from the equator,” Cerveny writes. “Human populations living in Europe and northern China would have been completely eliminated.”

As Earth slowly recovered, over a period of at least a few decades and maybe as long a few centuries, it showed its inherent resiliency as a planet.

To make this finding more contemporary, Cerveny draws a parallel to what may be the awakening of a future super volcano. While there have been no super volcano eruptions since Toba, one place that is particularly worrisome to geologists and climatologists is Yellowstone National Park.

A giant caldera – the volcanic opening of one of the most massive super volcanoes yet identified – lies beneath the entire park. All of Yellowstone’s hot springs and geysers, even Old Faithful, exist because of an incredibly massive magma chamber located underneath the park. It has a history of erupting, roughly every 600,000 years. Its last eruption was 640,000 years ago, Cerveny says.

Some believe that if it erupts, Yellowstone could exceed even Toba’s massive eruption.

“It’s overdue,” Cerveny says. “Yellowstone Lake has risen four or five inches in the last decade. That tells us something is pushing up underneath it. At the end of last year, there was a swarm of 500 earthquakes that shook the area, a precursor of an eruption.”

“Volcanologists have a full time observatory at Yellowstone and while there are some indications it could go, the Park Service hasn’t shut anything down yet,” he adds. “So, I don’t think it’s a run into the night screaming kind of thing yet, but if it were to happen civilization as we know it would probably break down.”

The scale of such an event points to how precarious our position is on earth.

“We like to think we are masters of our fate,” Cerveny says, “and the thing about climate is that there are simply a lot of things we can’t control or even begin to control or totally understand.”

“Weather’s Greatest Mysteries Solved!” is published by Prometheus Books, Amherst, N.Y.