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short book reviews


UPDATED: January 18, 2013

These are books I highly recommend for those interested in risk, climate, weather, water resources or the intersection of those topics. If you enjoy any of these, just e-mail russell.martin@wdn.com for recommendations of additional titles on similar topics.

 

RISK

There are two qualitative statistical principles that anyone can learn that will help them deal with risk, and they are presented in these two books: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, both by Nissam Nicholas Taleb. If various people in positions of responsibility would have read and heeded the messages in these books, an almost incalculable amount of trouble could have been avoided in recent years.

The Failure of Risk Management: Why Itís Broken and How to Fix It by Douglas W. Hubbard is an excellent, largely non-mathematical, introduction to many of the concepts and questions which need to be considered when doing risk analysis. Knowledgeable risk analysts will find little new, but the authorís overriding argument is that far too many putative risk analysts are not very knowledgeable or at least do not apply valid methods if they know them.

One interesting item mentioned in the book (page 238) is that NASA missions with either too little time or budget for a given level of complexity have a noticeably higher failure rate than those with adequate time and budget. This should not be a surprise, but what is somewhat surprising is that the leadership of these projects manages to convince or coerce engineers to accept constraints which they probably know threaten mission success.

One of the last sections of the book details the important concept of evaluating the accuracy of risk models. However, the only measure introduced is the Brier score. There are other scores that can be used, depending on the form of the model "forecast", a number of which, like the Brier score, were developed for verifying weather forecasts. Given that so many risk assessments are not done quantitatively and some of those that are quantitative are not verified, one score is better than none but a suite of scores can provide a richer understanding of errors.

Calculating Catastrophe by Gordon Woo presents a worthwhile and broad survey of catastrophic risks with some discussion of general quantitative aspects of many categories of risk. However, it is not a math text and thus lacks extended derivations of the equations presented. Coverage is as current as can be expected in a book, with references to several fairly recent events including top news stories of last year, 2011. As to be expected from a broad survey, there are many points touched on by the author that left this reader wanting further details. More details may be available from the good lists reference sources for each chapter but as is typical for specialized subjects, many of these sources may be somewhat difficult to obtain.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - but Some Don't by Nate Silver is an interesting book that, along the Taleb's books mentioned above, is a must read for people who want a (mostly) qualitative explanation of how uncertainty rules ours lives and what steps to take to deal with it.

Much of the book can be summarized by my mantra "All too often the study of data requires care". Still, the author details a number of the specific pitfalls of which to beware when looking for signal in noisy data and predicting the future based on past data.

As a former National Weather Service meteorologist, I appreciated the praise the author gives meteorologists as a profession and specifically those of the National Weather Service. His observations about their approach to forecasting and forecast verification correspond well with my experience. However, in his very balanced chapter of climate change his dichotomy between meteorologists and climatologists strikes me as somewhat artificial and not generally true. In reality there is a large overlap in those fields with many climatologists, especially climate modelers, having been trained as meteorologists. I say this as someone trained as a meteorologist who has frequently worked on problems in climatology. Perhaps the author made this choice for narrative ease more than definitional precision.

 

CLIMATE CONTROL

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control is a good book overall, extensively researched and a must-read for those interested in the history of meteorology, especially the history of weather modification. It is weakest when the author departs from history and becomes a crusader against weather and climate modification efforts or, at points in the book, seemingly against even the open discussion of proposed efforts. The basis for his position includes the fictional failures of fictional efforts from ancient mythology to modern literature, the failure of charlatan rainmakers (rather like arguing against medical research because of old-time snake-oil peddlers), and modern attempts with admittedly limited and difficult-to-validate success. I donít know why he didnít include the animated movie "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" as an example of arrogant, overreaching science since he seemed to mention just about every other work of fiction in which weather modification goes awry. Cautionary tales from all sources are worth considering, but this is true in any human endeavor which reaches beyond the tried-and-true, including in such fields as financial engineering. The author seems to confuse the literary zeitgeist of various periods with reality instead of an artistic reflection of reality.

The author shows surer footing in the last several chapters which discuss more science and actual, usually half-baked, attempts at affecting the atmosphere, and less fiction literature. He covers the objections to half-baked climate control proposals well, but thatís like shooting fish in a barrel. One surprising omission is a more extensive discussion of the regional climate disaster caused by the Soviet diversion of the rivers feeding the Aral Sea, which is only alluded to briefly, obliquely and not by name.

Certainly any efforts by man to modify or control weather or climate should undergo the most critical debate and strenuous evaluation and be studied with the utmost scientific rigor because of the potential to do catastrophic damage on a global scale. While the authorís "middle course" for dealing with climate change appears to be the prudent course, his arguments offer no more proof that it is the correct course than rain makers have provided proof of their efficacy. As a result his book ends up being a compilation of significant cautionary tales, but no more.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE and AGRICULTURE

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan - Pulitzer Prize winning author Egan won a National Book Award for this history of the Dust Bowl.

The Dust Bowl by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns - Someone once said, "Iíd rather be lucky than good". Well, we already knew Ken Burns and his crew of documentary filmmakers are good but with the release of The Dust Bowl at the end of a year of severe drought in the Great Plains we see that his timing is impeccably lucky also. The book, a companion to the film, is written by Dayton Duncan and Burns and is a good read in its own right. You probably will not learn much new key historical information if youíve already read Timothy Eganís outstanding book The Worse Hard Time, but there are several quotes in The Dust Bowl which I found noteworthy and still very applicable today. One is from Hugh Hammond Bennett, Franklin Rooseveltís head of the Soil Conservation Service: "The Kingdom of Nature is not a democracy; we cannot repeal natural laws when they become irksome. We have got to learn to conform to these laws or suffer severer consequences than we have already brought upon ourselves."

The Prairie Winnows Out Its Own by Paula M. Nelson is complimentary to Eganís The Worst Hard Time in several respects. While both works discuss the 1930s and Dust Bowl on the Great Plains, Eganís book concentrates more on the 1930s but covers a larger geographical area, although focusing somewhat on the Texas panhandle. Nelsonís book concentrates on the west river region of South Dakota (the region west of the Missouri River), location of the last land rush in the West and the final vestige of Manifest Destiny in the Lower 48. The narrative covers mainly the 1920s and 1930s, although it mentions facts from earlier periods in setting the background. [In fact, the authorís earlier book covers the west river from 1900 to 1917.] It examines the social fabric of the small town and rural society more closely than Eganís book. In fact, the first half of the book is largely an examination the regionís social fabric, especially how physical aspects of the region, including the large area, isolation and semi-arid climate, shaped the lives of the people and development of their society in the late 1910s and the 1920s. The second half of the book follows how the stresses of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl abraded and frayed the social fabric and, along with New Deal programs, altered the nature of the agricultural economy and of the people living in the region. This well researched and well written account is worthwhile reading for those interested in the history of droughts or of the Great Plains, and those seeking a cautionary tale for today when stories of drought in the southern Plains and of climate change portending future droughts are often in the news.

Locust by Jeffery A. Lockwood - This book suggests that man may have unknowingly triggered the demise of the locust which had done its best to prevent man from establishing himself on the Great Plains of the United States. It is a fascinating combination of history and scientific detective story.

Three Famines: Starvation and Politics by Thomas Keneally - The thesis of this book, by a Booker Prize winner, is that in these three famous famines, and by extension others, starvation was caused as much or more by lack of political will and ability to obtain and distribute food to the starving as by the shortage of food per se. The author presents extensive examples of heroes and villains in political posts, their decisions and actions during the crises, and the consequences of those choices. He also discusses the effects of starvation on individuals such as how it distorts their thinking and lowers their resistance to many diseases. As Famine is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his black horse has four legs, one of which is surely politics. The other legs might be weather/climate, poverty, and bigotry.

 

WATER RESOURCES

Although it does not cover the past 25 years, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner is an excellent history of the development of the American West and how it shaped and was shaped by the exploitation of limited water resources. The resulting population distribution is too short-sighted for words.

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon discusses water, its availability and uses, and how those aspects have influenced mankindís history and will probably influence mankindís future in upcoming decades. He takes an integrated historical and economic view to show how water, not only for drinking and producing food but also for transportation, power, sanitation, and as an input to industrial production, has been key to the rise and fall of great civilizations throughout history and to this day. Up to date and very readable, it is 500 pages long, but the subject certainly merits a treatment of that length.

In Restoring the Flow: Confronting the Worldís Water Woes, Robert William Sandford presents a panorama of water supply problems and generally failed solution attempts from around the world which some people will find provocative and others will find distressing. While the authorís focus is on finding better ways to meet the water needs of the Canadian prairies in the face of societal and climatic stresses, his look at similar challenges elsewhere shows that most places in world are facing or soon will face water shortages and even the most advanced efforts to address the issue are fraught with difficulties which prevent success or at least undercut what progress is achieved. His tales range from precautionary to scary, the scariest of which is that, as Walt Kelly said, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Brian Fagan has written numerous books including several excellent books on the effect of climate change on human history such as The Little Ice Age and The Long Summer. His latest book, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, follows the history mankindís water usage, efforts to gather enough water, and often inventive and monumental engineering and social institutions to control and deliver that water for public and private use throughout the world. He makes the case that many great civilizations have flourished in large part through mastery of their water and environment only to ultimately fall when expanding needs, changing climate, or unintended consequences led to society outstripping the capacity of the environment to provide enough water and the food which needs water for its production. Modern world civilization may now be facing collapse from pending water shortages. As Fagan writes, "Our salvation lies in long-term thinking, in decisive political leadership, and in a reordering of financial priorities... ". If so, present indications are that we are in deep trouble.

In When the Rivers Run Dry, Fred Pearce presents a plethora of examples of failed modern water practices and their consequences from around the world, often contrasting them with more sustainable earlier methods. He makes a case for returning to some of the earlier water management and use approaches, coupled with carefully selected modern developments, to address local and regional water crises which taken together constitute a global water crisis.

The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century by Alex Prudíhomme is an up-to-date investigation of the challenges which face us in providing enough safe fresh water and food for growing populations while dealing with increasing waste water and flood water. Some of the history presented is found in various other works, but it is important to the telling of where weíre going to see how weíve gotten to where we are. Of special interest is the authorís coverage of the conflicts and tradeoffs between water for direct human consumption and other human needs like food, energy, minerals, and nature which also depend on clean water for their production or existence.

A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest by William deBuys is the latest in a line of books stretching back at least as far as Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States by John Wesley Powell (and more contemporarily Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner) which discuss the challenges posed by increasing population and population density in a region which has climatically insufficient precipitation to support high levels of either without massive, artificial, and costly, in financial terms and more, water storage and diversion efforts. As the title suggests, the author focuses on the exacerbating effects of climate change on water resource limitations in the Desert Southwest (as I learned to call it school, a name which should have long ago discouraged the level of settlement which has occurred there), some of which already are being felt as well as forecast. Archeological studies, historical accounts, and modern stories are used to illustrate some of the specific problems and how, ultimately, every living thing has to deal with water limits imposed by climate by adapting, moving, or dying.

Drought: Past Problems and Future Scenarios by Justin Sheffield and Eric F. Wood is an up-to-date summary of many aspects of the science of drought, including the basic factors involved in the development of drought, the definition of drought, impacts of drought, and quantifying the extent and severity of drought. With this background established, evidence of droughts in the paleontological record is examined followed by discussions of droughts of the late 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries, and finally projections of what future drought conditions may be. The technical level is only moderate and thus the book can be read profitably by motivated laypeople, but it is a good introduction for meteorologists and climatologists interested in this increasing important phenomenon.

 

WILDFIRE

In recent years wildfires have become larger and more frequent, in part due to droughts and increasing insect damage, the latter partly due to warmer winters. They have also become more dangerous due to the expansion of human hibitation into forest lands. The archetypal story of the fight against a forest fire is Norman Macleanís Young Men and Fire, a National Book Critics Circle Award winning book.

In his lastest book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, Pulitzer Prize winning author Timothy Egan explores the early days of the Forest Service and the tragic blaze which help create the mythos at the foundation of the organization still today.

 

FLOODS

Familiar to many PBS viewers, David McCullough (twice a Pulitzer Prize winner and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom) choose The Johnstown Flood as the subject for his first, and critically acclaimed, book. It could be subtitled "Anatomy of a Disaster" for its description of the causes of the flood, but it is a much bigger story of life and death.

A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008 by Cornelia F. Mutel (ed.) is a readable collection of contributions from many experts on the numerous aspects of the disastrous 2008 floods in my home state, Iowa. During the flood I saw TV coverage from where I went to college, Cedar Rapids, which simply astonished me even though I was familiar with the huge 1993 Midwest floods. The book covers a broad range of topics, many of which the layperson might not realize exist, from the development of preexisting conditions for floods, how the timing of basin scale rain events can exacerbate floods, and how land use practices have change flood vulnerability to what we learned from the 1993 floods and have yet to implement to mitigate future, inevitable, floods.

Although far more a flood only, much of the destruction from Hurricane Katrina was due to predictable, and predicted, flooding. The Storm, by Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan, recounts the accurate predictions, the hurricane, and the derelictions of duty which helped delineate the eventual disaster.

 

HURRICANES

Isaacís Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson is the story of the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, killing an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people, and the struggle of the early Weather Service and its meteorologists to deal with the problems of forecasting such storms.

Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein begins with a good overview of the long history of New Orleans and its perilous relationship with its watery environment. This sets the stage for telling the story of the destruction of most of the city by Mother Nature and her partially culpable accomplice the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through the agent of Hurricane Katrina. But the destruction wrought by the storm was only the opening act in the larger disaster which was exacerbated in no small part by the dismal, in my opinion even negligent, disaster planning and response efforts of the local, state, and Federal governments. Katrina was not a "Black Swan" event. Many people knew that the scenario which developed was a disaster waiting to happen. There are heroes in the story, including the scientists and forecasters who provided long term warnings and raised immediate alarms, but despite their efforts the battle was lost. Many people in authority, as well as many residents of New Orleans and the Mississippi River delta, hoped that they would beat the game of hurricane roulette despite almost three hundred years of examples of those who didnít. The authors convey the essence of this extremely complicated story fairly well given that for every individualís story they told there were thousands of stories they couldnít.

 

TORNADOES

Tornado: Accounts of Tornadoes in Iowa by John Stanford is a small, well-illustrated book filled with stories of significant tornadoes in Iowa. The author was my research advisor and one of my photos of the F5 Jordan tornado is in the second edition.

 

WINTER STORMS

Although still very dangerous, these days winter storms are often more of an inconvenience than a threat to life. The threat was much greater in the past, as related in The Childrenís Blizzard by David Laskin. In one of the fastest and most extreme weather changes ever recorded on the Great Plains, over 100 children, caught unprepared, were killed in a day.

 


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