Saturday, 4 August 2012


     "We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of air"

            Evangelista Torricelli 1608 – 1647

Torricelli not only understood what the atmosphere is but he also worked out that its movements give us the weather. This particular circumstance of the atmosphere is whereour lives intersect with the daily life of the planet. We feel the wind as it transfers heat from the equator to the poles. We experience the rain when the atmosphere picks up moisture and drops it around us. We may wish to hide from the weather in buildings and vehicles but we need the rain to grow the food that feeds us.

Our everyday experience of the weather is limited. Meteorologist sitting in front of computer screens viewing images of the atmosphere with radar or from satellites are more aware of the scale of weather systems. They see self-organising patterns in the atmosphere that are as uncanny as the natural forms of ice crystals. Through mass media we are now able to see time-lapse images of developing storms in a view from space that was depicted in popular culture at the start of the Powell and Pressburger film ‘A matter of life and death’ in 1946. This view from above is often incorporated into news items about bad weather. It is in this context that we experience weather as image.

In medieval times destructive weather was seen as either a divine punishment for sin or a portent of retribution to come. In the 3rd century B.C. Aristotle had already realised that the mechanisms of the atmosphere were part of a physical world, but he emergence of a materialist philosophy was a slow development. William Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ at the time of a watershed between belief in weather as having a supernatural correspondence with human life, and the scientific age that understands weather as physical processes. When contemporary audiences saw Act 3 scene 2, some might have believed that there could be a direct link between King Lear’s mental torment and the storm on the heath, while others might have seen a metaphor at work.

Enquiry into the workings of nature through science was one consequence of the Enlightenment. In the Age of Reason the division between science and art became significant. In a reaction to the reductionism of the scientific age the Romantic poets used nature and the weather as an image of the sublime, which started as a literary idea but also informed landscape painting. Science uncovered the processes of nature but until the 19th century the difficulty of observing the atmosphere over large areas caused the study of the weather to lag behind other scientific disciplines. In 1802 Luke Howard, an amateur meteorologist, proposed a system for the classification of clouds. This innovation helped to give meteorology the same status as other comparative sciences such as biology and geology. John Constable made use of Howard’s work to improve the appearance of skies in his landscape paintings. Constable was interested in the 'truth' of a picture and regarded landscape painting as a branch of science.

A landscape painting can only make a limited contribution to science as it represents a single unchanging viewpoint. In 1817 Alexander von Humboldt invented the method of representating the dynamic states of the atmosphere by isograms on a map. Isobaric and isothermal maps allow the changing weather to be seen in its global context. In 1917 weather maps helped Jacob Bjerknes at the Bergen School of Meteorology to identify the tendency for our atmosphere to divide into air masses. Weather events occur most often where the boundaries of air masses push up against each other, like opposing armies. The first world war had started three years previously and these active regions became known as ‘fronts’.

The first world war accelerated the development of the aeroplane. Aviation gave an impetus to the development of meteorology. The vulnerability of aircraft required reliable knowledge of weather

condition and the combination of European empires and emerging global capitalism enabled a network of observers to be established. Meteorology became associated with national interests as well as science. Navies could attempt to compensate for the lack of observation points at sea.

The years between the world wars saw daring attempts to fly as high in the air as possible. Professor Auguste Piccard’s balloon ascents from Germany and Switzerland in the 1930s eventually reached an altitude of 23 kilometers. He needed to rise above as much of the atmosphere as possible so as to measure cosmic rays pouring down to Earth from space. The spherical pressurised gondola in which he travelled was a precursor of the manned space capsules sent into orbit 30 years later. In 1933 an expedition travelled from Britain to fly from a base in India and then to pass over the summit of Mount Everest. The project, funded by Lady Lucy Houson, was an collaboration between the RAF, the Royal Geographical Society and companies such as Shell Oil. The expedition received huge publicity. Lord Clydesdale and David McIntyre flew a pair of bi-planes which also carried an observer/ photographer. To obtain permission from the Maharajah of Nepal to fly over the mountain the organisers emphasised the scientific and geographical  aspects of the mission. The photographer-observers

Colonel Blackler and S.R. Bonnett were to capture a series of overlapping photographs to map the glaciers around Everest.

Breathing bottled oxygen and wearing electrically heated suits the two man crews battled against ferocious winds that threatened to drive the two aircraft down onto the ridges of the mountain. The success of the enterprise was recorded in the Oscar winning documentary film ‘Wings over Everest'. 
These projects coincided with the peak of modernism and the belief in human perfectibility through technology, but the outbreak of the second world war interrupted pure science. Warfare lead to particular discoveries. USAF bombing of Japanese cities lead to the rediscovery of the jet stream. The original discovery by the Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Oishi had been ‘lost’ to science in the 1930s as the research paper had been published in the synthetic language Esperanto. In 1943 the invention of the computer resulted from the need for a rapid means of decoding intercepted German radio messages at Bletchley Park in Britain.

Today we attempt to spy on the ‘intentions’ of the atmosphere by using computers that number-crunch the vast quantities of  meteorological data and produce weather forecasts. One of the most ingenious  advances in meteorology has been the use of radar to determine air pressure. Satellite radar can measure the degrees of roughness of the sea over very large areas. When this data is fed to a computer it can calculate wave high and then extrapolate backwards to wind speed. After plotting variations of wind speed over wide areas a picture of distribution of air pressure can be produced. The difficulty of observing air pressure simultaneously at numerous points is circumvented. Nature is ‘decoded’ as if we were at war with it.

The resulting weather forecasts which are given to us by radio and television have become a part of everyday life. Oloafur Eliasson wrote about how the weather forecast is involved in our perception of  time. Our sense of ‘now’ is made from a combination of our memories of our movements in the recent past and our expectation of the immediate future. The weather forecasts contribute to a sense of our collective now that moves forward through time. Within broadcast media the weather forecast comes after the news. This elision contributes to the seamless flow from the collective recent past to our collective near future.

Inbetween news and weather forecasts there is also sports reporting. Although sport has more in common with news and current affairs, in that the competition between teams is similar to conflict in politics, the largely unpredictable nature of the games is similar to the essence of our predictions about weather. Our identification with teams contributes to the same sense of a shared now and a shared near future as does the weather forecast. Gambling associated with sport is also comparable to the probabilistic narrative of weather forecasts. Both are about predicting future events. The television weather forecast is a compromise between capturing a snapshot of a national or regional shared experience of weather and helping the individual in a particular location. On occasions this has consequences. We are sometimes surprised to hear of motorists becoming stranded in blizzards on motorways even after hearing forecasts of bad conditions. Unlike the shipping forecast, which is a very accurate short-term prediction of weather for relatively small and well defined areas; national weather forecasts contain generalities that apply to large areas.

As a result of the need to reflect a collective shared experience the forecasts lack precision. The disparity between the individual’s experience of weather and the weather forecast is usually caused by the absence of a terrestrial equivalent for the shipping forecast. Perhaps with the decline of traditional mass media and the rise of web-based services, users of mobile devices will in the future gain access to more accurate weatherforecasts for the area in which they happen to be.

Science has literally de-mystified the weather. The aspect of the sublime that was associated with the weather has transferred to the technology used to explain it. In the 18th Century literary sense of the word, the ‘sublime’ should be characterised by something immeasurably vast which creates a sense of helplessness. The quantity and complexity of the resources allocated by governments to meteorology has a tendency to create a similar feeling. The atmosphere is no longer immeasurable. Meteorology processes as many data points as possible and simulates the atmospheric engine in order to provide us with our weather forecasts. It is the immensity of this effort that gives rise to a sort of technological sublime that rivals that of nature itself.

Although the triumph of science in the materialist age was to understand nature in terms of mathematics this abstraction came at a cost. The scale and the invisibility of the forces of nature discovered by science are beyond everyday experience and have struggled to find expression in art or literature. While the early days of impressionist art seemed to overlap with the scientific exploration of colour and vision, by the end of the 19th century science had captured nature and hidden it away in the laboratory.  It was in a laboratory in 1859 that John Tyndall discovered  measured the transmission of light radiation through gasses. He found that carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor block the transmission of infra-red light but allow the passage of visible light. Light from the sun that is absorbed by the Earth and then re-radiated from it’s surface as infra-red but is absorbed by CO2. This stops the world from being frozen all the way from the poles to the equator. In 1896 the Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius developed this idea into a more complicated story of how CO2 could be involved in climate changes over long periods. The influence that CO2 has on the heat balance of our atmosphere came to be known as the ‘greenhouse effect’. In the 20th century there has been a steadily increasing awareness that production of excess CO2 by industrial processes has changed the radiative balance of the atmosphere and caused global warming. As well as stopping the earth from freezing, the artificially increased levels of CO2 are causing more energy from the sun to be retained in our atmosphere.

At first a warmer world seemed to be an attractive idea but several things happened to change this. In the Victorian era industrial pollution that had been seen as a negative effect on human and plant health that was limited to a specific area.  Rachel Carson’s 1958 book ‘Silent Spring’ caused widespread concern when theharmful effects of DDT were proved to be widespread. The scale on which humans could affect nature was also revealed by the spread of isotopes from atmospheric hydrogen bomb tests before 1963. Even the bones of penguins in the Antarctic contain Strontium- 90 from thermonuclear bomb explosions.

The invisible nature and global distribution of these hazards and their unexpected consequences was qualitatively different from the Victorian experience of pollution. The idea that global warming could have unexpected effects was posited. In 1962 the NASA spacecraft Mariner 2 passed 34,000 kilometers from the surface of Venus. Instruments on Mariner 2 showed that a runaway greenhouse effect had given the planet an atmospheric temperature of 500 degrees centigrade.

Research into the greenhouse effect was originally motivated by curiosity over the cause of ice ages. Subsequently, computer simulations have shown that astronomical effects have influenced the Earth’s climate. Changes in the shape of the Earth’s orbit and precession of the Earth’s axis of rotation are now believed to have caused the onset and cessation of ice ages. The change in the rate of removal of CO2 by geological processes has also probably varied with time, along with changes to the rate of addition of CO2 by volcanism. Most importantly these variations arevery slight. The fact that they have any influence on the climate of the Earth indicates that it is very sensitive to change. It is the responsiveness of the atmosphere to the greenhouse effect that makes the human contribution to CO2 levels crucial.

The development of chaos theory in the 1980s enabled mathematicians to explain why there is an effective limit of approximately five days for any weather forecast. In the 1960s meteorologists had predicted that satellites and computers would make it possible to produce accurate weather forecasts for months ahead.This unfulfilled ambition might reflect badly on climate change predictions. Climate is not merely longer term weather but is a pattern from which weather is a short term deviation. This important difference means that our inability to make long term prediction about the short term phenomena that we call weather should not stop us from meaningful consideration of climate change. Computers are now used to simulate longer term climate change despite the five day limitation on weather forecasts.

The radiative balance of our atmosphere is affected not just by CO2 but also water vapour, methane and cloud cover. Human activity increases the amount of methane in the atmosphere largely as a result of farming. Water vapor can be precipitated from theatmosphere in days but CO2 will take hundreds of years to be removed. CO2 has been likened to the ‘throttle’ that accelerates water vapor into the air. 
                                                                                         Despite the complexities of global warming confidence in computer modelling of climate change is strong. There is now a proposal for a system to attribute the blame for damage caused by climate change weather events to the industrial producers of greenhouse gasses. The idea is based on the assumption that political systems are not able to deal with global warming and that only the threat of legal action will curb greenhouse gas emissions. How this would work out in practice is difficult to imagine, but the inability of governments to deal with the economic crisis precipitated by the unravelling of financial systems after 2008 implies that there might not be an alternative. If the governments can not regulate the financial how can they be expected to deal with invisible mechanisms of weather and climate change?

In fact there are now proposals emanating from the US Office of Financial Research to realise the potential of data warehouses by introducing a system of common metrics for financial transactions that would enable the production of 'economic weather' maps. The suggestion is that prediction of 'corporate storms' such as the recent global financial crisis will be possible.    Perhaps in the future there will be an attempt to combine the legal systems for attributing the blame for climate change influenced events with a new system of global financial governance. Add emissions trading into the equation and it is possible to imagine that a complex system of world economic and environmental regulation could be proposed. 
It would be difficult for such a system to be accepted by the post-modern culture that has little faith in such 'Grand Projects' Any attempts to mitigate the effects of the human influence on global climate inevitably lead to arguments that are exacerbated by uncertainty over what science can tell us. We know that humans are adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. This will cause more floods and droughts and raise sea levels. There is uncertainty over how far CO2 levels will go, how much global temperatures will increase, how fast sea levels will rise and how specific regions will be affected.

The colour photographs in this book were taken in Britain during a year that was bracketed by winters that were the coldest for several decades. Recent studies suggest that global warming is in fact weakening the polar jet stream, allowing cold air to penetrate further south while abnormally warm weather moves further north. It would be paradoxicalif one of the effects of global warming were to produce a pattern of weather which appears to contradict its existence.

The consumerist political system has to some extent absorbed the counter culture and re-cast it as an ethos expressed through freedom of choice. The visible results of financial wealth seems more real to the consumer than science which predicts climate change and talks about the invisible. The socially constructed idea of our culture consists as much of goods and services as it does of nature. The post modern economy of signs and signifiers that occupies the attention of the modern consumer seems more important than the CO2 producing technology that enables it. Climate change sceptics are able to exploit this situation as restrictions on the use of technology seem to strike at the heart of what it is to be a citizen in modern democracy. Relativism has created a situation where the choice of whose doubt to share is more significant that the question of the authority of certainty. In the absence of unchallenged experts, commentators and analysts talk of the need to build a ‘useable narrative’.

Choices will be made to deal with climate change. Possibilities include reducing CO2 emissions and geoengineering to reduce global warming. Nuclear power and renewable energy sources such as wind andsolar energy help to reduce CO2 emissions. When Auguste Piccard measured cosmic rays in his balloon ascents in the 1930s he was contributing to research that would lead to today's nuclear power. In the next fifty years it may be possible to replace nuclear fission energy by replicating the Sun’s hydrogen fusion in a reactor here on Earth. Even if we achieve fusion power production CO2 pollution would continue to affect the climate for hundreds of years. The effects of global warming will be felt mostly by poor people living in vulnerable situations. Sea levels will rise and glaciers such as those photographed by the 1933 Everest expedition may retreat and feed less water to those who depend on it.                          

When Lady Lucy Huson financed the flight over Everest she was motivated by the desire to perpetuate the British Empire in India. Today non-western countries feel that they are on the receiving end of a similar iniquity. They will suffer from the effects of climate change the most but they are criticised for expanding power production from fossil fuels in pursuit of a standard of living that is expected in the industrialised countries. How the issues around climate change can be resolved is an open question. If geoengineering solutions to control global warming  are regarded with suspicion what will motivate the responses to climate change? The collective present associated with the weather forecast does not seem to have a equivalent feeling for the future described by climate change predictions. Roger Scruton has commented that modern society is now regarded as a contract between individuals, whereas it was once thought to be a contract between the dead, the living and the unborn. Having our attention trapped in a perpetual present has serious consequences. At our most altruistic we care more about people who are poor elsewhere than the greater number of people who will be made poor by climate change in the future. The time scales of climate change cannot easily be managed within the expectations of society or the electoral cycles of democracy.

Planning for climate change falls to institutes and intergovernmental agencies that occupy a position similar to that of the 'men of letters' who were central to the Enlightenment. These reluctant technocrats are in a different situation. Climate change scientists feel duty bound to advise and motivate governments to deal with the threats but their cannon of knowledge that was once the source of intellectual authority now tends to operate inside computers. The algorithms used to simulate nature are more than just a quantity of data, they are a form of perception that potentially exceeds human understanding. The gap between this arcane knowledge and public understanding is large.        Mass media and the internet will be the main arenas for debate about climate change but what contribution can art make? The abstraction of nature by science is not the same as the term abstraction in art. When Jackson Pollock spoke of the need to find a modern equivalent for the radio, the aeroplane and the atom bomb he was using borrowed words to create a context for his 'action paintings' which were about expressing inner psychic states. Images of nature created by science are not as much abstract as uncanny, in that they show what would not normally be seen. Even in 1933 an aerial picture of Everest taken with infra-red film had an unnatural clarity which collapses the one hundred mile distance to something appearing to be five miles.  The extension of scientific enquiry into realms that are invisible to human senses makes it difficult to have intuitive feelings for nature that can accommodate the concept of climate change.

In his 1958 book ‘The Poetics of Space’ Gaston Bachelard used the term ‘intimate immensity’, a deliberate paradox intended to draw attention to the way in which a consideration of immensity feeds our imagination. Bachelard was never interested in the romantic idea of the sublime which involves an immeasurable vastness that produces a sense of helplessness. Gaston Bachelard’s concept of grandeursuggests a way to build a bridge from the everyday to the immensity of nature. The need for this was articulated when John Keats said that science was ‘unweaving the rainbow’. He gave a voice to a general feeling that science was removing nature from humanity. His sentiment is similar to the story of the Garden of Eden which describes the expulsion of humans from paradise as a punishment for eating from the tree of Knowledge. The beauty of Nature is exchanged for control through scientific knowledge.

Knowledge will not distance us from nature, only a lack of imagination. Science may have unwoven the rainbow but it will tell us what our technology is doing to the atmosphere. Unlike the story of the Garden of Eden, we will not suffer from having too much knowledge, only from not making the best use of it. Although the mathematical descriptions of climate change can have the force of a moral argument there is no convincing photographic image of it. Because of the invisibility of the forces of climate change, neither an image of weather and our experience of it can not tell us if it is natural or if it has been altered by humans. As time passes and knowledge increases, the effects of our unplanned interactions with the laws of nature will be revealed like the latent image of a photograph emerging in developer.

A Year of WeatherA Year of Weather