Introduction/Our National Passion; Weather; Scientific American Presents; by Davidson; 6 Page(s)
A generation ago adolescent meteorologists monitored local weather by turning milk cartons into barometers and Ping-Pong balls into anemometers. But nowadays, simply by tapping a keyboard, their successors can track weather as it happens all over the globe. The World Wide Web offers a jungle of "weather weenie" sites. Its users can stare until stupefied at weather-radar imagery from St. Louis, St. Paul or St. Cloud, satellite pictures of fog hugging the California coast or the Appalachian foothills, charts that depict dry lines and tropical maps that show a long, sinister red band. That band is the thermal signature of El Nino, now mercifully slumbering in Pacific Ocean waters (until it strikes again!). "And Hurricane Floyd probably sucked more people onto the Internet than it did palm trees and street signs into its swirling maw," joked the Los Angeles Times.
The modern fascination with weather is also epitomized by tornado chasers on the Plains, politically charged conferences on climate change and the Weather Channel on cable television. In the age of CNN and MSNBC, weather disasters receive the breathless, moment-by-moment, you-are-there coverage once reserved for wars. In the comfort of our living rooms in New York City and San Diego and Dubuque, we watch live TV images from the southeastern U.S. as Hurricane Floyd pounds beach mansions into pulp. Pundits, meanwhile, exploit every atmospheric disaster-a Chicago heat wave, a California monsoon, a Northeastern blizzard-as material for debate: Is the weather changing? Are we to blame?