‘Thunder and Lightning’ Captures Weather’s Dramatic Side
A lightning strike victim’s shoes explode off of his feet when the bolt hits his body. A researcher watches one of the world’s driest deserts burst into bloom after a rainfall. A cemetery manager recalls how Hurricane Irene toppled thousand-pound stone vaults. These are just a few of the stories writer and artist Lauren Redniss tells in Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future, her account of weather’s dramatic side. Using a combination of hand-lettered text and meticulous engravings, Redniss illuminates how weather works, and the sometimes strange ways it shapes our lives. She joins guest host John Dankosky to talk about visiting one of the coldest places on earth and catching a glimpse of The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s storied forecasting formula. Read an excerpt from Redniss’ book.
Lauren Redniss is the author of Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (Random House, 2015). She is based in New York, New York.
JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.
[THUNDER AND RAIN]
Weather. Most of the time it’s in the background of our lives. It’s the sequence of sun and cloud icons in a smartphone app, or the voice on the radio reminding us to grab an umbrella on the way out the door. If you ever need a safe conversation topic, of course, you can always turn to the weather. But weather also has a dramatic side. Just ask the lightning strike victim whose shoes exploded off his feet when a bolt of lightning struck his body, or the cemetery manager who saw thousand pound volts knocked down by Hurricane Irene. Ask the researcher who watched Chile’s Atacama Desert burst into bloom after seven dry years.
Those are just a few of the stories that Lauren Redniss tells us in her beautiful new book about the weather, called Thunder & Lightning. it doesn’t look like your average science book, and Redniss is not your average science writer. She’s also an artist. In Thunder & Lightning, text and meticulous illustrations combine to tell the story of how weather works and the often strange ways in which it shapes our lives. Lauren Redniss joins me in our New York studio. Welcome back to Science Friday.
LAUREN REDNISS: Thank you so much.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And if you have thoughts about the weather, 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. I know you spoke to Ira a few years ago about your graphic biography of the Curies, called Radioactive. How did you make this pivot to write about the weather?
LAUREN REDNISS: Well, they are actually connected. When I finished that book, Radioactive, for which I had to learn a lot of what was for me difficult physics, I was talking with a friend, and I said to him, ugh, I’m burnt out. My next book is going to be about clouds and rainbows. And I was kidding, but then I started to think about that. And I was actually outside at the time. And I was looking up at the sky and watching the clouds move in this kind of spectacular panorama that unfolds before our eyes every day that we tend to take for granted. And I was thinking, clouds and rainbows, they’re humidity, and temperature, and sunlight. So they’re weather, and what affects us more universally than weather?
JOHN DANKOSKY: And this book has a unique look. Before I talk about the stories in the book, maybe you can describe the book to people. Because it’s not a textbook, and it’s not like a normal novel. It’s a very large format book, and it has the most beautiful illustrations. Tell us about how it’s different than a normal science book you might pick up.
LAUREN REDNISS: Right. So I write nonfiction books that happen to be visual books. You might at first mistake this for a coffee table book. There is a lot of science in this book, and that’s essential to what I’m trying to do. Bu the science is always interwoven with human stories, with the artwork, as you described. Most of the time, almost every page of the book, when you open it up, is a full spread of artwork. Because the weather is sensual, right? We feel the breeze on our cheeks, or we smell the earth after it rains. We see and even hear the way the landscape is when it’s blanketed by snow. And I wanted to create that immersive emotional experience with this book.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So tell us where you got the stories from. Where’d they come from?
LAUREN REDNISS: Oh, all over. I did a lot of reporting. I traveled to the Arctic and to the Atacama Desert, as you mentioned, out to Newfoundland, to the foggiest place on Earth. I went to the National Weather Service. So I just talked to a lot of people. I read a lot and I traveled.
JOHN DANKOSKY: One of the places in the book that I wanted to talk about– it’s fascinating– it’s a collection of Arctic islands called Svalbard. What’s so special about this place? Tell us.
LAUREN REDNISS: Well, Svalbard is just south of the North Pole. It’s a very cold place where they have built what’s called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. And this is essentially a huge freezer dug into the side of the mountain. And it’s where all countries from around the world send their seeds to be stored in case of climate change or war or extreme weather, mismanagement. We’ve seen in recent years, local seed banks, because most places do have a local seed bank, but local seed banks in Iraq and in Afghanistan destroyed or looted during the uprisings there.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is where the seeds are kept. And the people who keep the seeds there, they have their own amazing story too. I mean, why would you go to this island out in the middle of nowhere that’s so cold?
LAUREN REDNISS: That’s exactly right. So I went there to visit the Global Seed Vault, but I actually found this bigger story, which is about the people of Svalbard and about this place where the cold, which makes it such a challenging place to live, also creates this kind of land of opportunity where time is almost frozen itself, so that the seeds hang in suspended animation in the vault.
But also, because of the particularities of the laws of Svalbard, where you don’t need a visa to live or work, and the taxes are extremely low, people from all around the world, 44 countries are represented in a population of only 2,000 people, come to earn money. And so they put their lives back home on hold. They travel to Svalbard. They live for usually about 6 or 7 years, and then they return to their homelands. So to me, it seemed like this amazing kind of echo between the suspended animation and the vault and also in these people’s lives.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And some of these people come from very warm weather places, and they want to continue living and eating like warm weather people in a place where it’s very inhospitable to growing things.
LAUREN REDNISS: That’s exactly right. I interviewed a woman named Tanyong, who’s from Thailand. And back home, she lives in this lush river valley. She has a farm where she grows mangoes and papayas and jackfruit, all of these luscious things. And she has moved to Svalbard to earn what she says is five times more than she can earn back home. And so she says, I don’t care about these difficult circumstances; I just think about work. But as you mentioned, she doesn’t like Norwegian food. So her family sends her seeds from back home so she can continue to cook Thai dishes. So just a mile from the seed vault, here is this person also preserving exotic seeds in the middle of the barren Arctic.
JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re talking about this amazing book called Thunder & Lightning, with artist and author Lauren Redniss here on Science Friday. Quickly, before we move away from Svalbard, what was the cold like for you?
LAUREN REDNISS: Oh, well, at one point, I was driving a dog sled, and it was an absolutely beautiful moment. Because I was there in February, and that’s a period when the island is experiencing what they call the polar night, where the sun does not raise above the horizon, so you get barely any light. And at this particular moment that I was there, you get kind of a vague twilight for a few hours in the afternoon, and so it was that beautiful blue. And I wanted to take some photographs, so I took off my glove. And I took some pictures, and I thought, oh wow, that wasn’t that cold. And as I put my glove back on, my hand started to tingle and tingle. And I realized it had been immediately numbed.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So it’s a cold, cold place. Now, on the other side of the world, you visited the Atacama Desert, which we talked about, which you call an “absolute desert.” What exactly is an absolute desert?
LAUREN REDNISS: Right So what happens in the Atacama is the desert is surrounded or is flanked by two mountain ranges. You have a coastal range on the west and the Andes on the east. And so you have what’s called a rain shadow effect, where the warm humid air is trapped on the eastern slope of the Andes and precipitates out before it’s able to reach the core of the Atacama. And then on the other side, you have the Pacific’s Humboldt current creating what’s called an inversion layer. And that also prevents the moisture from reaching the interior. So as one scientist put it to me, you’re in the sweet spot, where the summer rains can’t reach, and the winter rains can’t reach.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So it never rains there, but then when it rains, something remarkable happens. And for people who’d never seen this place or thought about this, this just happened this year, and there was this amazing blooming. You may have seen pictures of it on the internet. It’s the most fantastic thing ever. [CHUCKLES]
LAUREN REDNISS: Right. Right. So in fact, I wrote about the Atacama in a chapter called “Rain.” Because I thought, what way could be more vivid to illustrate the nourishing and dramatic powers of rain than to visit the desert, where you’ve so rarely seen rain. But then when you do– because what happens on a periodic basis is you get these El Nino or La Nina years where the weather patterns shift, and suddenly the desert can experience rain. And then the seeds that have been lying dormant in the earth spring to life. And as you say, you just get these acres and acres of beautiful blooming brilliant flowers spreading out in front of you.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Now, you’ve visited so many seemingly exotic and unusual places. But you also visited the offices of the “Old Farmer’s Almanac.” For people who maybe don’t know what the Almanac is, maybe you can describe it.
LAUREN REDNISS: Right. So the Almanac is one of these classic American institutions. It actually predates the presidency of George Washington.
JOHN DANKOSKY: [CHUCKLES]
LAUREN REDNISS: It’s been published for over 200 years. And they are famous for their long-range weather forecasts. And because of their publication schedule, they actually make those forecasts two years out. And they say what they use to create the weather forecast is a secret forecasting formula which they keep in a black box.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And is it guarded away? Is it like the Seed Vault that nobody can get to?
LAUREN REDNISS: Well, that’s what I anticipated. But when I visited their headquarters in Dublin, New Hampshire, I interviewed a longtime editor there, and I asked him. i said, have you ever seen the black box? And he picked it right up off the floor and he handed to me.
JOHN DANKOSKY: [CHUCKLES]
LAUREN REDNISS: And I was stunned. [CHUCKLES]
JOHN DANKOSKY: Did you look at it? Did you figure out their secrets of how they’re able to tell farmers what it’s going to be like two years in advance?
LAUREN REDNISS: Right. So I opened the box. He let me examine the contents, and I found the envelope marked “confidential.” And I read the documents. And it reads like a riddle.
JOHN DANKOSKY: [CHUCKLES]
LAUREN REDNISS: And I showed this to a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. And he told me, well, it’s rather hard to follow. But what struck me is that revealing the secret, reading the secret actually does nothing to destroy the mystery of their secret. Because the mystery of weather forecasting I think is bigger than the Old Farmer’s Almanac, how elusive it is, despite our scientific advances, despite our incredible technology. The ability to predict weather remains still just beyond our grasp.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Can you tell us a little bit about the art in the book and how the illustrations come together? I know that you’re constantly drawing and jotting down ideas. But tell us about how you integrate it with the text that you’re putting in the book.
LAUREN REDNISS: Right. Yeah, I’m a total control freak. I mean, I do the artwork and the text and the design. I design the typeface for the book. So it’s all really important to me, exactly as you say, how it comes together. Because it’s only in how it comes together that the reader makes meaning, really, of the content fused as one. So these images that you see are a collect– each one is kind of a composite of drawings I do from all over. And then I create a drawn collage of that. And then I transform the drawing into an etching. And then I color it and add the text.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And it’s somewhat like a graphic novel, but it doesn’t read like a graphic novel, because you drop in and out of these stories. We’ll be in one place on the world, and then we’ll quickly shift to another with both the text and the pictures. And it presents this beautiful way of jumping to places that we would have to travel for quite some time to get to.
LAUREN REDNISS: I hope so, yeah.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And we’re talking with Lauren Redniss about her book, Thunder & Lightning. And if you have questions, 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. One of my favorite parts of this book is this conversation you have with long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad about wind. And we’ve heard her story about these long-distance swims. And we’ve heard her voice on Public Radio in the past, but what’s her relationship with wind?
LAUREN REDNISS: Right. So before she begins one of her long-distance, these open ocean swims, she waits for a condition called the doldrums, which is the absence of wind. Because if you can imagine, naturally, wind causes waves, and waves make it very difficult to swim. So that’s what she’s waiting for, these glass-like waters.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, and she’s talking about actually having to get up over these waves with her arm. It’s seemingly, even just a very short wave to us, when we’re wading into the ocean, would be a real problem for someone swimming in the middle of the ocean.
LAUREN REDNISS: Right, right. And you can imagine, after three days in, even. But what I loved about my conversation with Diana was that she spoke about weather, and she spoke about wind. But then she brings things to almost a metaphysical level. And she talks about the melting of the polar ice caps. She talks about the things that she thinks about as she’s swimming out on the open ocean, how she thinks about the animals that are swimming beneath her. She thinks about will the earth last forever? Will the human race last forever?
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. You mentioned that Diana Nyad thinks a lot about the melting of the polar ice caps. Is that something you thought a lot about as you were writing this book?
LAUREN REDNISS: Yes. I think of this book as kind of a stealth climate change book. Because it’s not a topical book. It’s not a policy book. But I address the subject of climate change, and it’s woven throughout the book. And it’s in nearly every chapter in some way or another.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And sometimes when we think about weather and climate being tied together, when we think about the more severe hurricanes, for instance, that began a few years ago, but we’re not always thinking about these two things in an interlaced way. But you seem to really want to make that connection in your book.
LAUREN REDNISS: Well, yeah, it seems natural to think about that connection. I mean, as we experience more extreme temperatures, prolonged drought, the interconnectedness just becomes more and more apparent.
JOHN DANKOSKY: There’s a lot of really interesting people stories, including kind of a grand engineering experiment in this chapter about wind. The wind engineer from Mecca’s Grand Mosque. So why does Mecca need a wind engineer?
LAUREN REDNISS: Right. So this chapter about wind is also, in a way, about journeys. And so that’s why I talk about Diana and her epic journey from Cuba to Florida. I talk about the pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj. And so what happens at the time of the Hajj in the Great Mosque in the courtyard becomes its own microclimate. And you’re already in Saudi Arabia in a hot climate. And then you have all of these people. And the heat gets very elevated. The humidity gets very elevated.
And so the government brought in these Canadian wind engineers to try to cool off this area. And so what they did was they over air-conditioned the courtyard. And that cool air when the doors are open pours out, because the cool air is heavier than the warm air. And that creates the air circulation.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Did you have personal experiences with weather that inspired you to write this book?
LAUREN REDNISS: Well, I write about one story in the book in the last chapter, which is called “Forecasting.” I talked to a woman who was a little girl in 1953 in Worcester, Massachusetts, right when the devastating tornado of 1953 struck. And she talks about going out with her father the next morning and looking out the window of their car and seeing the devastation. And that little girl is my mother.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And did that shape her? I mean, that always shaped who she was?
LAUREN REDNISS: Hmm, [CHUCKLES] I don’t know if she wants me to answer that question.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, on a lighter note, I will say, with just a minute or so left, you taught me something new, something I never knew about Ben Franklin. What did we learn about Ben Franklin from your book?
LAUREN REDNISS: Well, apparently, Ben Franklin, among his many eccentric qualities and fascinating qualities, he liked to sit nude by an open air for a “refreshing air bath,” as he called it.
JOHN DANKOSKY: A refreshing air bath? So he just basically liked to sit around naked.
LAUREN REDNISS: Apparently. [CHUCKLES]
JOHN DANKOSKY: And this is something we didn’t know. I didn’t know this about Benjamin Franklin. This is what I think. OK, so your last book was a very deep science book. And you took a break, and you decided to write a book. OK, it’s going to be about happy rainbows and clouds. What’s your next project? What do you think?
LAUREN REDNISS: I do have a project, and it also is in large part about the natural world. But it is also a contemporary story. I’m not quite ready to reveal the topic yet.
JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. Well, I’m really pleased that you were able to bring us this book. And it is a beautiful, beautiful book. It’s called Thunder & Lightning– Weather, Past, Present, and Future.” And the author is Lauren Redniss. Thank you so much for joining us here on Science Friday.
LAUREN REDNISS: Thank you.
JOHN DANKOSKY: You can read an excerpt from Thunder & Lightning at our website. Go to sciencefriday.com/thunderandlightning.