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It is no exaggeration to say that weather affects everything we do in our lives. Weather influences how we dress, changes our plans for outdoor activities, cancels sporting events, closes airports, changes the course of wars, erodes mountains, destroys entire towns and cities, and has even been blamed for the death of U.S. President William Henry Harrison and the fiery 1986 crash of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

While inclement weather might cause us discomfort or even death, our very lives depend on it to sustain agriculture and to keep our bodies healthy. Without weather, the Earth’s atmosphere would remain stagnant, rivers and lakes would dry up, and it would be hard to imagine any life thriving on our planet’s continents and islands. On the lighter side, weather provides us with a lot of fun: because of weather, we can fly a kite, go skiing, have a snowball fight, or experience the simple joy of splashing in a fresh puddle of rain water.

Because of its power and potential for both harm and good, the weather has been a subject of intense interest and scrutiny by human beings since ancient times. The American humorist Mark Twain once said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” That’s not entirely true. People have tried to predict it, even manipulate and change it, for thousands of years, but usually to know great effect. Native American shamans, for example, were known for performing “rain dances” in the hope of causing rain to fall; rain dances have been a cultural part of many other civilizations, too, ranging from ancient Egypt to modern-day life in the Balkans. The ancient Greeks considered weather so important that control of rain and lightning was accredited to Zeus, the king of the gods. The Greeks would therefore pray to Zeus on matters regarding the weather. Of course, with the establishment of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, control of the weather was regarded as something only God could command.

Philosophers and scientists have long struggled to comprehend the complexities of the weather. Early Greeks, such as Aristotle and Theophrastus of Eresus, mixed in a good deal of conventional wisdom and traditional beliefs with their own efforts to explain and predict weather. With the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution, science, with the aid of more sophisticated instruments ranging from thermometers and barometers to satellites and Doppler radar, began to measure and analyze the weather more precisely and come up with better theories about cloud formation, temperature, air pressure, and so on.

Despite steadily improving modern technology, predicting the weather is still, in many ways, a haphazard occupation. Some people joke that meteorologists are the only professionals who can keep their jobs and still be wrong half the time. This is really an unfair criticism, though, because modern meteorology has made notable improvements in the critical discipline of predicting severe weather, including hurricanes and tornadoes. Because of efforts by such organizations as the National Weather Service, many lives have been saved in recent decades.

Yet it seems unlikely that we will ever get to the point of being able to predict the weather with 100 percent accuracy. Indeed, according to chaos theory, this is an impossible goal. If, as has been said, a butterfly flapping its wings in China can eventually give birth to a tornado in Oklahoma, what chance do we have of predicting the weather? Because this task seems so hopeless, some people have tried to change the weather directly. For example, scientists have studied cloud seeding with the goal of making it rain in places experiencing prolonged droughts.

Humanity has, indeed, changed the weather. But, as most environmentalists assert, we have done so mostly by accident, and not necessarily for the better. Climate change, ozone holes, and global warming have become catch phrases that inspire great concern among scientists, politicians, and people in general. The pollution of our modern civilization, including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, CFCs, and other chemical compounds resulting from industry, agriculture, automobiles, and other sources have been blamed. Many worry that if we don’t do something immediately, sea levels will rise, droughts and violent storms will plague humanity, and mass population migrations will result in wars over land, food, and other resources. Still others believe that we are already past the point of no return and climate change is already here today.

Without a firm grasp of meteorology, climatology, hydrology, and other related fields, it is easy to feel ignorant and overwhelmed about what is going on in the current debates on our changing weather. The Handy Weather Answer Book is designed to answer your questions in an easy-to-understand format. This book is divided into several chapters by topic, and, all together, it answers over 1,000 questions, ranging from the fundamentals to the cutting-edge of science.

The questions and answers presented here not only cover the usual topics we think about when the subject of weather is brought up (rain, snow, drought, temperature, tornadoes, etc.), but also other phenomena that are related to or affect the weather in some way. For this reason, The Handy Weather Answer Book also addresses such areas as atmospheric phenomena, the effects of geographical changes and the oceans on the weather, how our outer space neighborhood influences weather, and theories about climate change.

The Handy Weather Answer Book will take the mystery out of meteorology and, hopefully, inject a bit of fun and excitement into the topic, as well. If you get truly inspired by the subject of weather, the last chapter of this book offers some advice and information about careers in meteorological sciences in case you wish to pursue a formal education in the field.

Many people grouch about the weather. Some even move their places of residence in an effort to avoid it. But a true understanding of the weather can also lend itself to an appreciation of nature and the power behind it. The aesthetic person can discover the beauty of God in a snowflake; the scientist can marvel at the physics behind a twister and the swirl of a hurricane; and all humanity can be humbled by the wild spirit that is weather, the force that refuses to be tamed. As the British author George Robert Gissing once put it:

For the man sound of body and serene of mind there is no such thing as bad weather; every day has its beauty, and storms which whip the blood do but make it pulse more vigorously.

—Kevin Hile

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