How thick is Earth’s atmosphere?
Sorry, that’s a bit of a trick question:
Our planet’s air simply gets thinner
with altitude, fading away to nothingness somewhere far above the height at
which the lowest satellites orbit. It’s a
fact, though, that 99 percent of Earth’s
air lies below an altitude of 18 miles.
Naturalist Christopher Dewdney uses that distance as the
title of his latest book, which takes a deep dive into the
science behind weather and climate.
18 Miles is full of fun facts: A cloud a few hundred
meters cubed contains only a bathtub’s worth of water, for
instance. And the phrase “cloud nine” references a
category that the International Cloud Atlas uses in its cloud
But the book is so much more than trivia. 18 Miles also
contains detailed yet readable explanations of weather-related phenomena, from the annual cycle of seasons to
how Earth’s rotation influences the spin of hurricanes and
the large-scale wind patterns that drive such storms across
Beyond the science of weather and climate, Dewdney
delves into history and culture, including recounting the
evolution of weather forecasting. A few thousand years ago,
the Babylonians surmised weather from observations of
cloud patterns, Dewdney notes. Now, meteorologists use
computer simulations to prognosticate conditions nearly a
week into the future.
A chapter that chronicles a handful of occasions when
weather changed the course of history, including how bitter
cold thwarted Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, is particularly fascinating.
Dewdney’s stories of the scientists who teased out the
details of weather and climate are equally engaging. For
example, in the late 1960s, the Japanese physicist Tetsuya
Fujita analyzed the damage generated by tornadoes in the
United States and then invented the twister-rating scale
that bears his name. About two decades earlier, he used
similar techniques to study the immense destruction left
by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
during World War II — analyses that helped estimate the
immense power of those bombs and reinforced Japan’s
decision to surrender.
From our planet’s formation to the present day and
beyond, 18 Miles relates the epic tale of Earth’s atmosphere
and its influence on our planet’s inhabitants. It’s well worth
a read. — Sid Perkins
EC W PRESS, $17.95
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