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Extreme Weather: a book review

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:39 PM GMT on January 15, 2008

If you're looking for a U.S. and world weather record book, there is none finer than Chris Burt's Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book (Climate Change Edition). His fantastic new second edition comes complete with full weather records for over 300 U.S. cities, plus over 100 photos of some of the most beautiful and amazing weather events of all time. Also included are historical examples of bizarre weather events such as heat bursts, electrified dust storms, snow rollers, pink snowstorms, luminous tornadoes, falls of fish and toads, ball lightning, and super lightning bolts. My two favorite extreme weather stories are also included--the tale of the farmer in Kansas who watched as a tornado lifted off the ground and passed directly over him, and the story of the Marine Corps pilot who bailed out in the midst of a severe thunderstorm and lived to tell about it.

While the book focuses mostly on the U.S., there is a good amount of detail about weather extremes world-wide. Many of the book's 47 maps and 65 tables and graphs show where weather extremes occur world-wide. The graphics are clear, colorful, and easy to understand (with only one minor exception, a plot of storm surge heights from the 1970 Bangladesh cyclone that was very difficult to interpret). There were a few minor errors I caught, such as the use of the term "El Nina" instead of "La Nina", giving 1" hail as the criteria for a severe thunderstorm (it is 3/4" hail), and the table for the Saffir-Simpson Scale having a number 1 mph off for the definition of Category 5 storms. However, the author maintains a web site, extremeweatherguide.com, where one can report errors and new records that need to be added to the book for the next edition.

A few remarkable facts I learned from Extreme Weather:

Perhaps the most extraordinary rain event in world history occurred in the unlikely location of Smethport, Pennsylvania. An incredible 28.50" fell in just three hours during a July 18, 1942 thunderstorm. All told, 34.30" fell in a 12-hour period. No such rain intensity has been recorded anywhere in the world. The resulting floods stripped hillsides in the Smethport area to bare rock and killed 15 people.

An F5 tornado completely destroyed the Texas Panhandle town of Glazier on April 9, 1947, leaving only one damaged structure standing. The town was never rebuilt.

Twenty inches of snow fell on Houston, Texas February 14-15, 1895. Brownsville got six inches, and snow was reported all the way down to Tampico, Mexico--the southernmost fall of snow at sea level ever observed in the Western Hemisphere.

Climate change
The book bills itself as the "climate change edition", but there is very little information on climate change in the book. The discussion on heat waves brings up the role of climate change, and two pages in the introduction discuss if weather is becoming more extreme. Burt presents a nice analysis of the temperature and precipitation records for the U.S. to show that there has been a an increase in extreme heat and intense precipitation events since 1990. However, the decade of the 1930s had more temperature extremes than any other decade. The book's strength is its focus on extreme weather, and I'm pleased that Burt limits his discussion of climate change to just a few pages.

Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book is $15.57 from amazon.com. Four stars out of four.

Jeff Masters

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.