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July/August 2008

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Reviews & Resources

Fatal Forecast

author: Michael J. Tougias
publisher: Scribner
details: 216 pp., $24.00 cloth, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0743297035
ISBN-10: 0743297032

I confess: I am a bit of a survival story junkie. Promise me a tale about a man who spends two days in a rubber raft battling a November hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, and you’ve set the hook deep. To reel me all the way into the boat, however, the story needs to be true and
well told.

I finished Fatal Forecast in just two days, having succumbed to the lure of Michael Tougias’s painstakingly researched, riveting, white-knuckle account of survival against overwhelming odds.

The story chronicles 2 days in 1980 when an unexpected storm struck the New England coast with the ferocity of a hurricane. Just before dawn on November 22, fishing crews awoke to a rapidly building tempest. By mid-morning, at least three crews had been hauled to safety by rescuers as their vessels sank to the bottom of a raging ocean. By 11:30 a.m., 100-mph winds and 70-foot seas battered a handful of boats struggling to survive miles from shore over the treacherous Georges Bank. One boat lost the battle quickly. Rescue would not come for its sole survivor for another two days.

Remarkably, the night before, the National Weather Service had forecast only rain and fog with typical wind and seas for the season. The first storm warning didn’t come until 11 a.m., hours after the storm hit. The fatal forecast resulted from a low-pressure system moving north from the Carolinas that refused to track east as predicted, along with an inoperative observation buoy on the Georges Banks.

Tougias tells the story through a skillful building of characters and a richness of detail constructed from hours of interviews and cross-corroboration. The book is also packed with background information and side stories that succeed in recreating for the reader the day-to-day life of an offshore fishermen. Though a testament to Tougias’s meticulous and thorough research, the detailed side stories do occasionally intrude, breaking the flow of an urgent narrative. For example, when one of the boats careens down a colossal wave that crashes on the pilothouse and shatters the windshield, the author pulls the reader away from the screeching wind and biting sheets of foamy water for a two-page factoid break: “According to Coast Guard marine casualty reports,” he writes, “the loss of windshield panels due to breaking seas is the genesis of countless serious accidents and sinkings.” The fascinating anecdote that follows describes the sinking of a 15,000-ton oil drilling rig that was set into motion by a broken windshield. While clearly illustrating the perils facing the crippled fishing boat, such side trips, complete with excerpted radio transcripts from the oil rig, are more indicative of the perils facing writers impassioned by the fruits of their meticulous research.

The jacket promises that Fatal Forecast will be “as gripping and harrowing as The Perfect Storm,” the best-selling novel excerpted in the pages of Weatherwise in the August/September 1997 issue and made into a feature film in 2000. What sets this book apart is that this story has survivors. We need not rely on the author to imagine a complete puzzle from scattered pieces. Wisely, Tougias steps aside and weaves together the voices of those who were there into a powerful, emotional narrative. The brief and very general discussion of the conditions leading to the storm might not satisfy the meteorological cravings of a weather buff, but the vivid account of weathering the storm will generate “like you were there” excitement. Put this one on your bedside table, and I guarantee that it will keep you awake well into
the night.                                       

KIMBRA CUTLIP, a former assistant editor at Weatherwise,  is a science writer for the Smithsonian Institution and an occasional freelance writer.

Kaleidoscope Sky
author: Tim Herd
publisher: Abrams Books
details: 240 pp., $19.95 hardcover, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0810993976
ISBN-10: 081099397X

Kaleidoscope Sky, a veritable field guide to the beautiful phenomena of the atmosphere, is the ultimate coffee table book. Tim Herd has found and assembled some of the most spectacular photographs of atmospheric optical phenomena. The photo on the front cover of an impressive circumhorizontal arc (often mistaken for a rainbow) indicates the quality inside. On the basis of the images alone, any sky lover simply must have this book.
But Kaleidoscope Sky is more than an assemblage of extraordinary photos. It is a poetically written collection, composed during what appears to be a perpetual state of exhilaration and euphoria that makes the whole package even more alluring and attractive. For the most part, the scientific explanations of the phenomena are simple, easy to understand, and accurate. However, there are a few errors and inconsistencies, at least in the first printing, some of which I will mention.

In addition, terms are well defined throughout the solidly organized book. The reader need not have much scientific background to profit from the explanations. Every chapter contains certain common ingredients, including a section on the best viewing conditions for each phenomenon and how to predict when those might occur. Another great feature of Kaleidoscope Sky is the photo quiz that tests the reader of the conditions under which the phenomenon was observed; the answers are given in the back ofthe book.

The first chapter contains a description of light and how it is scattered, diffracted, reflected, and refracted in the atmosphere to produce the effect. It also hints at the array of phenomena that are included while focusing on crepuscular rays. Herd explains that the circumhorizontal arc is an ice crystal halo arc that is produced by ice crystal clouds such as cirrus.

The third chapter treats rainbows, coronas, and glories. Herd explains how the sunlight passes through or by raindrops and cloud droplets to produce each of the phenomena. But I must point out some errors and inconsistencies. In the inset on page 26, Herd mentions briefly that the primary rainbow is seen 42 degrees from the Sun. The angles are stated correctly in the more complete explanation of the rainbow beam on pages 71-76, where Herd shows that the bow appears 42 degrees from the antisolar point. But then on page 108, while describing how a polarizing lens can change the apparent brightness of the bow compared to the background sky, he states the bow is 90 degrees from the Sun.

This chapter also includes superb photos of a full-circle rainbow, a quadruple rainbow, and a glory that the pilot aimed his plane into. The last photo shows a corona that formed under unusual astronomical conditions.

The fourth chapter deals with circular halos, arcs, and spots caused by light passing through ice crystals. Halo science has come a long way in the past 25 years, and Herd is up-to-date with a presentation of the staggering array of different halo circle, arcs, and spots. The photographs, taken by many patient and adventurous halo observers, feature locations from the North Pole to the South Pole. And since you can’t be expected to have the opportunity to see many of these phenomena under such extraordinary conditions and at such remote locales, Herd has listed Web sites for us to tour, as he does in the other chapters.

Another chapter focuses on various manifestations of mirages, including those of mountains and the Sun or Moon. Here, Herd shows us how distant features of the landscape can appear in fantastic distorted shapes and sizes, visually displaced from their actual positions by refraction of light through the atmosphere when its temperature profile experiences sharp gradients near the ground. Be sure to look in particular for the strange photo sequences of the setting Sun and Moon and the green flash. Though well done, one error in this chapter is that distant objects normally under the horizon can only be seen when the surface is colder, not warmer, than the air above.

Kaleidoscope Sky will probably not make you content to sit in your armchair and look at these small photos of the sky, but rather make you yearn to see some of these marvelous apparitions in the flesh. And what a thrill it will be if you do.          

Weatherwise Executive Editor STANLEY DAVID GEDZELMAN is a professor of atmospheric sciences in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the City College of New York.

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