Eyeballing Tracy

Encyclopedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones
September 8, 2000

Intense tropical cyclones are known as hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones depending on their location. Before they make landfall, they can produce dangerous waves; when they do make landfall, the damage from high winds, a substantial rise in the height of sea level (the "storm surge"), and flooding from torrential rains can have an enormous impact on human life.

The title of David Longshore's book conjures up visions of meteorological mayhem. Longshore attempts to document the science, history and culture of tropical cyclones in an encyclopedic format. The book succeeds in giving a flavour for the history and culture of tropical cyclones much better than it does for the science. The reader has access to excellent historical summaries of individual tropical cyclones. The storm locations and their chronologies are described in varying degrees of detail. Beginning with the "A" storms, the reader who begins at the beginning finds that the number of histories decreases once the later letters appear, especially in the North Atlantic and Caribbean. Black-and-white photographs and satellite images are sprinkled throughout. There are some fascinating descriptions on the history of these phenomena, such as their gruesome death tolls and the quirky region-specific methods for naming tropical cyclones. We learn that the names of the most notorious storms are retired from rotation, while the less notorious live on. Longshore notes: "Like a cyclonic comet, the name Jerry is scheduled to next appear in the year 2001." There are memorable narratives on the loss of the hurricane hunter plane and its crew and guest journalists who disappeared in hurricane Janet in 1955, the devastation inflicted by the great Galveston hurricane of 1900, the New England hurricane of 1938, hurricane Camille in 1969 and cyclone Tracy in Darwin, Australia in 1974.

Other interesting topics include an account of Joseph Duckworth's historic first flight through the eye of a hurricane; the hurricane that became a typhoon when it crossed the international dateline and then became a hurricane again when it crossed back; the effect of tropical cyclones on military operations in history; hurricane parties; the typhoon gun in Hong Kong; and the efforts of William Gray to make long-term forecasts of tropical-cyclone activity. There is a nice history of the National Hurricane Center in the United States, a chronology of hurricane modification experiments, and a less informative summary of tornadoes in landfalling hurricanes.

As already noted, the scientific aspect of the encyclopedia is not as strong as the historical and cultural. Some explanations are incorrect or out of date, and there are omissions. The treatment of the theory of tropical cyclones and how they form ignores much of the seminal work in the field. Although the book is not for the specialist, the lay reader should be told of the pioneering theory of Jule Charney and Arnt Eliassen in the early 1960s and of the more recent theory proposed by Kerry Emanuel in the mid-1980s. None of the studies of tropical cyclone structure using airborne Doppler radar by scientists such as David Jorgensen and Frank Marks and colleagues at the Hurricane Research Division (HRD) in Miami is mentioned. In fact, the research group at HRD is not mentioned at all. The listing for Doppler radar ignores its unique ability to measure aspects of the wind field. Furthermore, there is no listing for the studies of tropical cyclone formation using computer models. Significant work by Katsuyuki Ooyama, Stanley Rosenthal, Richard Anthes, and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton is also ignored.

Other notable topics missing or lacking in depth include air-sea interaction, field experiments involving tropical cyclones, and the work of 19th-century scientist James Espy, who first proposed that cyclones might be driven by latent heat from precipitating clouds. The reader is also not informed of the excellent yearly summaries of tropical cyclone activity that are published in several meteorological journals.

Nevertheless, while the book will not substantially enhance the lay person's scientific knowledge about tropical cyclones, it will serve as a nice summary of tropical cyclones around the world. I hope that the author frequently updates the storm climatology and in future editions includes photographs taken inside the eye of tropical cyclones and the spectacular colour radar images of tropical cyclones taken from instrumented aircraft.

Howard B. Bluestein is professor of meteorology, University of Oklahoma at Norman, United States.

Encyclopedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones

Author - David Longshore
ISBN - 1 57958150 1
Publisher - Fitzroy Dearborn
Price - £30.00
Pages - 372

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