A mixed outlook over the long term

Dynamic Climatology - Global Warming

June 1, 2001

The science of climate change has become a vast discipline that is expanding at a rapid rate to include an increasing number of sub-disciplines. These two books address the problem of understanding climate from opposite directions, leaving plenty of space in the middle for future endeavours.

Danny Harvey aims his Global Warming: The Hard Science at virtually everyone, from the research community and policy-makers to students and members of the general public. He tries to summarise current understanding and, although his text is mostly non-mathematical and qualitative, it presents many quantitative results in the form of excellent tables and figures.

The book contains several pages of boxed text where simple mathematical models of various aspects of the climate system are derived. These simple models could be combined with the quantitative data in the tables to form a useful set of examples or mini-research projects for advanced undergraduate and graduate students. The book also has a detailed bibliography and list of relevant web addresses, all easily accessible through index and contents pages.

It is perhaps unfortunate then that Harvey's book is very similar to the latest climate change assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Although these reports are often much maligned, once beyond their politicalised executive summary they can provide a detailed, contemporaneous and objective view. Compared with them, Harvey's book is an easier read and considerably lighter. But his book suffers from many of the IPCC pitfalls. It mainly references work published over the past ten years and, as it has been more than 130 years since John Tyndall first proposed a greenhouse effect, there is a feeling that the whole foundation of the book is somehow missing. Further books that detail latest findings invariably date quickly, so judging from a number of already outdated comments, Global Warming will have a limited shelf-life.

It also fails adequately to address the arguments of climate change sceptics. Indeed, the very title of the book chooses a direction for climate change. Uncertainty in the water-vapour feedback is discussed, but sunspots, cosmic rays and non-absorbing carbon dioxide arguments are given short shrift. This is a missed opportunity because the book is aimed at both policy-makers and the lay public, who continually hear competing arguments.

If this sounds a little harsh it is because John Rayner's Dynamic Climatology is really the antithesis of Global Warming and is one of the best textbooks I have read. Starting with the premise that simply quoting averages of climate does little to aid our understanding, it attempts to understand climate from first principles, gets as far as deriving the equations of atmospheric motion and stops.

In not trying to do too much it achieves everything. Starting with Pythagoras, Rayner takes us through an anecdote-filled two millennia of mathematics, mechanics, statistics, thermo-dynamics and radiation theory to lay the basis for understanding the "dynamic climate".

Rayner's enthusiasm for describing such mundane things as calculus reminds us all that it was once just as cutting edge as global warming is today. Throughout, the author urges the reader to look at other texts and take further courses in the individual subjects, sending the student out to participate in research that is firmly based in physics. The aim of the book is to bring together the disparate tools a student requires to study climate dynamics, and it is very much designed to be read from cover to cover. It would make an excellent refresher course for mathematics and physics students who are starting out in the atmospheric sciences.

I would also recommend the book to jaded lecturers wanting to inject some life into teaching such staples as thermodynamics. Did you know that Celsius had his original temperature scale going from 100 for melting ice to 0 for the temperature of boiling water? Well, you do now.

Piers Forster is advanced research fellow, in meteorology, University of Reading.


Dynamic Climatology: Basis in Mathematics and Physics. First Edition

Author - John N. Rayner
ISBN - 1 57718 015 1 and 016 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
Pages - 9

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