Friday, March 22, 2013

Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers

Storm Kings:  The Untold History of America's First Storm Chasers
by Lee Sandlin
Pantheon, 2013.  266 pgs.  Nonfiction.

Waterspouts in the Old World, with a few forays onto land, provide the earliest accounts of tornadic activity.  In the New World, the first tornado was sighted near Cambridge, Massachusetts by a farmer named Samuel Stone who passed the information along to Puritan preacher Increase Mather who saved the account in his collection of Illustrious Providences, later read by Benjamin Franklin who was also much interested in meteorological activity. Correspondence with European scientists (i.e., natural philosophers) ensued and theories began to emerge as to the nature of cyclonic storms.  Early practitioners believed the storms were caused by electricity in the air. James Espy, an amateur meterologist, concluded that the storms arose because of a pressure and temperature differentials between the lower and upper atmospheres but refused to believe the storms twisted or spun, though damage patterns on the ground clearly revealed the cyclonic movement. The greatest tornado expert of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was James Park Finley who served with the Army Signal Corps and relentlessly visited storm sites, studied pre-storm atmospheric conditions, and published a book which became the starting point for much of future research and knowledge about tornadoes.  But because he was not an academic, he and his ideas were marginalized and wrongheadedness prevailed.  For instance, the military refused to share its tornado forecasts with the general public for fear of inspiring panic.  Sandlin also describes in often horrifying detail the terrible tornado strikes that impelled action by the military and the government:  the Peshtigo fire tornado which burned the silicates out of the soil and rained them down as glass, the Tri-States tornado with a damage track of 219 miles, and the Great Tornado Outbreaks of 1974, 1999, and 2011. Thousands of lives were lost with property damage in the billions. Lee Sandlin is a deeply engaging prose stylist and his book reads better than a novel in many respects.  Notes are appended but, alas, no index.


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