Quirks & Quarks

Our atmosphere is a thin veneer on our planet, but this writer says it's where the action is

The book '18 Miles' explores our obsession with the atmosphere and weather through the often personal experience of its author, Christopher Dewdney.

The book '18 Miles' explores our obsession with the atmosphere and weather

Sunsets like this one turn into imaginary landscapes that inspire hopes and aspirations, says author Christopher Dewdney. (Joonas Lyytinen Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

If you shrunk the Earth to the size of a basketball, then our atmosphere would be equivalent to two layers of food wrap on the outside.    

With that in mind, it is very common to hear those fortunate few who have had the opportunity to look back on our planet from space, comment on both the beauty and the fragility of Earth. The beauty comes from seeing oceans and continents in their entirety; the fragility comes from seeing just how narrow that blue ring of atmosphere around the planet really is.

Yet within this thin band is where it all happens. It's where much of our planet's life exists, but it's also the most dynamic part of our planet, thanks to the weather.  

ECW Press, Toronto, Canada

In his new book 18 Miles - The Epic Drama of Our Atmosphere and Its Weather, poet, author and teacher Christopher Dewdney takes us on a journey - often personal - from the unlikely birth of our atmosphere to the impact we have on it today - and all the wind and rain and storms in between.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity


Bob McDonald: Everyone talks about the weather, nobody does anything about it, but very few people write books about it. Why did you do it?

Christopher Dewdney: Well there's two reasons. First of all I've always been fascinated by weather. Ever since I was a kid in fact.  I detail in the book my first weather station and putting an anemometer and wind vane on top of my parents house; and getting my first instruments when I was 11 and trying to duplicate or at least second guess the forecasters of that evening. I was also totally fascinated as young boys often are by storms and tornadoes and those those kinds of things, violent weather. As I grew older and became a writer I realized there weren't any books, it seemed, about whether. There's lots of books about climate and lots of books that specialize in certain aspects of the atmosphere but no sort of general book about weather so I thought I'd address that with this book.

Bob McDonald: Well why do you feel that our atmosphere and its weather is an 'epic drama'.

Christopher Dewdney: My own experience with it. In Hurricane Katrina, I was inside the storm actually twice. Once in the Bahamas and then in Toronto when it has just had decelerated to a tropical low. I mean weather is something that's terrifying and capricious and sometimes very unexpected no matter what we forecast. And so it is very dramatic. It's a theatre really, I sort of look at the atmosphere as a theater in which these amazing dramas unfold.

Bob McDonald: Now just to clarify the title of your book '18 Miles' what are you referring to there?

Christopher Dewdney: Well basically ninety nine percent of the atmosphere lies within 18 miles of the surface. So it's not an arbitrary limit really. Primarily that's most of the atmosphere. So it gives it a very defined value, but also 18 miles, I find, is  surprisingly close to the surface.

Bob McDonald: We often think of weather events historically as bad events terrible things happen in wars or whatever. But you talk about a relatively good event that happened in 1967 the Summer of Love.

Christopher Dewdney: That's right. Well that was an interesting summer because a series of high pressure areas parked themselves during the summer over California in the early part of that summer, in May and June. They had unusually warm weather which is the very time the first love-ins and the Monterey Pop Festival was held,  which changed really the history of pop culture at that time. And then that 'summer of love' there was just an amazing temperature in which the outdoors kind of became a living room for the hippies that were hitchhiking all across North America and through Europe and England at the time. England had a very unusually warm August. So the weather had an incredibly supportive effect on a revolution I guess, a cultural revolution that might not have had such gravity or such size, so many people taking part in it, if it hadn't been so supportive.

Jefferson Airplane on-stage in the California sunshine of 1967 that helped make the 'Summer of Love' very special (Bryan Costales Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

Bob McDonald: You said at the beginning you were terrifically interested in weather. Does it still capture your imagination?

Christopher Dewdney: Chimpanzees apparently will gather in an evening to look at sunsets, and this has been seen by primatologists. It is something that all creatures share I think, well at least primates and we certainly do. And sunsets I think have extraordinary vistas and they turn into these imaginary landscapes. I think that a lot of our imaginings, a lot of our aspirations and a lot of our hopes are projected onto cloud landscapes and horizons and sunsets and the colours and the fantastic landscapes we see there.



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