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'Roaring Wind' Examines Extreme Weather, And The Power Of Air


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about the wind and the weather with biologist Bill Streever, author of the new book "And Soon I Heard A Roaring Wind: A Natural History Of Moving Air." To research the book, he didn't just study wind - he put himself at its mercy in a 1,000-mile sailboat trip from Texas to Guatemala. The only other person on board was his wife, who's a marine biologist and served as co-captain. Streever is interested in weather extremes. His previous books were about climates of extreme heat and cold. He lives in both climates. He's an affiliate faculty member with the University of Alaska, but he's currently living on his sailboat in Central America.

Bill Streever, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you decide to do a long sailboat voyage to actually let the wind kind of control you? You know, 'cause you have to control - you have to harness the wind, and you're really dependent on the wind in a sailboat.

BILL STREEVER: A sailboat voyage had been a long-held dream of mine and something I was entirely unqualified to do. But my wife and I decided it was time to give it a shot. If we were going to do it, we had to do it. So we bought a sailboat down in Galveston Bay, Texas, and after some very, very basic training and some coastal trial sails we set out across the Gulf of Mexico.

GROSS: Was that a really stupid idea or not (laughter)?

STREEVER: I think in retrospect, it was probably pretty stupid with our level of training. For an experienced sailor, that crossing is - should not be a big deal if you don't run into any problems. But for very inexperienced sailors like we were, it was probably one of these things that you shouldn't try at home.

GROSS: Although I am a frequent checker of weather forecasts, I have no idea what barometric pressure is. And, you know, I've been hearing the term barometer all my life, and I've never paid any attention to the barometric pressure. You had to pay attention to it when you were sailing. It's really important for reasons I'd like you to explain.

STREEVER: You've experienced barometric pressure, for example, driving a car up a mountain or down a mountain and you can feel your ears popping. You've probably experienced it on an airplane, which is doing the same thing. So barometric pressure is just the air pressure. It's how much pressure the atmosphere is putting on your body. And in humans, we would usually only feel it in our ears. But another way to think about it is how many molecules of air are there in a cubic foot of air, say? So with a higher pressure, there's going to be more molecules of air in a cubic foot, at a lower pressure fewer molecules of air in a cubic foot. And that's important because if you're in an area with low barometric pressure and fewer molecules of air per cubic foot, air will be trying to move into that space. That's empty space. And air from higher-pressure areas is going to try to move toward that lower-pressure region.

GROSS: Oh, it sounds like wind.

STREEVER: It sounds like wind, and it is wind. That's exactly what wind is. Wind is air that's moving. And it's air that's moving from high pressure toward low pressure, although as it's moving toward low pressure it's also turning, it's twisting because the Earth is moving under it.

GROSS: So why does the barometric pressure shift?

STREEVER: Well, there's...

GROSS: ...Why isn't there just, like, one constant barometric pressure around the globe?

STREEVER: Yeah, why isn't it like that? And what would happen if it was like that? So first of all, if was like that, if there was no pressure gradient, there would be no wind. So wind is driven by these pressure gradients. So that's important to remember. But why is that? It's partly because the Earth is a sphere. So the sun is hitting the Earth from different angles at different locations, so different locations are warming and cooling differently. And the Earth is spinning, so different locations are at night and at day so that they're warmer and cooler. And there's things like mountains that are creating shadows and that sort of thing. So it all really comes down to temperature and how temperature affects pressure.

GROSS: So when you consulted the barometric pressure when you were sailing, what was good news and what was bad news?

STREEVER: Well - so first of all, we did try to check our pressure aboard our boat, Rocinante. Unfortunately, our barometer was broken, so we were not checking it (laughter) very effectively other than to tap the glass and say, hey, this thing is broken. But we were relying on forecasts. And some of the key data, of course, that goes into the forecast is the barometric pressure. And in the old days, when ship captains had to be very self-sufficient, they would look at barometric pressure. And if they saw that pressure dropping and dropping quickly, they would prepare for storms.

GROSS: So let's shift into climate change. How is climate change affecting wind patterns and the velocity of wind?

STREEVER: You know, that's a really good question. And I think the answer to that is probably that we don't know. But we do know a few things, and one thing we know is that the Arctic is warming up much faster than the temperate zones in the tropics. So what that means is that the temperature difference between the Arctic and the tropics will decrease. And what that means in terms of wind is probably, on average, less wind because there's less of a temperature difference between the tropics and the temperate zone.

But, at the same time, you could also see more hurricane growth because of warmer ocean temperatures in the temperate zone - in the southern part of the temperate zone. You could also see stronger winds in the Arctic itself during the summer months because the ice is disappearing.

GROSS: You write that the controversy within the meteorological community isn't about whether climate change is real. It's about whether climate-change research should be supported at the expense of forecasting research. Why is there a choice that has to be made between the two? Why can't they both go on?

STREEVER: Well, they do both go on. So - you know, they definitely both go on. But I think in a world with a finite amount of money, it's a legitimate feeling that some meteorologists have that - especially those that are working on forecast research - they see tremendous grants going to climate-change research. And there might be a feeling that all the big money is going to the climate-change guys, and we just get the leftovers, which - the leftovers are still pretty hefty. There's still a significant amount of research.

But having said that, forecasting research has real and immediate value. If we can improve forecasts, especially the one-week to two-week forecast windows, that can have tremendous economic benefits for the planet. And of course - of course, the world also benefits from better knowledge of a future climate. But it's on a different scale and with, some would say, a different level of immediacy. They're both necessary. They both need to happen.

But I think there's a feeling among some forecasting researchers that the powers that be are apt to say, well, we're going to give this many billion dollars to research climate and weather. And most of it's going to go to climate, but we're not going to increase the overall pot just because there is a need for more forecasting research.

GROSS: So you - you've lived in Alaska for about 16 years, although now you only live there a few months a year, during the more temperate (laughter) - during the more temperate season. So when you look around you in Alaska, do you see evidence of climate change, change that you can see since you moved there 16 years ago?

STREEVER: Well, you absolutely see things that sure feel like climate change. Now, I'm sure some listeners are going to call in and say, well, that's not climate change because you don't know if it's going to turn around in another year or two and just be another weather cycle. But you see all kinds of things that sure do feel consistent with what the climate-change models show.

And one of them is the sea ice. So the sea ice up around Barrow, Alaska, and Deadhorse, Alaska, is clearly not as significant as it was in the past. So it's melting earlier in the summer. It disappears earlier in the summer by several weeks, and it returns later in the fall, so sea ice changes. Forest fire changes - in the past few years, I think the fire frequency has changed in Alaska. The summer weather conditions, I would say - most Alaskans would say we're having warmer summers than we used to. Snow conditions in the winter, at least in south central and southeast Alaska, less snow than we've had in the past - so the things we're seeing might just be cyclical, or they might be related to climate change. But one thing is for sure, they're consistent with what the climate-change models predicted.

GROSS: So, for the past couple of years, you've spent about nine months a year living on your sailboat off the coast of Guatemala. What's it like to live on a sailboat? (Unintelligible) The rooms are probably, like, really small. It seems like it would be really cramped.

STREEVER: The rooms - you must think we have a (laughter)... You must think we have a super...

STREEVER: I don't know the nautical word for it.

STREEVER: No, the cabin...

GROSS: (Laughter) I only know rooms.

STREEVER: Yeah. Well, cabins, I guess, would be the nautical term. But they're - on - our boat is a 44-foot-long, 20-ton sailboat, so it's perfectly adequate for a couple. It would be very cramped with three or four people on board. And really, it has - below decks, it really has one living area. It's sort of an open-plan concept on our boat rather than being divided into separate cabins. So think of a studio apartment in New York or maybe even Tokyo, and that's the size of your living space.

But don't worry too much about that because when you are living on a sailboat, you're really living outdoors. So you're not below decks that much. You're living closer to the environment, and that was one of the things that my wife and I set out to do and one of the things that I set out to do when I began this book is I said that we were making a conscious choice to live closer to the environment rather than studying the environment like I've done for the last - oh, gosh - almost three decades now as a scientist. It was time to get out there and just live in the environment and to experience it firsthand.

GROSS: Bill Streever, thanks for talking with us. Good luck to you. Smooth sailing, as they say, a cliche that actually applies to this conversation (laughter).

STREEVER: Fair winds, right? Fair winds.

GROSS: Fair winds, exactly. (Laughter) OK.


GROSS: Be well. Thank you so much.


STREEVER: Bill Streever is the author of "And Soon I Heard A Roaring Wind."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be J.D. Vance, author of the new best-seller "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." He grew up in a Rust Belt town in Ohio in a family from the hills of eastern Kentucky. He writes about the social isolation, poverty, drug use, as well as religious and political changes in his family and in greater Appalachia.

I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Yeah, blow wind, blow wind - blow my baby back to me. Well, blow wind, blow wind - blow my baby back to me. Well, if I don't soon find her, my heart's going to be in misery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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