Review: ‘Thunder & Lightning’ by Lauren Redniss

Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future. Lauren Redniss. Random. 261 pages. $30.
Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future. Lauren Redniss. Random. 261 pages. $30.

New Yorkers post personal ads looking for a hurricane hookup. A Thai immigrant grows herbs on her windowsill in the midnight summer sun of a frigid Norwegian island in the Berents Sea. The wind engineer tries to figure out a way to cool Mecca during the hajj. The meteorologist writes the weather forecasts in the Old Farmer’s Almanac two years in advance, knowing that predicting tomorrow’s weather is an inexact science. An Australian man wades into a lake as a wildfire consumed his town.

In Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future, Lauren Redniss tells these personal stories, which illustrate the magic and mystery of our weather. Then she illustrates those stories with vivid artwork in this big, beautiful book.

A National Book Award finalist for Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, Redniss has taken the graphic novel form and tilted it to the demands of nonfiction. She is an engaging science writer, more so because she is also an artist. In Thunder & Lightning, she writes about the science of weather and quotes freely from scientists, mariners, newspaper reports, swimmer Diana Nyad, Henry David Thoreau and people who have found themselves in weather’s way.

Her writing is simple, unadorned, with many sections starting out with something that seems obvious before she unspools a scientific explanation that delves far deeper.

“Fog is a cloud near the ground,” Redniss writes, then explains the actual mechanics of how fog is formed and the differences between the soot-laden smog of London in the 1950s and the clean fog of Newfoundland today.

“Newfoundland fog feels as pure and fresh as city smog is filthy,” she writes. “It is formed by the mixing of two ocean currents: cold air off the Labrador Current cools the warm, humid air of the Gulf Stream, condensing it into tiny droplets of fog.”

Some of the stories are familiar — the Dutch prince lost in the fog off Newfoundland, the naming of the smell of rain, the cloud seeding done strategically by the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, the Old Farmer’s Almanac “prediction” of murder on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She writes of the dangerous wildfires that will be caused by climate change in many regions and of the historical winds that favored one country over another in battle.

Alongside her wide-ranging reporting, Redniss adds her stunning artwork, making her writing come alive in a way that demands contemplation.

Thunder & Lightning sometimes feels peripatetic as it wanders the globe, alighting on the ancient ice trade of Mesopotamia here and the modern market for weather derivatives there. She finds examples of our behavior in the face of weather that aren’t so much surprising as confirmation. Women’s boots sales shoot up after the first chill in September or October while men wait until November — until, as one analyst noted, “their socks are getting wet.” And no wife was surprised.

The ways we respond to weather can be funny and revealing. In Miami, we go shopping when it’s raining, because when it’s sunny, we’d rather play outside. In Tampa, they go shopping when it’s nice out. Tampa has an older demographic, the analyst explains, while noting that people shop in Seattle in the rain, presumably because they would go naked and hungry if they didn’t.

Redniss also finds comedy in how weather affects our lives and how we respond to it. Some New Yorkers looked for sex as Sandy bore down on them, for example. Local readers will get a kick out of the nugget Redniss dug up on the shopping behavior of Floridians when a hurricane is approaching. Turns out we don’t just buy water and batteries. We also buy a lot of fried chicken.

For all its disparate pieces, there is a cohesion to Thunder & Lightning that is accomplished with thorough reporting and deep thought. The island where the Thai immigrant grows spices from home on a windowsill is brutally cold, so much so that prisoners condemned to death preferred to go home to face their sentences than live there. Taxes are low, wages are high, anyone from any country is welcome, and few live there very long. If they do live to old age, they are urged to relocate. No one can be buried on the island because the caskets pop out of the ground.

“It would seem to make no sense to live in such a place — a place where it is too cold to be born and too cold to die,” Redniss writes.

But there is a reason why people live on Svalbard. It is the site of the Global Seed Vault, the cave dug into the permafrost where 230 countries have sent seeds to be stored, available in the case of a disaster.

“Svalbard — a place that is entirely hostile to agriculture, inhospitable to life in almost every form — turns out to be an ideal spot for protecting the world’s harvest,” Redniss writes. And an ideal spot from which to gaze on the planet’s weather and how we are living with it, often in spite of it.

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.