New weather textbook features good stories and the South

By for CAES News

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

When University of Georgia meteorologist John Knox set out to write an introductory textbook on meteorology, he wanted it to be as compelling as the first thunderstorm he remembers during a baseball game in Birmingham, Ala., when he was 4 years old.

He also wanted to feature the dramatic weather of the South, where he grew up and lives today.

"Textbooks can be general and boring," Knox said. "I wanted a book that catches the eye and captures the imagination the way any good book does: by telling good stories. Everyone has a good weather story, (whether it's) the time grandpa was in the tornado or the year the blizzard knocked the power out."

And so, "Meteorology: Understanding the Atmosphere" begins with the storm that first caught Knox's attention:

"It's a hot, muggy summer night at the baseball stadium. ... Midway through the game ... the weather takes a violent turn. High winds suddenly blow chairs off the stadium roof. Then the sky explodes with light and sound as lightning strikes an electric transformer on a pole out beyond center field. A fireball dances along the power lines and the stadium lights go dark."

The sort of fare that keeps millions glued to the Weather Channel during a storm, Knox hopes, will hold the attention of college students taking introductory meteorology classes nationwide.

The textbook, co-authored with Steve Ackerman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and published by Brooks/Cole, is the first to put a consistent focus on weather phenomena in the South and Midwest. Until now, weather textbooks have focused on weather conditions elsewhere -- the Northeast, for example, or the West.

Good stories aside, there are good economic reasons to focus on weather conditions specific to the South, Knox said.

"The South may not necessarily have the most photogenic weather," Knox said. "But because the South is more heavily populated than the West, storms in the South can be much more devastating, doing more damage to people and structures."

Indeed, Knox points out that during the 1990s, Georgia recorded $4.3 billion in weather-related losses and government assistance.

While the textbook doesn't focus solely on the South, it does take on topics overlooked before now. Among them are the "cold air damming" and "rain shadow" effects of the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains and the potential for severely eroding shorelines along the Georgia, Florida and Louisiana coasts in the event of global warming.

The book even addresses the perennial question: Are tornadoes attracted to mobile homes? The answer, in case you're interested, is no. The reason mobile homes are often struck is simply because there are so many of them. In the past 20 years, their number has quadrupled in the Southeast.

"No, tornados are not attracted to trailer parks," Knox said. "It's just a bad confluence of economics and weather."

The recently published textbook has been well received around the country. Filled with dramatic photos and colorful charts, it is visually arresting.

It has been nominated for the William Henry Fox Talbot Prize (the "Talby"), with which the Society of Academic Authors recognizes excellence in visuals in textbooks and other learning materials.

The text's accompanying Web site includes original Java applets that extend the book's treatment of key topics such as weather map analysis, satellite interpretations and numerical weather models.

To access these applets, go to the book's website at ackerman> and click on "book companion site" in the box on the right. On the left side of the page, you can click on "Applets." Knox particularly recommends Chapter 6's "Friction and Fly Balls."

"I think the applets are awesome," Knox said. "Meteorology has needed simple video-game-like instructional methods for decades. And these applets are some of the first I've ever seen that actually do the jobs of teaching and entertaining."

(Cat Holmes is a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.