How did we come to have a global climate? What role do the complex interactions of ice, ocean, and atmosphere play in sustaining life on Planet Earth? And who are the scientists who figured all these intricate processes out?
Waters of the World is a tour through 150 years of the history of a significant but underappreciated idea: that the Earth has a global climate system made up of interconnected parts, constantly changing on all scales of both time and space. A prerequisite for the discovery of global warming and climate change, this idea was forged by scientists studying water in its myriad forms. This is their story.
Linking the history of the planet with the lives of those who studied it, Sarah Dry follows the remarkable scientists who ascended volcanic peaks to peer through an atmosphere’s worth of water vapour, cored mile-thick ice sheets to uncover the Earth’s ancient climate history, and flew inside storm clouds to understand how small changes in energy can produce both massive storms and the general circulation of the Earth’s atmosphere. Each toiled on his or her own corner of the planetary puzzle. Gradually, their cumulative discoveries coalesced into a unified working theory of our planet’s climate.
We now call this field climate science, and in recent years it has provoked great passions, anxieties, and warnings. But no less than the object of its study, the science of water and climate is — and always has been — evolving. By revealing the complexity of this history, Waters of the World delivers a better understanding of our planet’s climate at a time when we need it the most.
‘Waters of the World sparkles with lyricism and wit. Dry is a gifted storyteller, and her research into the pre-history of Earth system science has turned up gripping tales of risk, adventure, defiance, and discovery. A unique and important book.’
Deborah R. Coen, author of Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale
View all reviews
‘An account of the two-hundred-year effort to understand the world’s climate system, Waters of the World is not only timely but also one of the most beautifully written books on science that I have seen in a long time. It is one thing to communicate this complex and important topic lucidly, but quite another to make the material seductive, poetic, enthralling. I was left wanting to read John Tyndall’s writings on ice, to hear the epic creak of Alpine glaciers, to go cloud-spotting off Tenerife and float parsnips in Scottish lochs. Describing one of the most vital but least visible histories in modern science, and rescuing from neglect a host of pioneers who helped us to see how our planet works, it is a remarkable achievement.’
Philip Ball, author of H2O: A Biography of Water and The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China
‘In this cleverly argued and brilliantly written history, Dry traces the interaction between the dramatic careers of six major figures in the history of climatology and the uneven and surprising emergence of a science of climate since the mid-nineteenth century. The book illuminates its history with tales of mountain climbing and dramatic voyages, of tell-tale ice cores and threatening hurricanes. No set of stories could be more urgent now and in need of the care and intelligence with which they are told here. In showing how the focus of these engaging and energetic scientists and their many colleagues gradually shifted from a collective search for the principles of a global climate system to visions of dynamic, interactive and unstable climates in change, this book has much to teach about the roots of the most reliable knowledge of climate and how it should be best understood in its full historical and cultural setting.’
Simon Schaffer, professor of the history and philosophy of science, University of Cambridge
‘Part history, part biography, part scientific tutorial, part philosophy, Dry humanises and personalises the science of climate change as it has evolved over time. By focusing on a wide selection of important contributors dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Tyndall, Smyth, Riehl, Malkus Simpson, Stommel, Dansgaard, and numerous others) the human story emerges from the science. She describes the fits and starts, the emotional elements, conceptual and observational difficulties, and the sheer fun these scientists had along the way as the understanding of climate emerged as a serious intellectual endeavour.’
Carl Wunsch, Cecil and Ida Green professor of Physical Oceanography, Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
‘In compelling portraits of six scientists and their work, Dry probes the origins of what we now call climate science. She brings alive scientific mysteries about glaciers, clouds, oceans and the atmosphere to show how our present understanding of climate as a complex global system developed over the last 170 years. It’s a brilliant historical jigsaw puzzle, revealing how big questions about our planet have evolved and interlocked. But more than this, she makes a powerful argument about what it means to study the earth. Our knowledge of our planet, and our place on it, grew from concerns and assumptions that are as dynamic and full of change as the natural phenomena we study. How are we driven to ask the questions about nature that we do? Dry’s answers take us to the human heart of science. Exploring her subjects with unfailing insight, she brings each individual set of intellectual passions into focus. Stepping gracefully from Victorian England to late twentieth century Greenland, her biographies illuminate the combination of speculation, observation, calculation, and assumptions that have shaped science at different moments in the past. As she says, global visions come from individuals, particular places and moments in time. Such a profoundly human account of knowledge-building may be our best guide to thinking about the planet’s future.’
Katharine Anderson, York University, author of Predicting the Weather
‘Waters of the World offers a far-reaching and wonderfully unique take on the history of climate science. Focusing on key scientists, some less known than others, the book illustrates vividly and through fine details how studies of different forms of water — from a fluid in the Atlantic Ocean to rainfall in the Indian Monsoon, clouds at the root of hurricanes, and glacial ice on mountain tops and polar ice sheets — were all fundamental for our present-day understanding of both water and the global climate. Dry is an expert at tracing the deep scientific questions of the day, showing how specific scientists — fascinating people themselves — spent their lives trying to resolve those intellectual puzzles of the global environment.’
Mark Carey, University of Oregon, author of In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers