43 pages 1 hour read

Eric Jay Dolin

A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes is a nonfiction book published in 2020 by the American author Eric Jay Dolin. It combines meteorological, cultural, and social history to offer a perspective on the hurricanes that are a recurrent part of the American experience. Born in 1961, Dolin has a background in biological and environmental science, and from the time of his childhood ventures on the beaches of Connecticut and Long Island, he has had an ongoing fascination with the ocean. In his professional life, Dolin has held a number of maritime posts, including that of a marine fisheries policy analyst at the National Marine Fisheries Service and a curatorial assistant in the Mollusk Department at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Contemporary reviewers unequivocally expressed that Dolin’s topic was an important one, and the book appeared on The Washington Post’s list of 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction for 2020.

Summary

Dolin begins his book by emphasizing that hurricanes are an undeniable part of being an American citizen, as they occur annually and have the potential to cause severe loss of life and property. These losses affect all Americans, as they use up federal funds. However, while in recent years the arrival of hurricanes has been “heralded by an annual ritual that is an ominous portent of potential danger on the horizon,” this was not always the case (xx). Christopher Columbus and subsequent generations of aspiring European colonists were baffled by hurricanes, which were storms on a scale unknown to their native continent. A failure to detect and prepare for approaching hurricanes scuppered Spanish, French, and British efforts to maintain a stronghold on America, which inadvertently boosted America’s bids for independence.

Inspired by Enlightenment-era science, early weather investigators of the new American republic made empirical observations and collected data on hurricanes. By the end of the 19th century, researchers gained a sense of the spiraling structure of hurricanes and the forces that caused them. However, technology was still too primitive to enable authorities to predict when hurricanes would strike and forewarn populations of approaching danger. Moreover, American meteorologists at the Weather Bureau continually underestimated the threat posed by hurricanes. Combined with the reluctance of local populations to take the threat of building infrastructure at sea-level seriously or to evacuate in a timely manner, this caused devastating losses. African Americans and other marginalized populations suffered disproportionately as they were the least warned, least protected, and most likely to be accused of looting when the hurricane was over.

Hurricane predictions did not improve until humans were able to observe them from the sky—first by using planes and then with the assistance of increasingly powerful satellites. This, in addition to television coverage of hurricanes being broadcast into American homes, gave many people a false sense of security with regard to these meteorological threats. However, guided by Edward Lorenz’s theory of the butterfly effect, researchers from the late 1960s onwards began to consider that incidental factors present at the origin of each hurricane made it impossible to fully predict its path until the last minute. Even with the advanced computer modeling available to hurricane scientists today, a fully accurate prediction remains out of reach.

Dolin’s history features hurricanes that occurred up until the end of 2019 when he finished writing. He shows how hurricanes continue to be devastating and how political fortunes are made and broken according to state and federal governments’ abilities to deal with these storms. Although there are several studies into how climate change will affect hurricanes, the overall trend indicates that global warming will magnify their impact.

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