My 1987 ‘Climate Book of the Year’

Barry,R.G. and Chorley,R.J. (1987) Atmosphere, Weather and Climate (5th Edn.). London: Routledge. 460pp.

This essay continues my series of monthly posts in which I select one ‘climate’ book to highlight and review from one of the 44 years of my professional career in climate research (starting with 1984, my first year of academic employment).  The series will end in September 2027, the month in which I shall retire.  See here for more information about the rational for this series, and the criteria I have used in selecting my highlighted books.

This 1987 essay can be download as a pdf.

Not many academic books make it to a second edition, and even fewer reach a fifth.  My selected ‘Climate Book of 1987’ is the 5th edition of Roger Barry’s and Richard (‘Dick’) Chorley’s ‘Atmosphere, Weather and Climate’, henceforth AWC.  The book had originally appeared in 1968,  published by Methuen.  But even now, nearly 20 years later, Barry and Chorley were not finished.  They continued to revise AWC every five or so years – again in 1992, in 1997, and in 2002 — with the concluding edition published in 2009.  By this time, Chorley was deceased (in 2002) and Barry alone made the revisions for the final, 9th, edition.  During its 40-year history AWC expanded from 319 pages in 1968 to 536 pages in 2009 which, together with an enlarged page format from the 4th (1982) edition onwards, meant that the book’s length virtually doubled.  The 5th edition (1987) was the first to appear under a Routledge imprint, the publishing firm having by then inherited most of Methuen’s existing academic titles. 

AWC must go down one of the most successful, if not the most successful, student textbook on the subject of climate.  Written by two quantitative geographers, but appealing to a wider audience of geographers with often limited numerical or mathematical competence, hundreds of thousands of students in geography and allied disciplines will have encountered ‘Barry and Chorley’ during their undergraduate days.  And not just in the Anglophone world: editions of the book were translated into Spanish (twice), Portuguese and Korean, and (illegally!) into Chinese.  I was one of these students, having purchased my edition (the 3rd edition from 1976) as a first year geography undergraduate at Durham University in 1979.  Only the British geographer Austin Miller’s text book ‘Climatology’, which went through nine editions between 1931 and 1961, has had comparable longevity[1].

Before considering the significance of the 1987 edition of AWC, it is worth briefly remarking on how the collaboration between Barry and Chorley started in the mid-1960s.  In 1968, Dick Chorley was a University Lecturer in Geography at the University of Cambridge, a physical geographer in his late 30s with a particular interest in geomorphology.  Chorley was seeking to reinvent how geomorphology was conceived and studied, using General Systems Theory to replace Wiliam M Davis’ old paradigm of descriptive cycles of erosion with a numerical modelling approach[2].  This inspired, and took inspiration from, the new quantitative geography of the 1960s, which Chorley, along with human geographer Peter Haggett at Bristol, was to reify in their seminal 1967 book ‘Models in Geography’[3].  In a retrospective review written 40 years later, the American geographer Reginald Golledge argued that,  

In many ways … ‘Models in Geography’ was both the end of an era and the beginning of an era.  It collected in a single volume the piecemeal products of the theoretical and quantitative revolution in the discipline.  It emphasized the importance of scientific method and the use of analytical techniques (particularly those adapted to spatial analysis) for creating valid and reliable results from research.[4]

The quantitative systems thinking which Chorley in the mid-1960s was promoting in geomorphology, and more widely in geography as a discipline, was central to his collaboration with Roger Barry around this time.

Roger Barry was eight years younger than Chorley, a geographer-climatologist who had recently secured (in 1965) his PhD in synoptic climatology.  Barry has been lecturing in climatology at the University of Southampton since 1960, and in 1966 had been invited by Chorley to contribute a chapter on climate to ‘Models in Geography’.  In Barry’s own words, offered after his retirement nearly 50 years later, writing ‘Atmosphere, Weather and Climate’ with Dick Chorley in 1968,

…began an unimagined, almost 40-year collaboration with [him]… Building on a draft of ‘Atmosphere, Weather and Climate’ (initially rejected by McGraw Hill, and published by Methuen), which [Chorley] had prepared with a schoolteacher, the text was revised and expanded.  I surveyed published reviews of all existing introductory textbooks in weather and climate to ensure that we avoided common mistaken explanations.[5]

Their writing collaboration continued through later editions, even though Barry left Southampton for Colorado in 1968, where from 1976-2008 he was to direct the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  Chorley remained for the rest of his professional career at the University of Cambridge.

So why have I selected this 5th edition of ‘Atmosphere Weather and Climate’ as my ‘Climate Book of the Year’ for 1987?

Any text book which spans nine editions over 40 years offers a unique way of distilling changes in the way in which established knowledge in a discipline evolves through time.  Although the final 2009 edition of AWC is recognisably ‘the same’ book as the first edition from 1968, comparison between these two editions also reveals just how much had changed over these four decades.  And so the 5th edition, published mid-way between 1968 and 2009, offers a unique point in time which exposes the changing way in which climate, and especially climatic change, was being studied and understood.  As Barry and Chorley wrote in their Preface to the 1987 edition, “Succeeding Prefaces [after 1968] provide a virtual commentary on recent advances in meteorology and climatology of relevance to students in these fields and to scholars in related disciplines.”[6]

Chorley’s commitment to systems thinking in physical geography, and by association in climatology, was central to the way atmospheric and climatic knowledge was presented in AWC for their student audiences.  In the Preface to first 1968 edition, the authors declared that, “The traditional view of climatology as mere book-keeping has at long-last been abandoned by those investigating the basic mechanisms of climatic differentiation.”[7]  This was part of Chorley’s wider and long-standing project to replace descriptive geographies of the physical world with quantitative and explanatory analysis.

We can also see how consolidated climatic knowledge was evolving.  Compared to the previous edition (the 4th) just five years earlier, the 1987 book included new sections on mathematical modelling of climate systems and on meteorological forecasting, including now-casting informed by a growing fleet of satellites, and new sections on the African monsoon and El Niño/Southern Oscillation events.  But the biggest changes related to the underlying understandings of climatic variability and change.  This is especially clear when we compare the 3rd and 5th editions, spanning the decade 1976 to 1987.  The third edition from 1976 had barely two pages, out of 370,  explaining the causes of climatic change.  And within this very short section, the relevance of rising contributions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warranted merely a single paragraph.  This partly reflected the dominant evidence prevailing in the mid-1970s that “the [globally] warm period of 1920-1940 has come to an end” (p.361).  This cessation of warming was interpreted by Barry and Chorley in 1976 as being “unfortunate”, given the (by then) expanding Arctic sea-ice evident in the post-war period, the southward expansion of Arctic permafrost and the southward retreat of boreal forests and agriculture in Canada and the USSR.

Yet a decade later, the 5th edition from 1987 now contained a much more substantive section on the causes of climatic change (pp.376-384), as well as four pages on the observed trends in climate worldwide over the past 100 years.  They proposed that the natural variability of global temperature on the century time-scale was about ±0.5°C and that human factors might well force a discernible response from the climate system outside this range “quite soon” (p.382).  Yet, even then, Barry and Chorley reflected the tentative nature of mid-1980s, and pre-IPCC, scientific thinking on this question by conceding that “not all workers would agree” with this particular prognosis (p.384).

The 5th edition of AWC appeared at a crucial inflection point in scientific understandings of climate and climatic change.  The ‘geographical tradition’ in climatology was rapidly being over-written by the new science and modelling of the Earth System, ushered in by the Bretherton Report from the US National Research Council published around the same time[8].  The earliest detection and attribution studies of the enhanced greenhouse effect were first appearing, and the IPCC was to be constituted the following year, in 1988.  Barry and Chorley did well to capture this shifting understanding in a well-used and enduring student text book.

Although ‘Atmosphere, Weather and Climate’ was far from being a comprehensive introduction to the atmospheric and climatic sciences, it became a standard undergraduate textbook for 40 years for reasons succinctly captured by geographer-climatologist Richard Washington, who reviewed the 6th edition of the book in 1994,

There are texts which provide a much better grasp of the dynamics of the atmosphere, there are several that offer a more extensive physical basis for the development of the governing equations. [B]ut there are few that cover so much so well, and none that offer such as exhaustive array of synthesized material of regional climate that is, after all, the result of more than twenty-five years of [pedagogic] engineering![9]

And even then, writing this in 1994, ‘Atmosphere, Weather and Climate’ still had three more editions and 17 more years of publishing ahead of it!

© Mike Hulme, May 2024

Other significant climate books published in 1987

Oke,T.R. (1987) Boundary Layer Climates. (2nd Edn.) London/New York: Routledge/Wiley. 435pp.

At a time when climatology was still a rather niche academic discipline and climatic change had not entered widely into public consciousness, the book publishing market for climate topics was dominated by student text books.  As I have shown above, good text books – such as that by Barry and Chorley — could go through several editions.  In the same year as their 5th edition of ‘Atmosphere, Weather and Climate’ appeared, a second expanded edition of Tim Oke’s ‘Boundary Layer Climates’ was published jointly by Routledge and Wiley.  Oke was a British geography who, starting in 1970, had worked at the University of Vancouver, British Columbia, for all his professional career.  ‘Boundary Layer Climates’ was not a book about the science of global climate and climate change, but about the climates that humans, animals and plants were likely to encounter, and to influence, in ‘the boundary layer’, the lowest few 10s or 100s of metres of the atmosphere.  This second edition was an update from Oke’s original 1978 version, and included expanded treatment of forest climates and, especially, of the human modified climates of the urban environment in which, today, nearly 40 years later, over 55 percent of the world’s population reside.  Oke was later (2001-2003) to be President of the International Association of Urban Climate.

[1] Examples of other climate textbooks which went through five editions are: W.G.Kendrew’s ‘The Climates of the Continents’ (OUP; between 1922 and 1961); G.T. Trewartha’s ‘An Introduction to Climate’ (McGraw-Hill; between 1937 and 1980); and J.T.Houghton’s ‘Global Warming: The Complete Briefing’ (CUP; between 1994 and 2015).

[2] Haggett,P. (2002) Obituary: Richard John Chorley, 1927-2002. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 27: 522-525.

[3] Chorley, R.J. and Haggett, P. (eds.) (1967) Models in Geography. London: Methuen.

[4] Golledge,R.G. (2006) Textbooks that moved generations: ‘Chorley,R.J. and Haggett,P. (eds.) (1967) ‘Models in Geography’. London: Methuen’.  Progress in Human Geography 30(1): 107-113.

[5] Barry,R.G. (2015) The shaping of climate science: half a century in personal perspective. History of Geo- and Space Sciences. 6: 87-105.

[6] p.xviiii in: Barry,R,G. and Chorley,R.J. (1987) Atmosphere, Weather and Climate. (5th Edn.) London: Routledge.

[7] p.18 in: Barry,R,G. and Chorley,R.J. (1968) Atmosphere, Weather and Climate. (1st Edn.) London: Methuen.

[8] NRC (1986) Earth System Science: A Program for Global Change. Washington: National Research Council.

[9] Washington,R.M. (1994) Review of ‘Barry, R.G. and Chorley, R.J. 1992: Atmosphere, Weather and Climate. London: Routledge’. Progress in Physical Geography. 18(2): 306-308.

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