Clouds: Nature and Culture

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

To be on cloud nine!

9781780237237

by Richard Hamblyn, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Reaktion Books, 2017, 240 pp.

From the realm of literature and arts to the domain of astronomy and science, clouds have emerged from a muddle of uncertainty into the world of scientific certainty in the context of climate change. Capturing their picturesque journey from “an ultimate art gallery above” in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the “center of digital life below” as propounded by Steve Jobs, Richard Hamblyn provides a multifaceted narrative about nature’s most versatile creation. Packed with colorful pictures, Clouds could easily be the most comprehensive and authoritative text on the subject to date.

Hamblyn, an English lecturer at the University of London, has attained undisputed mastery of the subject, having already published two other books on clouds–– The Cloud Book and Invention of Clouds. While the first captures everything to do with the origin and development of clouds, the second is a cultural excavation of our understanding of the science of clouds. In this third book, Hamblyn has brought clouds down to earth and unveiled some of their mystery. Throughout human history, attempts to understand clouds and their behavior has been a subject of delight and fascination, offering limitless opportunities for creative contemplation.

Clouds is a magnificent collection of these stories – from their wooly journey through art, literature, music and photography to their sinister manipulation for military use and anthropogenic modification. (Failed) American attempts at precipitating flash floods during the Vietnam War are part of the legend. Such secret military efforts have invoked widespread prompting by the international community to declare clouds as “a resource that belongs to no one.” Legal remedies for appropriating clouds through artificial seeding may be needed as competition over access to rainwater escalates.

Science is only beginning to understand the role that clouds play in shaping future conditions on earth––a warm atmosphere may reorganize the day-to-day behavior of clouds in ways that could either amplify or mitigate climate change. The trouble, warns Hamblyn, is that clouds have a habit of behaving in complex and surprising ways. The fact that our warming climate is producing ever more lightning strikes is one of many such surprises. Each 1 degree rise in temperature increases lightning activity by around 12 per cent. Will clouds turn out to be agents of global warming or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space?

Clouds challenge human intelligence. Philosophers like Aristophanes have long professed that “from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.” Wondering if clouds were objects or phenomena or processes, Leonardo da Vinci described them as formless triggers of visual invention, their fleeting magnificence and endless variability providing food for thought for scientists and daydreamers alike. Our current predicament with clouds is taking us back in time to reimagine and reunderstand them. There may be clues in art and literature to help us make a fresh beginning!

Hamblyn contends that the law of unintended consequences needs to be kept in mind when embarking on geo-engineering projects aimed at tampering with the atmosphere and with clouds. Clouds are too sensitive not to be taken into account in such anthropogenic adventures, he cautions. In short, there is no way of knowing what will happen to our rapidly changing atmosphere.  Just as in centuries past, when clouds were employed as ready metaphors of doubt and uncertainty, it looks as if they will continue to be so for centuries to come.

The crucial issue is that life without clouds would not be physically possible. Far from just being a source of water, they have a larger role to play in keeping the earth hospitable for living beings. Clouds provides insights into the history and science of clouds, and offers guidance regarding the sensitive handling of the woolly product/process hovering between the sky and earth. Colorfully illustrated, this is the ultimate guide to the past, present and future of clouds.


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