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Jet Stream - Tim Woolings ****

The importance of the jet stream - a high speed flow of air that usually carries the warm air that makes the UK warmer than it should be for its position on the Earth - is rarely fully appreciated. Recently, though, we have had a number of extreme weather events that were put down to shifts in the jet stream, emphasising its significant impact on everyday life.

Tim Woolings starts his approachable exploration of the jet stream on a beach in Barbados (all in the interest of science, of course) and takes the reader through a surprising amount of information in a relatively slim 200 pages plus notes. For the first few pages we're introduced to some of the basics of weather forecasting at this Barbados location, but then we segue from surf and sun to the winds, and up to around 10 kilometres, where aircraft tend to cruise: here we meet the jet stream, which is beginning its journey in this region.

The reader is rewarded with plenty of juicy little facts, such as the revelation that the Japanese sent balloon bombs into the jet stream during the Second World War in the hope that they would be carried to America. As it happens, they miscalculated the flow rate (it's particularly fast over Japan) and only 3 per cent reached the US, though one did hit a Sunday school picnic in Oregon, causing the only mainland US deaths during the war. Also Woolings gives us a thorough exploration of the technicalities of wind and specifically the jet stream, from Hadley cells to equatorial super-rotation. We even get a quick visit to the jet streams of Jupiter and a 'future' chapter than mostly considers the potential impact of climate change on the jet stream. There's a considerable amount of detail, but Woolings doesn't resort to mathematics and keeps the whole thing approachable.

The narrative flow is linked using two conceits - an imagined journey of a weather balloon named Grantley and short biographical snippets at the end of each chapter, about a mysterious Joseph - I suspect the snippets were supposed to give a degree of page-turning suspense, but I just found them irritating. The problem is, I think that Joseph isn't revealed to be Lagrange until the final chapter, and finding out little bits about an unknown individual's life isn't at all inspiring. I wasn't totally sure about the use of Mary Poppins as way of introducing the rarity of an east wind in London either - the vehicle seemed a little forced. I'm all in favour of narrative in a science book (and, if anything, there could have been more real life storytelling), but I'd rather it was limited to non-fiction characters. Although it is mentioned, I would have liked rather more about chaos and the chaotic nature of weather systems too.

All in all, though, a good and surprisingly enjoyable trip around a weather phenomenon.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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