Cynthia Barnett Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Cynthia Barnett
Photo: Jennifer Adler

Cynthia Barnett

An interview with Cynthia Barnett

Cynthia Barnett discusses Rain in which she explores the natural and cultural history of precipitation.

Q. What compelled you to write an entire book on rain?

A. Part of the answer is that I'm crazy about rain. I am a native of Florida and have always loved its sun showers and dramatic rain storms. Over my years as a journalist specializing in water, I came to appreciate rain as life's elixir: Marveling at its work to fill aquifers and rivers, its cycle from sea to atmosphere.

The idea for Rain was sparked by readers of my previous books, Blue Revolution and Mirage. As I went around the country speaking about water, I found that people love to talk about the weather, especially anything to do with rain: Record rainfall. Epic drought. Extreme storms. One drizzly Friday afternoon it hit me that I should write the story of rain. I felt sure someone would have already done it, but no one had. Once I started reporting on the cultural history and the science behind it, I found so many terrific mysteries that I became obsessed.

Q. What's your favorite rain "mystery"?

A. I find it fascinating that rain remains so tricky to predict in this age of precipitation-measuring satellites, Doppler radar, and twenty-four-hour weather streamed to our smart phones. Supercomputers do an amazing job forecasting temperatures and wind speed, yet rain can still catch them by surprise. I spent a lot of time with meteorologists while researching Rain - both the earliest Victorian forecasters in the history books, as well as modern atmospheric scientists at their computer screens, and the mystery and unpredictability connects them in profound ways.

My very favorite rain mysteries, though, are the frog and fish rains and the colored rains - yellow, red, and black - that have fallen for all of history. I devote a chapter to "Strange Rain," the weird stuff that occasionally falls with rain, from inky "moorgrime" that turned white sheep black on the upland moors of the British Isles during the nineteenth century, to the acid rains of the twentieth century. The lesson being that everything we put out into the world - from the fertilizer we spread on the grass to the carbon dioxide we belch into the sky - eventually comes back to us in rain.

Q. What are some of our biggest misconceptions about rain?

A. Our entire framework for rain is out of whack, beginning with the most basic image: what a raindrop looks like. We think of rain falling like a faucet drip, with a pointed top and a fat, rounded bottom - but that picture is upside down. Raindrops actually fall in the shape of tiny parachutes or hamburger buns, the tops rounded by air pressure from below.

Bigger picture, we have this deeply held view of rain as misfortune - Alanis Morissette's rain on your wedding day - when in fact, rain is one of the greatest blessings the world has ever known. Earth did not become watery until the tremendous first rains of four billion years ago. And we humans have always thrived in rainier periods. In the rainless stretches of history, civilizations collapsed.

Even when it comes to epic storms and floods, what makes them deadly is not the rain, itself, but the way we live with rain. We build our homes in floodplains, then lament our bad luck when the floods arrive. We pave over every wetland in our cities, then are shocked to see fellow Americans on TV paddling down Main Street in canoes in the wake of storms. The problem is that we've blocked rain's natural return to aquifers, rivers, and other recharge areas. From Miami to Los Angeles to Seattle (the city I came to see as the model for changing the way we live with rain), these are lessons we're finally learning.

Q. You spent a lot of time in Seattle for Rain; its "City of Rain" moniker is another misconception, right?

A. We think of Seattle as America's rainiest city, but it's actually drier than New York City, Boston, Miami, and every other major city on the U.S. eastern seaboard. The ten rainiest metro areas in the United States are all in the Southeast, most doused by storms brewed in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It turns out that the notorious rain capital of Great Britain, Manchester, also doesn't break the U.K.'s top ten rainiest places. It's cloud cover and constant drizzles that give Seattle and Manchester their rainy reputations. The two also share remarkable creative contributions. It's probably no accident that the rain capitals of the U.S. and the U.K. birthed angst-filled independent rock genres, Seattle's grunge, and Manchester's moody indie pop.

Q. What is the rain trying to tell us about the changes in climate and Earth's atmosphere?

A. In 2010 and 2011, the continents drew the two heaviest years of rainfall since modern record keeping began. As scientists have been trying to tell us, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are to blame for these precipitation extremes. Increased greenhouse gases push temperatures higher. Higher temperatures cause greater evaporation - and therefore greater rainfall - where water exists. They make it hotter and drier where it does not.

Rain's history has much to tell us about how we deal with climate change. In the wake of the Civil War, Congress triumphed when it laid the foundation for the U.S. Weather Bureau to set up national forecasting through telegraph lines. The political system worked again in 1990, when Congress amended the Clean Air Act to reduce the pollutants responsible for acid rain. In the quarter century since, our market-based cap-and-trade program has cut sulfur dioxide emissions in half at a fraction of expected costs, one of the most inspirational environmental turnarounds in history. The model is the emissions-lowering 1990s, and not the rainmaking 1890s that I also write about, when Congress listened to the influential uninformed rather than its own scientists to bankroll the literal bombing of skies to make rain.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about your visit to Cherrapunji, India, the rainiest place in the world?

A. Cherrapunji, in the northeastern corner of India, along with Kannauj, an ancient fragrance-making village in the country's north (the only place in the world where the scent of rain is extracted from the Earth for perfume - most "rain fresh" scents come from chemistry labs) are among my favorite places I've ever traveled. I timed my India trip impeccably to arrive in Kannauj during the one time a year when the villagers make their rain perfume, and in Cherrapunji as the monsoons began, so that I could experience the heaviest rains on Earth. The Kannauj leg of the journey was better than I dreamed. Cherrapunji turned out nothing like I planned. My rain pants, all-weather notebook, and waterproof pen went unused. It hardly rained during my week there, while back home, my husband and kids were experiencing the most intense summer rains in Florida's history. That was deeply disappointing on many levels. But it turned out to be the perfect way to write about rain's capriciousness - and to talk about the impact of climate change on global rainfall patterns.

Q. You call rain a powerful unifying force in a fractured world - how so?

A. That line comes from a chapter in Rain where I discuss rain and religion. I write about Christians, Muslims, and Jews coming together in a valley between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in an unprecedented gesture of unity to pray for an end to drought. Too much and not enough, rain is a conversation all humans share. In Rain, I've tried to show how it connects us in all sorts of ways - as profound as prayer and art, as practical as economics, or as casual as an exchange between strangers on a stormy day. Rain creates a kinship among all who experience it, and I think that gives us a path for climate change to become a conversation rather than a confrontation.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Sound of the Sea jacket Rain jacket
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