Author Spotlight: Mark Monmonier

Book: Lake Effect: Tales of Large Lakes, Arctic Winds, and Recurrent Snows

Mark Monmonier is a Distinguished Professor of Geography at Syracuse University. He is also the author of fifteen books, including How to Lie with Maps; Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather; Spying with Maps: Surveillance Technologies and the Future of Privacy; and Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change. His most recent article in the July/August 2012 issue of WEATHERWISE was adapted from his Syracuse University Press book, Lake Effect, coming out next month.

“Mark Monmonier has delighted readers for years with book after book showing how geography and weather have shaped human history. . . . He’s turned his flair for narrative to the story of the lake effect weather that rules his native upstate New York. . . . Enter his world and you’ll be glad you did.”

— William H. Hooke, Policy Program Director, American Meteorological Society

Tell us about your upcoming book, Lake Effect: Tales of Large Lakes, Arctic Winds, and Recurrent Snows?

Lake Effect was written for educated lay readers curious about this intriguing weather phenomenon as well as for residents of the Great Lakes snowbelts who want to explain our distinctive winters to friends and relatives outside the region. I use seven chapters with one-word titles—Recipe, Discovery, Prediction, Impacts, Records, Change, and Place—to answer seven key questions: What ingredients are required for lake-effect snow? Why did late-nineteenth-century geography textbooks ignore the snowbelts? How has technology improved the forecaster’s ability to predict lake snow? How well do snowbelt residents and local governments cope with frequent, sometimes massive snowfalls? Why are reports of record snowfall sometimes controversial? How will lake-effect snow be affected by climate change? Why is seasonality a distinguishing characteristic of places near the Great Lakes?”

How long have you lived in Upstate New York?

“I’ve lived Upstate since 1970, when I joined the geography faculty at SUNY Albany. I’ve been in Central New York since 1973, when I took a job at SU.”

Do you recall how your interest in geography and weather originated?

“My interest in geography reflects a fascination with maps that began back in high school, when I started collecting railroad maps, highway maps, and U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps, particularly older editions from the 1890s and 1900s. A strong interest in weather emerged in the early 1980s, when I noticed the increased frequency and variety of weather maps in newspapers and on television.”

What inspired you to write this book?

“In the mid-1980s my research expanded to include the history of cartography, and in 1999 I published a book on the history of weather mapping. Around 2005 I became curious about early attempts to map lake-effect snow, and was surprised to learn that the Great Lakes snowbelts were not apparent on climate maps until around 1915—the snow was there all along, of course, but meteorologists had been melting it and lumping it together with rainfall. A few years ago I worked up an outline for a book on lake snow that also looked at forecasting, impacts, year-to-year variation, climate change, and extreme seasonality. Also, my academic interest in the history and use of geospatial technology inspired an interest in the use of satellites, radar, and computer modeling to monitor and better understand lake-effect snow.”

Do you have a specific writing style?

“I try to write clearly and tell interesting stories. Clarity requires sentences and paragraphs that readers can easily decode, which means using plain English wherever possible, avoiding unnecessary jargon or needless abstraction, and making certain readers know where the story is going. My writing is closely tied to a careful search for relevant sources, which never fail to yield telling anecdotes that help keep readers’ attention. Also, I try to work on whatever book I’m writing at least an hour or two most days, and to reread and rework the chapter I’m working on at least once a week. Writing is a slow process: akin to rowing a boat across the Atlantic. Five miles a day, and you eventually get there.”

What books have influenced your life most?

“The single most influential book is Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph S. Williams, who offers a straightforward strategy grounded in research on how people read. I use this book in my graduate seminars and recommend it highly to anyone eager to communicate challenging ideas to a wider audience. A second influential book is The All-American Map: Wax Engraving and Its Influence on Cartography, which turned my attention to the history of cartography. I introduced myself to its author, the late David Woodward, and recruited him as associate editor when I became editor of The American Cartographer. David and the late J.B. Harley had founded the History of Cartography in the mid-1970s, and when the opportunity arose, I eagerly signed on as editor of Volume Six (Cartography in the Twentieth Century), which is organized as an encyclopedia. I’ve been working on Volume Six since the mid-1990s, and am relieved it’s on track for publication in late 2014.”

Did you learn anything from writing your book? If so, what was it?

“Quite a bit: enough to inspire a new course, Geography 400/600, The Geography of Snow, which I taught in Spring 2012, and will offer again next semester (when I hope we’ll have sufficient snow for a decent class field project). And because my research for Lake Effect required a close look at a long series of daily snowfall records for several snowbelt weather stations, I now have a fuller appreciation of climate change. And as a map historian, I have a greater understanding of bureaucratic factors that help explain what gets mapped and when. Creating Lake Effect reinforced my belief that a good way to understand something is to write a book about it.”

Mark Monmonier’s book, Lake Effect: Tales of Large Lakes, Arctic Winds, and Recurrent Snows, is available for pre-order on the Syracuse University Press website and is coming out this September.

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