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“Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it,” according to Mark Twain. But weather provides more than chatter—the experience and interpretation of the American climate has deeply shaped national growth and culture.

By Twain’s day the United States already spanned a continent. Hence, storm systems swept across the Plains to the East Coast, while droughts and floods affected not only local agriculture, but also national business and population. Better forecasting today makes it possible to envision these systems on a national scale. At the same time, weather reports remain extremely local, geared to activities like vacations, school closings, celebrations and commuting.

The US also has unique weather phenomena that have shaped its sense of the power of nature. Three-quarters of all tornadoes occur here; the Eastern and Gulf Coasts, like Hawai’i, lie in major hurricane routes. “Blizzard” is an American word as well, capturing the strength of Arctic snows blanketing the Midwest. The Great Depression’s Dustbowl, Midwestern floods, fire seasons in California and Florida and other dramatic phenomena also influence markets, families and the national experience.

Moreover, variations in perceptions of weather, from the sultry South to Southwestern deserts to the rainy Pacific Northwest, shape regional meaning and identity. These pervade images of rugged New Englanders or in Tennessee William’s steamy evocations of the South. Although urbanites may seem more immune to natural phenomena than farmers, Chicago, IL is still the Windy City while a climatic inversion of sunny Los Angeles set a futuristic stage in Blade Runner (1980).

Does anyone do anything about it? Knowledge of the weather and attempts to control its effects were envisioned as a national research project by President Thomas Jefferson, whose legacy was developed by both the Smithsonian Institution and military research.

New technology like the telegraph allowed simultaneous measurements and early reports of climactic changes. Since the Second World War, radar, satellites and computers have all changed manipulation of weather data and the reliability of predictions, centralized and distributed through the National Weather Service.

Technology has also changed the ways in which Americans learn about weather, as newspaper forecasts have given way to the immediacy of radio and television. Five minutes for weather is a staple of local news. In television’s early days, weather reports became notorious for their lack of journalistic or scientific prowess—whether relying on attractive “weather girls” or “characters” with make-up and props. Subsequently more accurate prediction has coincided with computer imaging of storm movements, while reports on snows, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes have become staples of news as well; the impact of the El Niño current off California received frequent coverage. The Weather Channel, begun in 1982, reaches 90 percent of cable users with 24-hour reports.

Weather reports may also underpin environmental concerns, whether local issues of farming/gardening, pollution, water supplies or more general concerns of global warming.

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