John Wesley Powell

When I was a little kid, I thought John Wesley Powell was the coolest, the one-armed adventurer daring the unknown as he ran the rapids of the Grand Canyon – the “Great Unknown” – for the first time. Standing on the Grand Canyon’s south rim, I would stare down at those little glimpses you get of a bend in the river and imagine Powell and his mates floating by.

Powells boats on the Colorado

Powell's boats on the Colorado

It was much later that I realized how insanely cool really he was in a more “grownup” sense, first when I read Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West and then when I started reading Powell himself. He was far more than a brave adventurer in the 19th century mold. He was also the first person to try to bring science to to the questions of how (and how not) to build a society in a place like this. So when I began talking with the University of New Mexico Press several years ago about doing a book for young people on climate, water and the West, choosing Powell as a central character was a no-brainer.

As I write in the book’s introduction:

The science of tree rings hadn’t been invented when explorer John Wesley Powell made his epic trips down the Colorado River in the 1800s. But he noticed the way the river rose and fell. Eventually, he realized how important that was for people trying to live in the West.

The book is aimed at kids around 13 years of age. I’ll have more posts over the next few weeks introducing some of the other characters, both from history and those working now using tree rings and weather forecasts to make sense of weather and climate. Human-caused climate change plays a role, but it’s not a book about climate change. Rather, it’s an attempt to help young people make sense of the weather and climate they see around them every day, and to share some of the excitement I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy talking to the scientists who work with this stuff every day.

Shipping now on Amazon: The Tree Rings’ Tale: Understanding Our Changing Climate (Worlds of Wonder)


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  2. JW Powell had recommended that the watersheds be used to define the boundaries of states in the West. I don’t recall where I read that, but it may have been “Cadillac Desert”. Anyway, it did not happen. Might have solved more than a few problems if it had been adopted.

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