Captive to extremes: weather obsession shapes human history

Australians Google the weather more than sex.

But it wasn't always this way. Just a few years ago, sex was a much more popular search term than whether it's going to rain, hail or shine.

So what's changed? That's the question author and academic Lawrie Zion hoped to crack while writing his new book The Weather Obsession.

It's hard to imagine a better person for the job. The former journalist - who helped start Triple J's Hottest 100 countdown - was just a child when he first visited the Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne.

That day he left clutching a book of Australia's climatic averages under his arm, one of his most prized childhood possessions. He has been a self-described weather nerd ever since: poring over newspaper weather charts and, later, watching as newsrooms adapted to the digital age and fed the appetite for weather information with videos and slick graphics.

The weather captivates unlike anything else, according to Zion, because it is ordinary but extraordinary at the same time.

"Weather retains an unpredictability," he said. "In the last 50 years we've been able to insulate ourselves from its extremes, but it's still relevant to the way we conduct our daily lives."

The Weather Obsession serves as a neat history of the bureau from its origins in 1908 to its current use of a $77 million supercomputer.

The book alsoexplores a common thread that ties all weather stories together - unmet demand. Take for example the Bureau of Meteorology's 700,000 Facebook followers, and the 3.15 billion annual page views of its live radar service.

Zion says the logical conclusion is that humans are hardwired to find the weather interesting (and not just a conversation filler).

"The studies in the US point to that," he said. "If you live in an area where the weather is more predictable, you're much less likely to care about weather information in comparison to a place like Melbourne which has famously unpredictable weather. It's a powerful connection that's shaped human history."

The Weather Obsession is out now via Melbourne University Press.

Lawrie Zion will be speaking at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival, which runs until September 3. The Age is a festival sponsor.

This story Captive to extremes: weather obsession shapes human history first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.