Epilogue - Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather - Marq de Villiers

Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather - Marq de Villiers (2006)


Ivan's dangerous death throes and its perversely complicated demise: By the time Ivan crossed the New Jersey shore into the Atlantic, it had been reduced to a posttropical disturbance, and the U.S. Hurricane Center lost interest, discontinuing their public advisories. They were turning their attention to Hurricane Karl, then apparently heading harmlessly (except of course to mariners) into the central Atlantic, and tropical storms Jeanne and Lisa, either of which could develop a temperament as nasty and unpredictable as Ivan's.

But, as it turned out, consigning Ivan to the archives was a little premature. In the movies, what happened next would either be called Ivan 2, or, The Return of Ivan. Because the monster had a few surprises in store yet.

Ivan had seemed to drift out into the ocean, but that was only half the story. Quite literally, because Ivan split in two. It was the lower half that drifted out to sea. It was still spinning slowly, but was now below the radar of the forecasters, in both senses of the phrase. The satellites and Doppler radars ignored what was happening, and the forecasters had more serious things on their minds. Lisa had behaved even more oddly than usual for a tropical storm, and was now heading eastward instead of westward, away from the Caribbean and North America. The satellites kept a still-wary eye on her, but paid more attention to Jeanne, already a hurricane and heading, alas, for Florida. The midlevel high that had prevented the month's storms from their normal northerly recurvature had broken up, and Jeanne could easily pound Florida and then head up the coast. The configuration of the jet stream was such that it was possiblenot likely, but possiblethat Jeanne could race up the coast and intersect with Maritime Canada. That was enough to catch northern attention. Even had anyone been paying attention to the leftover Ivan, they would not have taken it seriously.

This part of Ivan, call him Low Ivan, drifted slowly southward in a leisurely clockwise circle, and ended upwhere else this year?on the Florida coast, as it turned, once again, westward. The winds were moderate by tropical cyclone standardsnot much more than 20 to 23 miles an houralthough there was a fair amount of precipitation. This low drifted across the Florida peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico. There, like an old warhorse smelling action, it encountered the warm water of the Gulf, was reenergized, and took on the familiar organization characteristics of a tropical depressionspinning a little faster, warm moisture-laden air ascending, high-altitude cold convection currents, accelerating winds . . .

The Hurricane Center wryly admitted on the evening of September 22 that there had been <( considerable and sometimes animated in-house discussion of the demise [or supposed demise] of Ivan. In the midst of a low-pressure and surface frontal system over the eastern United States … the National Hurricane Center has decided to call the tropical cyclone now over the Gulf of Mexico Tropical Depression Ivan. While debate will surely continue here and elsewhere . . . this decision was based primarily on the reasonable continuity observed in the analysis of the surface and low-level circulation." Whatever the name, satellite images and buoys in the Gulf showed that the disturbance was organized enough to be called a tropical depression, and the low level of the shear indicated to the forecasters that the depression might very well become a tropical storm by landfall, expected sometime along the Texas Gulf coast. A tropical storm warning was issued for the Gulf coast from the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana to Sargent, Texas.

This was a nasty surprise to the Texans, who had been relieved to see Ivan pass by them to their east a week earlier, and had no wish to reprise what Alabama and Florida had then suffered.

As it turned out, the Hurricane Center forecast was a little pessimistic. Ivan did cross the Gulf coast near Cameron, Louisiana, but with winds that seldom exceeded 30 miles an hour, even in gusts, and was weakening rapidly. It turned toward Texas, passed over the town of Port Arthur before turning southwest, and finally sighed to a halt near the coast on the early morning of Sunday, September 26. There was no need to drive a spike through its heart. It simply expired.

So much for half the story, Low Ivan. What of High Ivan?

Peter Bowyer takes up the story: (< The upper half of Ivan was picked up in the prevailing southwesterlies and flew up into eastern Canada. It was not strong enough to produce damaging winds on its own, but coincidentally a frontal system coming in from the west was developing. That storm would have happened anywaywe would have had winds gusting to perhaps 80, go kilometers, but again, on its own not enough to cause any real damage. But the two of them together … Leftover Ivan become entrained in this frontal system, and the result was like taking afire and throwing kerosene into it."1 Ivan's rotation and massive quantities of Caribbean moisture were the kerosene; the frontal system the fire. The combination was enough to turn the new systemIvan Reduxinto a weather bomb, which as we have seen is a slightly hysterical though still technically rigorous term, defined as a system that is already at less than 1,000 millibars when it drops 24 further millibars in twenty four hours. On September 21, this storm exceeded those criteria by more than half, and turned the system back into the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane that roared across the northern Nova Scotian mainland, the islands of Cape Breton and Newfoundland, uprooting trees, flooding roads, leaving more than 18,000 people without power for several days, and killing six mariners. The massive cruise ship Queen Mary, which had been scheduled to dock in the northern port of Sydney that day, departed hastily for open ocean and more southerly latitudes; the ferry to Newfoundland was knocked out of service; roads were covered with debris, and all schools were closed.

On the afternoon of September 21 the sea in front of our house was crashing on the rocks. The swells had been building all day, and by four o'clock immense rollers were breaking on the bedrock with a great roar. A small spruce tree outside my office window was smacking against the eaves with an unnerving scraping sound. A larger spruce was swaying alarmingly against the power lines coming in from the highway almost a mile away, and we prepared once more for a power outage. The weathervane was pointing northeast; we measured gusts at 30 miles, then 60, then 63. The house, strongly built though it is, creaked and the shutters banged. A skylight moaned in the wind, a ghost-wind squeezing through some minuscule hole.

I didn't know that was Ivan, then. For me, Ivan was a killer whose narrative was a series of printed bulletins, now safely contained in a filefolder. He was just a story. He wasn't supposed to hit my house.

It could have been worse, of course; in very many places, it was.

When we bought our house down on the shore, here at the end of the peninsula, it had attached to it a venerable wind turbine on a forty-foot tower. The fellow who built the house was what they call a "belt and suspenders" kind of guy; he heated his house with wood but had a gasoline generator and electric heaters as backup; used the wind turbine to feed a bank of car batteries to keep his lights going, but kept several kerosene lanterns just in case. Later, he even hooked up to the grid for good measure. At some point before we bought the place, a lightning strike had fried the batteries; the windmill had been disconnected from the house and clanked disconsolately in the wind. Even when there was no wind at ground level, every now and then it would abruptly start up and rattle around for a minute or two before spinning down. We had it removed soon after we bought the property. The buyer came with a crane and trucked it away, and we installed the fish we called Wanda as a weathervane on the windmill's tower.

Now we're thinking of buying a new wind generator. They are smaller than they were a few years ago, lighter, more reliable, easier to use, and are responsive to gentle winds as well as to greater ones. Our house is too far from Lower West Pubnico to benefit from that wind farm's power generation, and in any case, Pubnico is pumping its power directly into the grid, and we don't really trust the stability and security of the grid anymore.

This lack of trust is expressed through a basket of concerns about increasingly erratic weather, the security of long-term fuel supplies, and the uncertainties that greenhouse gases represent for the global climate. These are in effect worries not just about our own place in the scheme of things but also for the scheme of things itself—that is, for the planet's future; and both sets of concerns were neatly encapsulated for me by the monster, Ivan, which was not only a uniquely intense storm, but traveled more than eight thousand miles and caused enormous damage and loss of life, and then, before expiring, cast its baleful eye on me personally, and took a swipe at my house.

Ivan didn't batter me into the sea as the gale in Cape Town had threatened to do, or even batter the sea into my house, though it was plenty strong enough. Perhaps as a consequence of the possibilities, I remain wary of wind but would like to get a little of my own back and put this wariness to some use, to harness wind to increase my own comfort and security. In this, I think, I am also Us, in the larger sense of a collectivity and a species. We are badly wounding our air and through it our climate, but we know enough now to be able to bring the system back to health. We know how wind works, and what makes it worse and what doesn't, and how to make it cleaner and less hazardous to our survival. We have also learned how to employ it to generate the energy that our civilization needs. Nature has given us the perpetual motion machine we call wind. We can put it to work to make things better.