Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Our Sci-Fi Weather

The Eureka Reporter reports the explanation by the National Weather Service for the sudden windstorm that devastated the Humboldt County electrical grid on December 31. Some people in less than remote places were without power for six days.

Several storms came through from the Pacific during Christmas week. By New Year's Eve morning the latest bout of heavy rains and constant winds had died down, only a weak storm was forecast for early in the new year, and most of the county was breathing a sigh of relief because it seemed the worst had passed and the grid got through it fine. But then at about 9:30 am winds that are estimated at up to 85 mph hit various parts of the area, and did the damage.
They were brief, and didn't affect all areas.

Now the Weather Service says that it was such a rare weather event that there is no record of it happening in Humboldt before. A similiar situation happened in Portland, OR in the 90s, which weather types have been studying ever since.It's called a bent-back occuluded front. In this case the storm had indeed passed--the front was in Montery to the south and Sacramento to the southeast. But "rapidly intensifying" low pressure in the ocean off our coast actually sucked the storm front back--the front "bent" back to the North Coast.

This explanation came in a story about why the NWS didn't issue a wind warning, not the most intelligent approach to the phenomenon, since it's not clear what the Emergency Alert would have done. Here's a classic graph on the outcome: But by the time they realized how strong the winds would be, it was too late, Dean [of the NWS] said. "The feeling at the time was that the winds had already started, so people already had the information that it was windy."

Yeah, good thinking. But what about this weird event? Nobody has seen it around here until the 1990s and now it's happened again. The conventional wisdom is that weather is full of freak events. It's that tricky old Mother Nature, tsk tsk, chuckle chuckle.

Well, the weather is seldom original, and some humility is certainly proper, but global heating scenarios predict such freak weather, and if the oceans are warmer in places they weren't before, we may be in for more "freak" storms. For which, incidentally we are not well prepared, as this event makes clear. The power crews performed admirably afterwards, but the flow of timely information was spotty and inconsistent, and generally a failure. Missing the point even a week afterward ices that particular cake.

There was a terrible TV movie on a few months ago about a series of storms that wiped out various picturesque capitals of the world and threatened to be "the end of the world!" as the title indicated. It ran for something like 4 hours over two nights, so I taped it and we watched the highlights. Good popcorn trash tv, but science fiction is rarely without relevance to the undercurrents of mood in the present. Sci fi weather isn't just coming. We just had some.

While we're interested here in what makes Humboldt "this place," it's always necessary to remember how deeply this place is connected to the rest of the world. Our weather is made elsewhere, in warm waters of the Pacific, for instance. They call it global warming because it is a global phenomenon in cause and general effect, but just as it is also caused by accumulation of specific acts in separate places, the effects are felt differently in different places. Yet as a global phenomenon, it's useless to look at either the cause or the effect only in local terms.

That's also the case with other kinds of air pollution---specific chemicals released in the air here may have their greatest effects elsewhere, and vice versa, just as the acid rain caused by polluting smokestacks in the eastern states is killing the life in midwestern lakes and forests.

We are part of this world, even the sci-fi part.