Environment

Why We Love Storms

Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense. For some, that's just fine.

Last Monday, news of three major hurricanes was trending on Facebook. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) kept a growing number of online storm chasers informed with updates on the progress of Ignacio, Jimena and Kilo as they moved across the Pacific. Never before have three Category 4 hurricanes been active in the central and eastern Pacific basins at the same time.

Hurricanes Ignacio, Jimena and Kilo in the North Pacific Ocean on August 31. (image: NOAA)

The storms were far from any land mass. By Monday afternoon, Igrnacio was almost 600 miles north of Honolulu. Jimena was more than 1,000 miles east of Hilo, Hawaii. And Kilo was more than 600 miles south of Midway Island. No one was in danger. No coastal watches or warnings were in effect. Still, people across the globe (and in the International Space Station) were fixated on their development — their size, direction, wind speed and ultimate fate.

The tempest is a temptress

We may not all be storm chasers (or astronauts), but as meteorologist and storm expert John Monteverdi of San Francisco State University (SFSU) puts it, "All of us are admittedly united in a fascination with these storms."

Though when it comes to agreeing about their underlying cause — and in particular, their increased frequency and intensity — America is not a united front. A few maintain that global warming isn't real or even an elaborate hoax. But the vast majority of Americans believe that global warming is happening. Still, climate change has become the most divisive issue in the nation, over abortion. It figures that storms should play a primary role in our collective "climate unconscious": There is mounting evidence suggesting a link between the intensity of hurricanes and higher ocean temperatures, which are primarily driven by global warming.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N.'s climate arm, reported that scientists are more than 95 percent certain that the primary cause of global warming is human activity; specifically, it's the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that we are pumping into the atmosphere. But a rising temperature is only one way to understand what is currently happening to the climate — including the increasing regularity of extreme weather. And it may not be the best way.

"Direct temperature measurements only extend about two hundred years, during which time climate variations were relatively minor," notes paleoclimatologist Petra Dekens, an expert on ancient oceans and one of Dr. Monteverdi's colleagues at SFSU's Department of Earth & Climate Sciences. Her research, which includes studying ocean core samples to determine ancient temperatures, seeks to contextualize the current global warming trend within the planet's dynamic climactic system.

Specifically, Dekens is trying to unravel the mechanisms of the climate of the early Pliocene, a period that occurred roughly between 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. For paleoclimatogists, this is an important part of Earth's ancient history, as it is the most recent geological time period in which planetary temperatures higher than they are today were sustained for a significant length of time.

The global average temperature for several million years during the Pliocene was higher than today, with global sea level about 25 meters higher. (image: NASA)

Those increased temperatures may be closely related to storm weather. A 2010 study led by MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel with Chris Brierley and Alexey Fedorov from Yale University found evidence that intense hurricane activity may have caused and sustained the warmer climate conditions during the Pliocene, during which time there may have existed a positive feedback loop between tropical cyclones and the Pacific Ocean's circulation system.

Mercifully, it will be a long time, if ever, for the Earth to be as continuously hot and stormy as it was during the Pliocene. “So far, there is no evidence in our simulations that this transition is going to occur at least in the next century," said Dr. Fedorov. "However, it’s still possible that the condition can occur in the future.”

It does look like we'll be getting an increase in the frequency and severity of storms due to climate change, and the storm chasers will be there, either live or online. And it doesn't matter where those storms may be. As last week's storm-watching trend suggests, people may derive vicarious pleasure from the development of distant storms that have zero possibility of directly affecting their lives.

Thrill of the squall

Writer Maria Konnikova, who works at the intersection of science and psychology, suggests our interest in storms may have evolutionary origins. During Winter Storm Juno, which lashed the nation's northeastern coast in January, Konnikova, author of the New York Times bestseller Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, contemplated the question, "Why are people so fascinated by storms, even when they’re nowhere near them?" She writes:

According to one theory of risk, humans didn’t evolve to be safe, risk-minimizing citizens. Our early experiences involved constantly perilous conditions, so we developed a certain expected baseline expectation of risk. We couldn’t ever avoid risk altogether — even if you stayed inside your camp or your cave, the world was full of unpredictable, potentially dangerous things. And, in some cases, actively seeking or taking risks could be rewarded; that might have been, for example, the only way to get food. In the modern environment, we aren’t exposed to natural risks in nearly the same way. But the underlying neural mechanisms haven’t gone anywhere … A winter storm — or any storm, really — approximates this thrill. It’s powerful, and even dangerous. But safely ensconced inside, and in front of our computer screens, we don’t think that it will really hurt us. The power might go out, but then we would be able to share a picture of a car buried in a snowdrift. And then, soon, it will be over. You will have had the thrill, and you might have gained control over it by capturing a moment of “danger,” but, in all, it seems a relatively minor risk. We satisfy our inner risk-seeker without going into dangerous territory.

Snowfall at the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border during Winter Storm Juno (image: Medeis/Wikimedia Commons)

The theory that Konnikova cites is from a 1979 study conducted by economists Paul H. Rubin and Chris W. Paull II, then at the University of Georgia, who argued that humans' taste of risk "must be derived from biological models of evolutionary survival."

More than a decade before that study, the late Southern author Walker Percy laid out his own theory of storms as social phenomena, which he developed across several of his novels and essays. "Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case," he wrote of Will Barrett, the semi-autobiographical titular character of his second book, The Last Gentleman, published in 1966. "Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes."

Walker, whose deep religious faith and existential approach to examining the human condition have drawn him comparisons to Kierkegaard, recounts Barrett on a date with a girl named Midge and getting caught in Hurricane Donna, a category 5 tropical cyclone that hammered Florida and the East Coast in 1960:

Within a few minutes the gale winds reached near-hurricane strength and there was nothing to do but stop the car. Feeling moderately exhilarated by the uproar outside and the snugness within, dry as a bone in their cocoon of heavy-gauge metal and safety glass, they fell upon one another fully clothed and locked in a death grip … The hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky and Midge no longer felt obliged to keep her face stiff. They were able to talk. It was best of all when the hurricane’s eye came with its so-called ominous stillness. It was not ominous. Everything was yellow and still and charged up with value.

Flooding along Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, Florida, after Hurricane Donna, in 1960. (image: Miami National Weather Service Office/Wikimedia Commons)

Percy continued his exploration of hurricanes' psychological power in his fourth novel, Lancelot, published in 1977. "I knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other, hated their own lives, and were generally miserable — except during hurricanes," says the title character. "Then they sat in their house at Pass Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness, were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke, drink, even make love.”

Kierkegaard, whose own melancholic state of mind, as he noted in his journals, made him a poor matrimonial candidate, would probably have approved of Percy's stormy romantic outlook. "Marriage brings one into fatal connection with custom and tradition," he wrote in his first book, Either/Or, published in 1843. "And traditions and customs are like the wind and weather, altogether incalculable."

More than half a century after Hurricane Donna, Marc Barnes, a writer for Patheos.com who has a self-proclaimed "man-crush" on Kierkegaard, echoed Percy's belief in the game-changing nature of storms when he explained why many who lived within the path of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 didn't feel afraid, but actually may have experienced a sense of relief:

The hurricane relieves us. The things we seek to fend off despair with, the things we secretly doubt have any ability to bring us happiness, all of these are decimated in the face of the Frankenstorm. What does your money matter, when there is a whirlpool of destruction bearing down on rich and poor alike? What does your college education matter — certainly supposed to bring you happiness — when the ice giants are uprooting trees? What does your neighborhood and your good school system matter, your wardrobe, your iPhone, your car, your savings, your humanistic outlook, your eternal politeness? Hurricane, dammit!

It's getting hot in here

But our ongoing fascination with storms isn't just about getting an adrenaline rush or blowing away alienation or relieving the tension of some socially-approved ideal of happiness. For many concerned about climate change, the marked increase in the frequency and severity of not just storms, but all manner of extreme weather events around the globe — from California's record-breaking drought and western wildfires in the U.S. and Canada to the historic heat waves gripping central and eastern Europe and severe thunderstorms accompanied by baseball-sized hail in Italy — is a sure indication that human activity has affected the planet's climactic system.

"Climate change includes not only changes in mean climate but also in weather extremes," Erick Markus Fischer and Reto Knutti, climatologists at Zurich's Institute for Atmospheric and Climate, note in a study published online in April in the journal Nature Climate Change. They looked at daily extreme hot or wet events that had occurred between 1901 and 2005 and compared those figures with model simulations of extreme weather frequency and severity between 2006 and 2100 under a "BAU scenario" (business-as-usual; i.e., continued high greenhouse gas emissions).

By analyzing "moderate extremes," which they defined as weather events expected to occur on 1 in every 1,000 days under present conditions, they concluded that anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change is the cause of the extreme heatwaves and torrential downpours that are happening with increasing regularity around the world.

Trying to keep cool during a scorching heat wave in Calcutta, India, on June 10, 2015, when the mercury hit 102.2° F (39° C). (image: Saikat Paul/Shutterstock.com)

"Climate change doesn’t 'cause' any single weather event in a deterministic sense,” said Fischer. “But a warmer and moister atmosphere does clearly favor more frequent hot and wet extremes." He added, "The rarer and more extreme an event, the higher is the fraction of risk we can attribute to climate warming."

Specifically, Fischer and Knutti found that climate change currently drives 75 percent of heatwaves and 18 percent of heavy rain or snowfalls over land since pre-industrial times. For 2°C of warming — the amount of global surface temperature increase that scientists believe must not be exceeded in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — the researchers say that anthropogenic precipitation extremes would rise to about 40 percent. The basic takeaway: Curb greenhouse gas emissions now or prepare for more dangerous weather.

The study's predictions helps to frame the challenge that face negotiators at the U.N.'s upcoming climate meeting in Paris this December. In a commentary that accompanied the study, Peter Stott of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter, England, wrote, "The idea that almost half of heavy rainfall events would not have occurred were it not for climate change is a sobering thought for policymakers seeking to mitigate and adapt to climate change."

Source: E.M. Fischer and R. Knutti, Nature Climate Change (graphic: The Guardian)

Fantasy, fear, fascination, forecasts

Applied researcher and sociologist Dr. Renee Lertzman, an expert on the psychological dimensions of climate and environmental engagement, recently drove through a part of Oregon that has been scarred by wildfire. “It was a surreal experience,” she said. “We’re all driving along and it’s so smoky and it’s terrifying. Yet we’re all doing our summer vacation thing. I couldn’t help but wonder: what is going on, how are people feeling and talking about this?”

Lertzman, who teaches at the University of San Francisco and Victoria’s Royal Roads University, is not convinced that all the extreme weather will serve as a much-needed wake-up call for action on climate change. In fact, it may entrench inaction — and denial.

“I think it’s a fantasy that the worse things get and the more intense the effects are … that will magically translate into a public and political recognition and engagement and getting on board,” she said. “There’s an abundance of evidence that’s not the case and that humans have enormous capacity to avoid and deny reality and what’s staring us right in the face.”

Indeed, there are many climate deniers — among them the majority of GOP presidential candidates, like Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida, who said on Face the Nation in April: "Humans are not responsible for climate change in the way some of these people out there are trying to make us believe, for the following reason: I believe the climate is changing because there’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing." If elected, Rubio said he would roll back all of President Obama's major climate initiatives, including the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

The Fox News telecast of the GOP presidential debate in August drew a record 24 million viewers. But Donald Trump isn't the only dangerous and unpredictable storm that lures us to our television sets. On October 29, 2012, as the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy battered New York City, cutting power and flooding streets, tunnels and subway lines, the Weather Channel drew its the third-highest total day average ratings ever, beating Fox News in the target demographic of 25-54 year-olds.

President Obama at a White House conference with FEMA and Department of Homeland Security in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, October 29, 2012. (image: Pete Souza/White House)

Like Trump, storms transfix us with a powerful mix of fear and fascination. "Any time you had winds, dark clouds, heavy rain — that would send me running to the basement," Heather Waldman said of herself as a child. "My parents couldn't have the radar up on television if they knew a storm was coming through, because I would see it. Even as a 5- or 6-year-old, I sort of started to understand the concept of what that meant, and I would know something was coming." Today, Waldman is a meteorologist for AccuWeather.com.

It's a similar story for storm chaser and nature photographer Chris Allington, who lives in Crofton, Nebraska. "My fascination with storms actually started as fear when I was young but I wanted to learn more about them," he said in an interview with National Georgraphic. "I hope people get the same sense of awe that fills me when I see some of these scenes unfolding before me. That feeling that some of the humbling displays that take place naturally impress upon a person who is willing to go document them."

Storm chasers and extreme weather trackers in the U.S. should be gearing up for a busy season ahead. This fall, wildfires are expected to erupt across Washington and Oregon, while flooding and mudslides will threaten the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The Southeast could get hit by a few hurricanes. "I'd watch the central eastern Gulf of Mexico coastline and also maybe the Carolinas," said AccuWeather expert long-range forecaster Paul Pastelok.

In addition, forecasters predict that the U.S. could experience one of the most aggressive El Niños in two generations. "Confidence continues to grow that this El Niño will be one of the stronger El Niños over the past 50 years," AccuWeather senior meteorologist Brett Anderson said. This winter, Floridians in particular should brace for severe thunderstorms.

Singing in the rain

No matter where you live, weather is a part of life on Earth. Often it can be hassle and, despite the best efforts of meteorologists,  frustratingly unpredictable. But no matter if weather is extreme or not, its unpredictability gives it the power to offer singular, surprising moments of inspiration and awe. Who can forget the video of a hiker's sudden emotional freak-out after coming upon a rare double rainbow? (Probably not a single one of the more than 42 million people who have viewed it.)

"I hope I can encourage people to slow down and take a look at Mother Nature," says Allington, whose photographs of extreme weather were published online last year by Telegraph UK. "We seem to have lost touch with that in our society."

Considering that the world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history, he may be right. But judging from the many online storm chasers who closely followed the progression of Ignacio, Jimena and Kilo last week, we may be getting that touch back — even if it's only through a computer screen.

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