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Insane Weather

[Stuff magazine, US edition, 1999]

IF THE world doesn't spin hurtling to a fiery end come January, there are going to be some very disappointed nutjobs out there. For years they've been gibbering about omens, portents and celestial warnings. Mighty comets streaking across the sky. Statues weeping blood. Great turnips sprouting from the ground. But if anything's going to do us in, it won't be Armageddon or the armies of the night. It'll be the weather.
  When the little fluffy clouds turn nasty, it's time to panic. Nature has the means to cook you, freeze you, batter you, bury you, drown you or quite literally blow you away. Never mind the number of the beast. Satan is at the mercy of weather gone mad, just like the rest of us. You can bet that when hell does freeze over, it won't be covered by the Dark Lord's insurance.
  Here, then, is Stuff's millennial guide to climate-based insanity. Should you encounter any of it, the appropriate response is to die.

WHAT IS IT: A storm that isn't joking. Also known as cyclones and typhoons, these vast, scary bastards - potentially hundreds of miles across - develop from thunderstorms over warm water, circling at speeds of over 70 miles per hour.
FEAR ITS POWER: On September 7 1900, the port of Galveston was the foremost city in Texas. By September 9, it was the foremost city in the Gulf Of Mexico. That's hurricanes for you. “Hurricane” comes from a West Indian word meaning “Big Wind”,, a typically laconic Caribbean understatement. Hurricanes will swamp whatever they don't knock over and park your motorboat through the window of your beach house. Invariably they are given cheerful names which make them sound like the cast of Friends. Across Miami and southern Florida, 1992's Hurricane Andrew - a “category 5” with gusts of up to 200 mph - inflicted $25 billion of damage and trashed an area larger than Chicago (Chicago itself, well north of the action, suffered nothing worse than a brief cocaine shortage.)
DANGER ZONES: The tropics, particularly Central America and the gulf, Australia, the Far East and Southern Asia. In Bangladesh, the carnage can be appalling. Cyclone 2B, with winds of 146 mph and a 20-foot sea surge, killed 140,000 people in 1991. And they named it after a pencil?

WHAT IS IT: When tectonic plates meet and don't get along. A tectonic plate is a large area of the earth's crust. They bump into each other along fault lines. When these lines shift, the shockwaves can make the ground shake, tremble or undulate for hundreds of miles around like spring-loaded Jello.
FEAR ITS POWER: The 1964 quake in Anchorage, Alaska measured a whopping 9.2 on the Richter scale and caused well-water levels to rise and fall in Louisiana. The recent Turkish earthquake clocked in at 7.4, but struck in a heavily populated area, killing over 40,000. The most immediate danger in an earthquake is getting hit by something heavy, like San Francisco. Should you survive that, you face further peril from fire, flood, exposure, disease and nuns with guitars trying to cheer you up.
DANGER ZONES: China is a perennial earthquake zone, and suffered this century's most devastating occurrence, killing 250,000. The Middle East, as if it didn't have enough problems, is also prone to quakes (in 1201 over a million people are thought to have been annihilated.) So is Bangladesh, which doesn't seem to get away with anything. California, too, is riddled with fault lines and will one day fall into the sea - with luck, before they make any more disaster movies.

WHAT IS IT: Planetary acne, more or less. Volcanoes form where molten rock forces itself up through fissures in the earth's crust. When the pressure builds up sufficiently, they erupt, sending a pyroclastic flow - an avalanche of lava, ash and gas - shooting down their slopes at speeds of up to 60 mph and a temperature of 1300° Fahrenheit. Sunblock is recommended.
FEAR ITS POWER: The greatest recorded eruption, Indonesia's Mt Tambora in 1815, spewed 19 cubic miles of nasty matter into the atmosphere. On the other side of the world, in North America, summer was cancelled. The Mt St Helens eruption of 1981 was comparatively small, but still flattened everything within a radius of 8 miles and covered large portions of the Great North-West in ashen mud. This century's grimmest volcanic disaster took place on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1902, when Mt Pelée killed all but two residents of the town of St Pierre. One of the survivors was a convict in an underground dungeon, which sends the wrong message to criminals everywhere.
DANGER ZONES: Eruptions are relatively easy to avoid: move where there aren't any volcanoes. The Pacific Ocean, particularly the South Seas, is volcano central, while Italy's Mt Vesuvius, having turned the citizens of Pompeii into statuary back in 79 AD, has erupted fifty times since. Look elsewhere for a holiday home.

WHAT IS IT: A seismic wave, or series of waves, usually caused by undersea earthquakes and landslides, or by volcanic eruptions.
FEAR ITS POWER: When, in 1883, Mt Krakatoa (aka Krakatau) in Indonesia blew its top, the resulting tsunamis rose up to 130 feet, obliterated nearby islands and wiped 36,000 people off the face of the earth like God's own dishcloth. An earthquake off the coast of Chile in 1960 generated a tsunami which travelled 10,000 miles in 22 hours and killed 150 people in Japan. A tsunami generally doesn't curve, crest and break like wind-driven waves. It moves almost invisibly in deep seas, transforming itself into a towering wall of water when it nears the shoreline, often sucking away the sea then rushing back inland at the speed of screaming death to claim anything lower than itself for Neptune. Only one man has deliberately surfed a tsunami, and the fact that he lived makes him no less of an idiot.
DANGER ZONES: Japan gave us the word Tsunami, and well it might. Hawaii and much of the Pacific is also prey to tsunamis, as is any earthquake or volcano zone near coastline. In 1958, a landslip caused a wave 1,720 feet high to wash along Lituya Bay in Alaska. I repeat, 1,720 feet. 285 feet higher than the Sears Tower. Avoid Lituya Bay.

WHAT IS IT: A funnel of spinning air created by large thunderclouds which touches down and sucks up anything in its path like the vacuum cleaner of the apocalypse.
FEAR ITS POWER: The winds inside a tornado rotate at up to 300 mph, while the whole shebang usually moves cross-country at a clip of 30 to 40. It can also be invisible until it touches down, whereupon it fills up with dust, debris, livestock, trailers and small Midwestern towns. It then performs tricks like skinning cows, plucking chickens and lodging refrigerators up telephone poles. The “Tri-State Tornado” of 1925, the worst to hit America, measured a mile across on the ground, travelled at 72 mph and raged for three-and-a-half hours, killing 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. A 1947 tornado which struck White Deer, Texas was half as wide again. The only remotely safe place in a tornado's path is underground. Don't shelter beneath highway overpasses. Dig a hole.
DANGER ZONES: The Midwest is the most tornado-prone region in the world, particularly the Tornado Alley states of Nebraska, Kansas Oklahoma and Texas. The most destructive tornado in history left 1300 dead in - you guessed it - Bangladesh. Somebody important must be really pissed at them.

WHAT IS IT: A blizzard is effectively a chilly cyclone, with winds over 100 mph and heavy snowfalls that pile up into drifts. As a bonus, an ice storm brings “freezing rain” - not rain that freezes after impact, but “supercooled” rain, still liquid but already below freezing point when it lands and immediately solidifies, trapping everything in ice. Less of a winter wonderland, more of an instant mausoleum.
FEAR ITS POWER: 1993's immense Storm Of The Century closed every major airport in the Eastern US, bringing snow to Florida, giant waves to Long Island and death to 243 people. The great ice storm of last year was the longest ever recorded in Canada, drizzling supercooled misery for 80 hours - almost double the typical total for an entire year. It felled millions of trees and utility poles, cut off heat and light for hordes of households, and caused damage into the billions, which even in Canadian dollars is a lot. At least 25 people perished - in the sense that they died, not that they went rotten, which is about the only thing that doesn't happen in an ice storm.
DANGER ZONES: Canada, obviously, the Eastern Seaboard, Scandinavia. But not, for once, Bangladesh.


People will keep settling on flat, low-lying land near to water, despite the giveaway fact that this is known as the floodplain. A good portion of the Netherlands is actually below sea level, and hundreds of square miles of it was submerged in 1953. Pretty much the only effective protection against floods is to build a very high wall - in a big hurry, from sandbags, if needs be. If you think the Missouri and Mississippi periodically bursting their banks is frightening, be grateful you don't live in China, where from 1851 to 1856 the Huang Ho and Yangtze rivers downed over 40 million people. Come 1887, the Huang Ho did for 900,000 souls in one go - the worst single flood ever recorded, unless you count Noah's. And of course, two-thirds of one particular country disappeared beneath monsoon floodwater in 1988. Yes, it's God's personal favourite, Bangladesh.

The global weather phenomenon known as El Nino is nothing if not even handed. Having flooded the Americas, it parched the South Pacific, and possibly contributed to worsening drought cycles in Africa, where it's boomtime for already flourishing deserts - the Sahara was grassland a few thousand years ago. Much of fertile central USA was known as the Great American Desert in the nineteenth century, and from 1932-40 drought and wind blew away 850 million tons of its topsoil, turning it into the Dust Bowl and forcing 350,000 people onto the road. The East African drought of 1984-85 killed tens of thousands and threatened millions with starvation. So stop moaning when you're not allowed to water your lawn in summertime. Just do like Frank Feola of Rigdewater, New Jersey and paint your grass green.

If floods, tornados, tsunamis and hurricanes scare you, why not move to a nice quiet mountain, where the only thing to worry about is snowfall - about 30 feet of it in a matter of seconds, if you live in eastern Turkey, where entire villages and hundreds of people were buried by thunderous avalanches in 1992. After a heavy snow and a slight thaw, avalanches can be triggered by a gust of wind, a sudden movement or a loud noise, such as that emitted by a terrified skier. The snow rockets downhill at up to 200 mph, travelling above the ground due to air pockets under its leading edge. During the First World War, artillery fire in the Alps set off avalanches which smothered more than 40,000 Italian and Austrian soldiers. Both sides ended up bombing the slopes to stop snow from gathering, a practice which continues to this day in alpine regions and looks like a lot of fun.

Much like a landslide; just add water. Landslides and mudslides between them do $1 billion of damage each year in the US and kill between 25-50 people. Heavy rain in hilly deforested areas can mean an unstoppable torrent of sludge which scoops up everything in its path and destroys it, or at the very least leaves some unpleasant stains. When mudslides hit northern Italy last year, one village saw a wave a mud and water crash through its streets as an entire mountainside crumbled away in torrential rain. Even worse are the mud flows, known as lahars, which follow volcanic eruptions. In 1985, after Nevado Del Ruiz in Colombia erupted, a 130-foot high wall of mud engulfed the town of Armero, taking 22,000 people with it. The survivors never went back - a rare example of good sense not shared by trailer-park tornado victims and Italians near Vesuvius.


Locarno, Switzerland was pelted with blood-red rain in 1775, attributed to Saharan dust particles swept up by strong winds. Predictably, people get a bit upset when this sort of thing happens. In 1903, this same gory precipitation fell all over Europe for days on end; it's estimated that 10 million tons of the stuff landed on England alone. In the same year, fifty tons per square mile of what was described as “red mud” hit parts of Australia. Just as reddish dust is held responsible for this phenomenon, so yellow rain is usually put down to sulphur and pollen, while black rain and snow can be caused by pollution or volcanic activity. Purple rain is only encountered in Paisley Park, Minnesota.

Frogs have fallen from the sky so often it's hardly even a paranormal phenomenon. In 1804, in Toulouse, France, it rained tiny toads, and in 1873 Scientific American reported that a shower of frogs during a Kansas City rainstorm. As recently as 1997, live toads dropped on Villa Angel Flores in Mexico. Fish, too, frequently plummet from the skies; the last reported incident took place at Wellborne Hills cattle station, Australia. Other creatures cascading from above have supposedly included snails, shellfish, worms, maggots, snakes and - none too surprising, this one - birds. The most frequently given reason is that a tornado has sucked them from their habitat and dropped them miles away - although why it only picks one species at a time is something of mystery.

Ocean going tornados, basically, which threaten not only to batter you but to drown you into the bargain. One such spout killed six people in Gerona, Spain when it disintegrated, dropping tons of water onto the pier. Florida, which can confidently claim the title of America's Own Bangladesh, has witnessed outlandish waterspouts in Lake Okeechobee, accompanied by spectacular lightning. If you're planning a visit, take rubber-soled shoes and an umbrella.

They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, so perhaps if Park Ranger Ray Sullivan had stood still for a bit, he wouldn't have been hit seven times. One much reported but still unconfirmed oddity is ball lightning - an orange electrical fireball up to three feet across which witnesses, some of them not on drugs, claim has broken through windows and bounced around their rooms. An electrical construction worker called David Wolf has described how in 1979 he watched a glowing red ball travel 12 miles in three minutes along a series of pylons, unconnected to a power station, then explode. Well, you would tend to remember something like that.

Dinosaur buffs have their doubts, but geologists and astronomers are convinced that a huge meteorite impact 65 million years ago caused severe climate changes which killed off the big lizards. They point to an impact crater at Chicxulub, off the Yucatan peninsula, buried beneath almost a mile of sediment. In 1908, a gargantuan blast wreaked havoc in Tunguska, Siberia. The evidence - very big hole, trees blown outward - points towards either a spooky electrical death ray machine, or a 100,000 ton asteroid exploding with 40 megatons of force. For some reason, mainstream scientific opinion favours the latter.

Huge blocks of frozen waste shed by airliners don't really count as weather, alarming though they may be. While genuine hailstones don't get up to those dimensions, anything hard, solid and bigger than a golf ball dropping from the heavens has got to be bad news. Potentially fatal grapefruit-sized hailstones happen along every so often. The heaviest documented hail, weighing well over two pounds per lump, felled 92 unfortunate bystanders in 1986. And where did this freakish misfortune take place? Manitoba? Greenland? Tierra del Fuego? Don't be ridiculous. Bangladesh, of course.


If you had, for reasons best known to yourself, gone snooping around in Rangeley, Maine in the early Fifties, you might have spotted a heavy-set man perched atop a revolving platform. On this dias was mounted a contraption resembling nothing so much as battleship gun built by boy scouts from aluminium pipes. A cable trailed from it into a nearby lake. This was Wilhelm Reich, and the device was his cloud buster. He was, in his own unique way, attempting to break up the stratocumulus.
  You might conclude from this that Reich was a fully-fledged, four star, A-1, fruit-of-the-loom mooncalf. And you might well have a point. But the truly odd thing was that, not long before, Reich had been an internationally respected scientist. Born in 1897, his background was in medicine, and as a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in the 1920s, he was considered the most promising successor to Sigmund Freud. He held that “blocked” sexual energy was at the source of most neuroses, and expanded his work into the political realm; he was a dogged opponent of Fascism in the 1930s. So how did he go from this to pointing pipes at the sky?
  Reich came to believe that sexual energy was merely one manifestation of something he labelled “orgone” energy, which was present in everything from the weather to the tides of history. He asserted that this energy could be scientifically demonstrated to exist, although so far only his followers, known as orgonomists, have had any luck in doing so. He created Orgone Energy Accumulators, all-purpose devices which he reckoned could be used to treat his patients or, as with the cloud buster, create and disperse rain clouds. It was this first claim that got him into trouble. The FDA suspected, with some reason, that no matter how long you sat inside it, the orgone box would not live up to Reich's promise to recharge your blood cells and protect you from disease.
  Reich was merrily trying to tinker with the weather when he was arrested for disobeying a court order to stop distributing his orgone boxes. By now he was convinced that his efforts had brought him into contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence piloting silver discs across the night sky. Although ill, he was sentenced to two years in prison, where he died of a heart attack in 1957 - a clear example of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nutcase. More foolishly still, the FDA destroyed all his machines and burned all literature concerning them, thus turning Reich into a martyr and conspiracy theorist magnet.
  There is, of course, a simpler method of creating rain. You “seed” clouds with silver iodide from an airplane. But that's a little prosaic - and easily proven - compared to cosmic energy, spaceships and sinister acts of government. So while Reich maintains a devoted following, the cloud seeders get nary a disciple. Just not fair, is it?

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