A Perfect Storm

Photograph courtesy Twitter/_Mikey_Cee

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

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“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ―Haruki Murakami

 

 

According to NOAA, three basic ingredients are required for a thunderstorm to form: “moisture, rising unstable air (air that keeps rising when given a nudge), and a lifting mechanism to provide the ‘nudge.’” And while we typically reserve the expression “perfect storm” for particularly cataclysmic events, in this sense, every storm is a perfect one: a unique combination of variables that leads to dramatic, dazzling change.

 

So let’s talk about those three ingredients and how they led to the perfect storm that is 2020—starting with unstable air. Could there be a more fitting description for the atmosphere of the United States and our world at large? Race, gender, and socioeconomic inequality, as well as generational and partisan divides, have contributed to an oxygen of unrest that has been building and building, setting the stage for this year’s cumulative tipping point.

 

As far as the “nudge,” one could argue that there have been numerous in the past few years: the IPCC’s alarm-sounding 2018 report, fires in Australia and the Amazon, the global refugee crisis and the rise of totalitarian nationalists and dictators. And yet, while these have all contributed to the air of instability, it seems undeniable to say that it was two nudges in particular that gave the final rise needed for roil: the pandemic and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

 

From tear gas to tears fallen, ink spilled to oil spared, the moisture element is impossible to miss. And that’s the thing about storms: they demand attention and more importantly, action. Mother Nature crying out with all of her primordial might. Scientists have been warning of the connection between our warming world and worsening storms for years (for tropical storms in particular, a warmer atmosphere plus warmer ocean waters leads to an increased likelihood of cyclones). This weekend alone, three tropical storms are predicted to make landfall.

 

As coronavirus cases continue to soar, we are watching what happens when we try to ignore a storm and seek out some false shelter of normalcy. But as Murakami notes, there is no going back. Storms have the power to not only reshape us, but our world as well. 150 million people are estimated to be displaced by rising sea levels alone by 2050—just one distressing figure of the climate refugee crisis that, as the New York Times points out, is already upon us.

 

On Thursday morning, you might have woken up to footage of lightning flashing across the sky behind the Statue of Liberty—an image abundant in symbolism. In thunderstorms, lightning comes from excess positive and negative charges that accumulate within clouds until electrons have no choice but to be discharged down to Earth at a speed so fast it breaks the sound barrier. Put simply, extreme polarity precipitates a redistribution of energy. Did you hear that, America?

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