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Weather still spins out of human control

Scientists can't deflect a hurricane or blizzard, but their advances can make us more aware of imminent danger.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Tuesday, September 1, 1998


Page 9A

As my Intro Astronomy class cranks up each fall I can usually depend on nature to provide me with an example to prove that the Earth rotates. This season its name was Bonnie.

The physics of hurricanes is complex but based on a simple principle let me try to put a spin on it for you. Imagine the crazed dictator of your choice at the equator, where the tropics seem to breed such. He fires a missile northward toward the US, but fortunately for us his engineers have forgotten their basic physics. The rocket leaves the pad not only with its northward speed but a thousand miles per hour eastward speed due to the Earth's rotational surface speed at the equator. But, as it goes north it finds itself over ground that is going eastward at a slower pace since we make a shorter daily lap than he does. Thus, from our viewpoint the rocket curves east. If we fired back south it would curve west by the same reasoning.

Now, replace the missiles with wind currents flowing toward a hurricane's low pressure center. The winds heading toward the low curve as described, imparting a counterclockwise twist as they meet. Add some warm water and stir until done.

This "Coriolis force" that seems to push things around in a rotating system is one of the proofs that our Earth rotates instead of everything else going around us, as first thought by the befuddled natural philosophers a millennium ago.

Whatever the science lesson involved, our coastal residents experience the real-life lab as the price of living near the coast. Nature has no problem with life on the coast. People do.

Back in college I used to say that I would never live where the weather could kill me. Growing up in Florida, I meant real weather the images of northern blizzards intimidated me. Garrison Keilor is quite correct when he says that winter is the "season that is out to kill you." But, as we are reminded each hurricane summer, other seasons can precipitate deadly scenarios.

After moving to Boone in '81 to bet on a career at an up-and-coming university, my mind changed. Having grown up in the monochrome, isothermal Florida climate my wife and I found delight in the seasons of the North Carolina mountains. We acclimated to snow by learning to ski, looking forward to snow with eager anticipation instead of fear. We traded in our flatland cars for standard Boone issue--four wheel drive. Bring on the storms!

But doing something about the weather is a different matter. At a recent gathering on campus I remarked to our Chancellor that I hoped we never come to control the weather. He seemed surprised as if maybe it was my glass of wine speaking for me. But, it's the truth I enjoy that element of unpredictability in a storm headed our way, either wet or frozen. Perhaps it is a response to my life in science, where we try to make just about everything explainable and predictable.

Luckily for me, I think it is unlikely we could ever significantly control weather. Our greatest impact on the climate, global warming, is so subtle that its validity is still hotly debated (although most of us scientists agree there probably is some human causality). Piddling experiments with cloud seeding have caused nary a puddle. Trying to deflect windstorms would be tilting at windmills.

For our friends on the coast the troubles will not melt away as quickly as our mountain snows. But they can pick up the pieces with a bit of comfort in what science has been able to offer in lieu of control: awareness. We take for granted a wonderful shower of data pouring down from a cloud cover of satellites and reconnaissance planes, giving notice of immediate danger. And, meteorologists can take great pride in their successes with El Nino and La Nina predictions we are finally able to make long-term predictions that can help save lives and property. Our geologists can advise us on safe (non)development of the coast, if only we would listen to them.

Think what other Bonnies and Hugos did before we had such tools. The storms raced in before any word could get in, if at all, by sea.

Nowadays, treated with respect and preparation, hurricanes and blizzards can almost be enjoyed as a spectator sport. So, for the next storm, find a safe haven, turn on the Weather Channel, and enjoy the game!

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