Bipolar Meteorologists

To meteorologists, the Great Tornado Swarm of last week was something breathtaking to behold. It fascinated us, it stunned us, it frightened us. Nature on a rampage. Horrific science fiction come to reality.

And yet, as always, we were torn between the dichotomy of being awestruck voyeurs of nature’s power and distressed witnesses to human tragedy. On the one hand, we were sucked in, wooed, by the remarkable manifestation of atmospheric thermodynamics and kinematics at their extreme: violent tornadoes. It was a display we, as scientists, viewed rather clinically, as an ER doctor might a wounded patient. On the other hand, at the same time, we understood people were dying and that homes and businesses were being swept away. Our hearts and prayers went out to those affected.

Two characters–two meteorologists–in my novel, Eyewall, struggled with the same disparate emotions as they vicariously watched a cat 5 hurricane, Janet, level St. Simons Island, Georgia. Below is a brief clip of their dialogue. Obermeyer is a veteran hurricane forecaster, Sherrie, a young on-camera meteorologist.

Obermeyer, Sherrie seated next to him, couldn’t tear his eyes from the radar imagery on his monitor as Janet made landfall. The hurricane’s tight, violent eyewall, its torrential rain color-coded in angry reds and magentas, swirled over St. Simons in a furious ballet; a dance of death choreographed in tornadic violence, spectacular atmospheric beauty, and cruel death for those unlucky enough to have front row seats.

“Awesome,” Obermeyer said quietly.

“Yes, to us. As meteorologists,” Sherrie said.

“I know. We view it too clinically, too objectively. We think, ‘Wow, this is the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic Basin, the greatest storm in recorded history to hit the United States.’ And yet in reality we’re witnessing a tragedy. The destruction of an entire city, the death of hundreds.” He turned to look at Sherrie. “Thousands if the evacuation got screwed up.”

As weather geeks we will always struggle with those bipolar feelings. We realize the consequences of what we are witnessing, yet simultaneously experience an intellectual adrenaline rush. It is similar, I suspect, to what firemen advancing into a blazing building feel, or policemen in hot pursuit of bad guys.

Yet in the end, though drawn to our profession by the excitement of major weather events, we do our job for the same reason as do firemen or policemen: to help get people out of harm’s way.

Photo: Sequential Imagery of a Deadly Supercell Thunderstorm
Sequential images of the supercell thunderstorm (mesocyclone) that spawned deadly tornadoes in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala., on April 27. The cell swept across 450 miles of the Deep South in about 8 hours. (Imagery compiled by Brian Tang of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.)

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