It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over African highlands and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them. The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night. There was cordite, ether, urine, dung. Coffee. Bacon. Sweat. An invisible paisley of plumes and counter plumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey.
Winds converged. A big, hot easterly raced around a heat-induced low in the desert, where temperatures averaged 113 degrees Fahrenheit, heat scalded the air, and winds filled the sky with dust. This easterly blew toward the moist and far cooler bulge of the west. High over the lush lands north of the gulf, this thermal stream encountered moist monsoon air blowing in from the sea from the southwest. The monsoon crossed the point where zero latitude and zero longitude meet, and entered the continent. Where these winds collided, they produced a zone of instability. The air began to undulate.
The colliding winds veered and arced. Thunderstorms of great violence purpled the sky. A huge parcel of air began circling slowly, far too high for anyone on the ground to notice. The powerful wind swept it west toward the Atlantic as a wave of turbulence, thunderstorms, and driving rain. The updrafts pushed the droplets higher and higher at up to one hundred miles per hour. At four miles above the ground the droplets froze, and the rising air became filled with snowflakes and shards of ice. Men on the ground saw blossoms of cotton with flat gray bottoms that marked the altitude where condensation had begun. Children saw camels, rabbits, and cannon fire. The clouds bloomed before their eyes. Cells within grew and quickly expired. Some cells smoked into the sky like Christmas rockets. Others became massive Gibraltars of condensed water, Cumulus congests; some rose higher, Cumulonimbus calvus. In the pillars that reached the top of the troposphere, temperatures fell to 100 degrees below zero. Tiny hexagonal mirrors of ice drifted from the peaks in lovely translucent veils.
Soon the sky filled with puffy clouds, Cumulus humbles, the pretty fair-weather cumulus of the finest summer days. As the wave advanced, these grew fatter and taller. High clouds arrived next, first icy cirrus, then a gray ceiling of cirrostratus. The skies got darker, the cloud ceiling lower. A fine drizzle began to fall. A squall line of thunderstorms followed, cousins of the great storms that just a few days earlier had driven the shopkeepers to seek shelter. The storms brought thunder and lightning, but were nowhere near as intense as they had been over the western bulge. They dropped the temperature at sea level. For anyone acclimated to the humid warmth of the tropics, suddenly the air was downright cold. The squalls passed. The sky cleared. The cycle began again.
Could a butterfly in a West African rain forest, by flitting to the left of a tree rather than to the right, possibly set into motion a chain of events that escalates into a hurricane striking a few weeks later? The fact that the most detailed satellite analysis could not detect a trigger suggested that tropical storms might be influenced by forces too subtle to measure. A tiny change in variables entered into computer models of hurricane development could yield dramatic variation later on. One simulated storm may veer northward while another continues westward, one may stand stationary while another gallops toward a shoreline, or one may intensify while another is dying.
Meteorologists feared that the American public might be placing too much trust in their predictions. People seemed to believe that technology had stripped hurricanes of their power. No hurricane expert endorsed this view. The more they studied hurricanes, the more they realized how little they knew of their origins and the forces that governed their travels. There was talk that warming seas could produce hurricanes twice as powerful as the Galveston hurricane. Insurance companies quietly began pulling out of vulnerable areas. The seas rose; summers seemed to warm; the Bering Glacier began to pulse and flow just as it had one hundred years before. Somewhere, a butterfly opened its wings.
Washington, D.C. / Sept. 9, 1900
To: Manager, Western Union / Houston, TX
Do you hear anything about Galveston?
Willis L. Moore / Chief, U.S. Weather Bureau
Books that were referenced here or otherwise inspired this post:
Isaac’s Storm — Erik Larson
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Dedicating this poem to my beloved sister and her new husband, may your honeymoon never end.