Sunday, 28 October 2012

Episode 2: Snow, storms and tsunamis.

According to local residents, Grenoble has something of a microclimate. It doesn't really have seasons to speak of. Yes, its near-Mediterranean latitudes means it gets some really intense bursts of sunshine. But because we're surrounded by mountains, anything that comes at us, be it a warm or cold front, is likely to get funnelled and intensified around the city. So chances are we're in for some pretty thick snow this winter. In fact, I'm told Grenoble has a habit of swinging wildly between these two extremes: think LA for half the year and Alaska the other half.

And so I shouldn't really be surprised when I start seeing a good 4-5 inches of snow falling outside my window. Yet I was, precisely because we've had pretty good weather the whole week - it only started raining late on Friday and into Saturday, and now this snowstorm. On the one hand, it looks amazing outside - Christmas has come early! - but on the other hand, judging by what I've seen in the UK, snowstorms can play havoc with transport, public utilities and the education system (much to kids' delight). I remember a very bad snowstorm in December 2009 in my hometown of Basingstoke. Mum and I decided it would be a good evening to watch a film at the cinema and so we did. When that one had finished, it was still snowing heavily outside and we thought there'd be no way we could get home without getting stuck in traffic, so we ended up watching another. When we finally set off, all we could see was just cars and cars lining the road, abandoned by drivers caught in the drifts. Mum had to drive super slowly to make sure we didn't end up like the other vehicles (or worse), so it took us about 45 minutes to get back to ours when normally it would take 25. We actually made the headlines that month as a result:

I have a feeling though that the French are better prepared when it comes to gritters and so forth. I mean, they have an amazingly efficient tram system are here, with buses always on the go in case there's a breakdown or engineering works. They're used to this stuff; Brits aren't.

What makes this weekend's snowstorm particularly memorable I think is that: (1) I'm on Erasmus - cue camera whoring; (2) it coincides with what could be some historically bad weather on the other side of the Atlantic. Hurricane Sandy has been tearing across the Caribbean, leaving death and destruction in her wake, and now she is poised to strike the eastern seaboard of the United States. Although it's classed as Category 1 for now - the lowest on the scale - any radar or satellite picture ( will show you just how huge this storm really is. Hurricane-force winds are being recorded more than a hundred miles from its centre, and tropical storm-force winds up to 700 miles away.

To make matters worse, Sandy looks set to collide with a winter storm approaching from the west and a cold front from the North, creating what one meteorologist calls "a nor'easter with a hurricane embedded in it." Add to those air masses a very high tide as a result of a full moon, and you have what looks like a billion-dollar catastrophe. This highly unusual convergence of all these factors means that scientists are calling this a "perfect storm."

But as Bryan Walsh of Time explains, this has happened before: Perfect Storm occurred almost 21 years ago to the day, over Halloween 1991, taking 13 lives. The Perfect Storm II will be much larger though, and is forecast to hit much more densely populated areas. It could shatter several records.

This kind of weather event has very few precedents, and hurricanes like Sandy that track very far from the tropics could become more frequent in a warmer world. They could be even more powerful: a repeat of 1955's Hurricane Hazel, which killed 81 people in Toronto of all places, or the very destructive Long Island Express of 1938 are still waiting in the wings. Which points to a glaring omission in this month's American presidential debates: the issue of climate change. Sure, we've heard debates about this for nigh-on 20 years now, but if Kerry Emanuel of MIT is right, we will be seeing bigger and deadlier storms in the future, maybe in places you wouldn't expect them: Dubai for example is very close to a massive heat source that looks ripe for a hurricane. The beloved BBC naturalist David Attenborough has condemned the climate silence in Slate (quoting The Guardian):

The Earth's geological timetable is very different from its meteorological one, and totally less predictable, but the 7.7 earthquake that struck off British Columbia in Canada on Saturday was particularly notable because the 3-foot tsunami it caused in Hawaii may only be a small harbinger of things to come. As any person who is  remotely familiar with geography knows, Hawaii lies in the centre of the Ring of Fire, the highly unstable regions of the world that encircle the Pacific Ocean. Wherever an earthquake happens on the Ring, if it causes a tsunami, Hawaii is almost certainly in the firing line. It has been struck repeatedly by tsunamis: in 1946, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1975 and most recently in 2011.

And a 7.7 earthquake may be relatively large, but it is small fry compared to what could be unleashed in the future. My worry is that the Saturday shock did not relieve any stress on the Cascadia fault, which is a massive subduction zone off the Pacific Northwest coast (if anything, it may have put more stress on it). It is 'locked' and due for a major earthquake, perhaps in the order of magnitude 9.0-9.3. Think Japan's huge 2011 earthquake and tsunami mapped onto British Columbia, Oregon and Washington and you have some idea of how serious this is. It will almost certainly cause significant tsunami  flooding in Hawaii, much more extensive than either on Saturday or in 2011 - my guess is a repeat of the famous April 1, 1946 event.

Mother Nature seems to be particularly capricious this weekend.


GK x

"A year of snow, a year of plenty." - French proverb

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