“Animate Atmosphere: A Basic Guide to Changing Clouds in a Changing Sky” – Fiction by Jeremy Schnee

A Cloud – Konstantin Bogaevsky, 1925

The grand finale of our Fall 2018 issue is Jeremy Schnee‘s marvelously meteorological short story “Animate Atmosphere: A Basic Guide to Changing Clouds in a Changing Sky.” 

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YOUNGER READERS MAY FIND IT SURPRISING that there was a time when clouds were largely ignored. They were mostly harmless, bearing shapely resemblances to other things, or adding background to photos, or shading out sun on hot days. Sure, they could be foreboding, like when you’d turn toward thunderclaps and see an anvil-shaped cumulonimbus barreling through the sky. Only small and specialized groups paid them much attention. Most of us learned and forgot their names in school. Our primary concern with clouds was how they affected our outdoor plans. Simply put, we took them for granted. Then the clouds demanded we take greater notice.

For millennia, clouds were made of water droplets, ice, and mostly simple air. They formed from the blending of warm and cold fronts, from fluxes in moisture, or from disruptions of terrain. We categorized them as cirrus, stratus, cumulus, nimbus, and various hybrids. We had some anomalies too: banner clouds sat like crowns upon mountains; noctilucent clouds looked like scratches on a sunset sky. To common folk they were high or low, rain or not, and sometimes just grouped into the generic description of “overcast.”

Some say these new clouds are due to the changing climate. Some say it is a side effect of humans trying to change nature. Some say the world has simply gotten out of whack, like a record needle drifting a fraction off course. But whatever the causes, and despite the dangers, these are exciting times. The scientific community is abuzz, media ever busy, and much that we once understood about the world is up for debate. Logging is dangerous and paper scarce. Distribution is interrupted. Roads and railroads are no longer interconnected. Pilots now have the world’s most dangerous job. A basic guide must, however, be shared.

Further studies will garner greater scientific understanding, but for the time being this guide is an attempt, a simple attempt to understand.

 

Ice Blotch (Pagosastrape)

The patter of rain and dot-by-dot darkening of sidewalks was once so straightforward. Perhaps a businessman walking to an appointment would use a newspaper to stay dry. A mother would slap rubber boots on her kids and walk them to school. A summer night stroll through rain might even be considered romantic.

We’ve all heard the urban legend regarding one such summer night’s walk: in a small Midwest town, a woman and her boyfriend were holding hands, until she stopped to tie her shoe. She let go of his hand and kneeled. A blue flicker filled the sky. When she stood and reached for his hand again, his fingers shattered. Their frozen crystals numbed her hand, she never regained nerve function in it.         Of course, as this phenomenon has followed many a rainstorm for years now, we know this story to be implausible. If ice-lightning struck within such proximity, she would have been frozen solid as well.

Like its electrical cousin, ice-lightning accompanies nimbus (rain) clouds. The strike comes not from the nimbus, but from a sort of symbiotic relationship. The changing atmosphere sometimes pushes clouds further upward. Nimbus clouds thus occasionally scrape the top of the troposphere (the lowest level of atmosphere and place where 98% of all weather used to occur). Three forces then combine: coalescing water droplets, escaping electrons, and freezing pressure that fuses molecules in a wart-like secondary cloud which forms atop the nimbus.

Though wart-like, the Ice Blotch cloud glows a beautiful radiant blue. When charge separation begins in the nimbus, instead of merely getting lightning, ice discharges too. Strikes are unpredictable. The lightning ripples over wet surface areas. The safest place to be is inside. Roofs and sides of buildings can thaw with no lasting damage. Giant oaks have been encapsulated in ice. A blimp once survived intact, though was grounded by the ice’s extra weight. The situation is rarely so ideal.

People don’t often take proper precautions for Ice Blotches. They huddle under canopies or overhangs. Worse, they hide in small spaces. Cars are often sealed in foot-thick ice sheets. Doors and windows get stuck, vents clogged. Roadways become instant hazards. Ice sheets have caused fender-benders in the triple digits. In a city like Los Angeles, where experience driving on ice is lacking, traffic delays have lasted for days.

On the bright side, the aftermaths can be rather beautiful. Tales of whole towns turning out to skate and sled mid-summer are bountiful. So are acts of heroism from kindly neighbors: if one is unlucky enough to be sealed in a car, sitting inside an ice bubble, looking through the din and savoring breath, there is no greater sight than a mob of people armed with crowbars and pickaxes charging in your direction.

Lava Spews (Thermonephos)

First, imagine a volcano. Imagine splendid grumbles which start below your feet before echoing across the air. Picture hissing smoke and streaks of molten lava. When you picture this, you are most likely a safe distance away. Imagine being closer. Imagine you hang directly above a blazing abyss. No one in their right mind would wish to be in such proximity to an erupting volcano. But the choice is no longer ours. When a Lava Spew travels, other clouds tremble. When they erupt, air ripples with ash and falling lava. The ground rumbles too, more so because everyone around is fleeing for some sort of inevitably flimsy cover.

They are not actual volcanoes. Their cone shapes, soot-lined edges, and smoldering centers give a similar appearance. Their origins are mysterious. We know they start as clouds mutated by carbon. Much as cell division in a body can go wrong, trapped carbon in the atmosphere can cluster into a cloud. The cloud then absorbs other things in the atmosphere. Pollution, ozone, and sunspots factor in, but the main ingredient that fills the giant bladder is the planet’s residual heat. The cloud skims the sky until eventually beginning to sag—giving it the conical shape. Pressure builds and danger comes when the lava pockets burn through the outer barrier and fall as if dropping through a colander.

The Lava Spew epitomizes a great early ignorance regarding new clouds. The slow-moving black cloud crossed into the US off the Pacific. As it passed the Rockies, it picked up weight and moved even more sluggishly. Over Nebraska, it began to glow and garner fans. The orange ambience shone upon the night landscape and people brought music, alcohol, tents. People from all over the country flocked, gathering their belongings and migrating each day for another night of festivities. Farmers complained of the debauchery and litter, but the event was too powerful to stop. The media unfortunately gave the festival more attention than the cloud. Warnings came too late. The Iowa Inferno devastated not only many counties, but eradicated the entire population of the traveling festival.

Some have suggested the cloud is a means of cleansing the atmosphere. Lucky for us, Lava Spews only appear every few years and usually in different areas. The poles seem immune to the phenomenon. Our only defense against this cloud is evacuation. Those caught off guard, unaware, or too stubborn to leave their homes, are left with one option: prayer.

 

Nitronimbus, aka The Yellow Mushroom Mist

One summer night, farmers around the town of Lamsville went to bed with fields bustling full of crops. They woke to blight. Corn and wheat, manicured lawns, bushes, and leaves from trees, all simply vanished. Lamsville looked like a new housing development. The sole explanation came from a man who said he saw through his kitchen window, a giant yellow mushroom fall from the sky. He was ridiculed publicly.

The mystery of the blight became secondary when someone planted common grass and it grew to knee length by the next day. Farmers soon grew lost harvests back. Amateur gardens supplied whole supermarkets. The whole area enjoyed prosperity until winter took the soil’s magic fertility. Nearly a year later, this time during the day, the yellow mushroom fell from the sky again. The townsfolk laughed at their original disbelief and went outside to greet the good fortune. Farmers wanted to see it up close, smell it. Parents sent children to play in it. Others opened doors and invited it in. Many in Lamsville died that day.

When we think of our atmosphere, we think of good old oxygen. Nitrogen actually composes the vast majority of sky. Nitrogen is beneficial to the body and earth. It is also a major ingredient in ammonia, TNT, smog, acid, and fertilizers. Earth used to have a natural cycling effect, much like for hydrogen. Now caustic pockets sometimes form in the mid-stratosphere. These are essentially clouds, although different in that they absorb sunlight and become charged like batteries. Once the cloud overflows with energy, it shoots back into the earth. Anything organic that the cloud touches is rapidly decomposed. The people of Lamsville learned this the hard way. We then learned that places at the crux of major cities, major pollution, or in the Sunbelt were most at risk.

The Nitronimbus travels downward as fast as a car on the highway. On clear days they are seen many minutes prior to touchdown. Of note: painted or finished wood, bark, rock, and even fossilized fruit, survive unscathed. The density of the gas prevents the mist from entering screen windows or cracks under doors. In a pinch, people have survived with minor burns by hiding under tarps or overturned boats.

Though we are helpless against many new clouds, products to guard against the deadly yellow mist are abundant. The most popular is the patented Safety Sphere, a big airtight bag. For farmers, bikers, children playing on the fringes of a playground during recess, it’s a proven lifesaver. It can be carried as commonly as a cell phone or wallet. There are even versions that attach to dog collars. To those unguarded, this cloud can still bring sudden death. Yet after it has passed and the soil is bare and fertile, the Nitronimbus is a nice reminder just how much life clouds can give us as well.

 

Mobile Mountains/Dirt Gatherers

The sky is literally falling. Mix water with dirt and get mud. Mix extra-arid conditions with rare combinations of fronts that hamper atmospheric buoyancy and get a flying mountain.

Colliding fronts cause moisture and uplifts in the air. With erratic wind patterns, sometimes several fronts converge at a single point. Think several faucets pouring into a single funnel. The air has to go somewhere, and that place is up. Moisture formed by the colliding fronts mixes with swirling dust, and then dirt rises in a dancing tower. Truly a perfect balance of elements, the wind can hold the weight until the mud cloud is big as a mountain. When a front loses give, the mountain tends to travel—often at least a small distance. Then one thing we can count on: what goes up must come down.

People have become desensitized to the dangers of these clouds by a few things. Photographs with Mobile Mountains floating above towns or landscapes have become big sellers in the art world. Barring the inconvenience of buried roads or damaged power lines, people on the plains say it’s nice to finally get some elevation on the landscape. Thrill seekers have leapt from helicopters and climbed to the peaks, although most times these adventurers are never seen again.

The main reason people take this cloud for granted, however, is because missiles have decimated a few. If a cloud can be touched, the saying goes, it can be fought. Politicians have championed weapons systems to destroy Mobile Mountains with overwhelming support. Perhaps people just want a sense of control, to scoff at one aspect of the weather again. The one problem is, falling debris from the missile attacks is often equally damaging. Balance is indeed an astounding thing.

 

Banshee Clouds (Anmoskravgi)

The Banshee has much in common with lesser known effects of lightning like St. Elmo’s fire, jellyfish sprites, or upward blasting blue jets. Banshees are produced by otherwise plain white clouds, and this makes them all the more jarring for life below. Few people in the world have ever seen a Banshee in the blast-off phase; most have heard them. One minute a cloud is there, the next it vanishes straight up at supersonic speeds. If distant, the sound can be mistaken for a bird call or a rusty door. Up close, it causes all to stop, look up, and wish they’d seen that marvel commonly described as a glow-in-the-dark meteor, living laser, or jokingly, God’s bottle rocket.

The atmosphere is made up of gases and molecules which make up said gases. Abundant in lower altitudes, they become less common at colder heights. Only helium and hydrogen molecules are light enough to rise past the mesosphere and touch the wall to outer space, the thermosphere. On rare occasions, sometimes a molecule actually attains enough speed to reach escape velocity and overcome earth’s gravity.

Banshees start as salt-sifted clouds which act as nets. They capture helium and hydrogen, and become so crowded that the many molecules collide. Our planet has become saturated with waves for radios, cell phones, and television. These waves cause the molecules to lose stability and become ions. Charged positive or negative, the number of ions grows cumulatively. The whole cloud charges with simmering energy and the previously rising molecules regain their captured velocity, shooting straight through the rest of our atmosphere before disbanding in space.

The blast sounds like a roaring kettle to the hundredth degree. The ions glow vibrant green. Though beautiful, the name implies a hint of devilry. The falsetto scream has been known to shatter glass in mountain homes, or damage floating scientific equipment. The other danger is far less obvious and best explained by what is known as the Winterhorn effect. For two weeks straight, perfect wind patterns carried Banshees to a northern release point over the small town of Winterhorn. Several clouds per day burst with random and chaotic alarm above the town. At first, citizens complained of sleeplessness and irritability. Crime and vandalism rose. Police grew obstinate to outside communication. Tensions rose, and the results of those who didn’t evacuate Winterhorn were bloody and best not described in detail.

Thus, the greatest irony of this fleeting and difficult-to-see cloud is that the achievement of the molecules is so often missed. As single molecules, they are trapped in the cloud, denied both velocity and a chance at escaping the atmosphere. However, when banded in the cloud, adapting and working as if toward a single goal, their momentum is unstoppable.

 

Angel Wings, formerly Immortal Nacreous W

The shape of this cloud stretches not like wings that would adorn a bird or insect, but those seen on stained-windows, paintings, those we’d imagine if upon a man or woman. The one-of-a-kind Angel Wings cloud has been around for thirteen years. It first appeared in northern latitudes. Some months later, it took to the polar jet stream, dipped low enough to gather propulsion, and connected to other fronts. Being a mesospheric cloud, it is only visible when rays of the sun cut around the shadow of earth and illuminate it for a few brief moments after sunset, or just before sunrise. During twilight, the cloud shines against the dark sky in bright white, yellow, or occasionally orange. The cloud also has a rather erratic shifting shape. The wings seem to slowly spread and then close, repeating the process days later. People call it fluttering.

Of course there are explanations. A jostling of turbulence in the atmosphere explains the fluttering effect. The different colored illuminations are due to the many tiny ice crystals in the cloud that change shape and form depending on climate. Speaking of, cold temperatures in the mesosphere have been known to sustain clouds for extended periods. The defining trait of Nacreous clouds is that they only appear during twilight anyhow.

Some religions claim it first appeared in the north and this means it belongs to them. Some claim it came from the east and was only on a journey to linger longest over the birthplace of their religion. In areas where religion is diverse, groups turning out to gaze upon the cloud often also find arguments and clashes. A new religion even sprung up and claimed the Angel Wings were there to lead them on a pilgrimage. The unending journey of the Cloud Bowers eventually dwindled the parish size to zero.

Due to other obvious atmospheric dangers, and the difficulty of reaching the mesosphere, the Angel Wings have never been given a truly in-depth study. As it does for religions, much about the cloud remains a mystery. But all in the scientific community will relent to one argument: Thirteen years is an extraordinarily long time for a single cloud to remain in the sky.

 

Antithesis, or Reverse Clouds

Instead of flowing with wind and moving across the sky, the Antithesis forges a path against the grain. For some time, scientists found these claims unbelievable. The idea of such a cloud seemed an odd hoax, illogical even for our current weather.  Part of the problem is that this cloud is easy to miss. On a clear day, it appears as if any other cloud. Only with contrast does the irregular movement of the cloud become evident.

Sometimes the Antithesis moves against another cloud like a cat brushing against a person’s legs. Usually it strikes like a cue ball and is dispersed on impact. The cloud gains momentum through rotary propulsion. Outer puffs collect wind like sails and spin outside in. To survive headwinds, the cloud is denser than the common cumulus it resembles. Antitheses need moisture and are thus more common above lakes and oceans. Observers in such areas have been known to place bets on ensuing cloud collisions. In other areas, philosophers, poets, and angst-ridden teens embrace the so-called message of the cloud.

Meteorologists have a general understanding of the Antithesis, but its atmospheric purpose remains unclear. One thing people thought they knew was that this was a safe cloud. Often this is true—unless you are a resident of a village that has just been lucky enough to see a Mobile Mountain or Ice Blotch pass overhead, right before an Antithesis slams into such a cloud and sends it flying back in your direction.

 

Sailors

They are clouds; they might be something more. Sailors have the power of navigation. They lack the strength of an Antithesis to move into headwinds, but they can remain anchored in a single spot and are not as bound to altitude as other clouds. They can fall slow as feathers, or swoop up and down like a trick plane. This cloud seems to have an affinity for others of its kind, and the small population in the southern Pacific resembles not an isolated weather anomaly, but a herd. The oddest thing about Sailors is they seem to do as they wish.

First appearing off the coast of New Zealand, farmers and shepherds thought them a peculiar gathering of stratus clouds. When one broke loose from the group and circled lower each day, the country folk began to worry. Then the cloud landed on a cliff overlooking the ocean. People gathered rifles, shovels, and pitchforks. Because of high levels of hydrogen, Sailors are tangible. People who have had the pleasure of touching them say they feel similar to a garden watermelon which has soaked up sun all day. Such warmth and calmness probably caused that mob hesitation, but those men and women had other reasons for halting their attack.

Amongst mist and white, parts of the cloud are like the film atop a lake which allows a water strider to cross, or, like the bubble of liquid that forms above the rim of a cup—a molecular in-between of oxygen and hydrogen. This casts a gleam and reflection. The mob would have had to watch their violent attack on the cloud as if looking in a mirror. The Sailor seemed harmless anyhow, maybe just curious. Others of the kind soon joined the first one. Humble and gentle, Sailor clouds and people alike learned to approach one another. Some are shy. Some seem only comfortable amongst animals or children. Some choose exclusive people to befriend. They require a recharge in the upper troposphere, but for the most part over the years they have migrated along a familiar area on the coast, and no Sailor ever harmed a single soul. In fact, they did quite the opposite.

Climatic chaos soon interrupted the peaceful exchange. Coal ash and pollution from northern neighbors formed one of the world’s largest Lava Spews yet. The path was clear; the burning ball of magma eclipsed the country’s horizon. Then something surprising happened. As the cone encroached upon the landscape and appeared on the verge of bursting, the herd took action. They sped straight at the Lava Spew. Like golf balls trying to sway a tank, they merely bounced off, and some were obliterated in the plume. They reformed, and instead of attacking head on and one by one, the Sailors acted together. They struck from above and forced the smoldering cone into the ocean. The hiss of steam could be heard from a hundred miles off. A small molten island still stands off the coast.

While their numbers dwindled from this incident, we learned that Sailors have a form of procreation. Similar to mitosis, the cloud swells before splitting. The parent cloud stays close after, teaches the child how to feed on moisture and sometimes introduces them to people.

The clouds have an eventual dissipation, and death. They live at least a year and though they can procreate, not all do. Other nations have expressed interest in purchasing a small number of the herd for breeding, and there was a failed attempt at abduction. Sailors had no difficulty outmaneuvering cargo planes and helicopters. After this, people all over the world called for the protection and preservation of the herd. Maybe one doesn’t need to meet them in person to feel something for Sailors. Maybe people just see something in these clouds, something pure and good, and maybe we all want to see more of that.

 

Conclusion

Scientists are still shocked to think that as the new clouds first appeared, people gave them little worry. An ice-lightning strike halfway across the world seemed like nothing but intriguing news. Lava Spews that wiped towns off the map became media tragedies soon forgotten for new happenings. When scientists cried out for change and preparation, people went about their lives as normal. The problem with the first tragedies was that for most other people, these things seemed to happen elsewhere. Almost a tragedy in itself, elsewhere made people feel safe. Elsewhere let them forget. Then they saw a Nitronimbus falling, or heard a Banshee screeching, and were jarred from complacency.

People thought they understood so much, had knowledge at their fingertips, in their homes or pockets. The world seemed small when one could travel anywhere in a matter of hours.  Maybe the rare few still play roulette with a Mobile Mountain. Yet people cannot help but admit the fascination, and more so, confusion, that emerges when discussing Angel Wings or Sailors. One good thing about confusion: we often take a step backwards to assess the situation.

Communities have become more localized. Travel is disjointed. Trips are only occasionally made with purpose in mind. Gardens are both plentiful and necessary. People even raise livestock in cities. With adaptation comes ingenuity. Ideas for alternative homes, transportation, and communication have sprung up in the smallest of places. Since it travels slower, the news seems to have regained some lost importance.

In this volatile atmosphere, humans have again proved a will to survive. Indeed, we’ve had to reconsider the size and power of the world we live in. Though we have regressed in some ways, perhaps we have improved in others. And maybe it is a good thing not to think we know everything, to be a little more like our predecessors. For once again, men and women all across the world quite often just stare up at the sky in partial ignorance, and unending wonder.

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JEREMY SCHNEE lives in Portland, Oregon. His writing has been published in Goldman Review, Conclave, and New Plains Review. Aside from writing, he likes to garden, practice martial arts, and spend time with his family. He recently completed writing his first novel. For more about his writing, and to read articles in his monthly series, ‘My Yesteryear Opinionated and Probably Irrelevant Analysis,’ check out www.jeremyschnee.com.

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