Tag Archives: Animate Atmosphere

“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.

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