Monday, June 3, 2013

Weather -- or not?

By Mark W. Danielson

Lately, the news has been filled with tragic weather-related stories, and more will certainly follow.  Unfortunately, the United States is subjected to some of nature’s wickedest storms, year ’round.  The good news is drought, tornadoes, hail, flooding, unseasonal temperatures and hurricanes can inspire great story scenes.  To help get it "write", I’ll provide some weather facts that can add tension and realism to any story.

With winter now an afterthought, it seemed a good place to start.  Besides the obvious problems associated with snow and ice, a “Blue Northern” cold front can easily drop the temperature thirty degrees in two or three hours.  Could your character survive if he or she is caught in the open when one of these Arctic blasts blows through?  Add the chill factor from near hurricane-force winds while being cold-soaked from rain or snow and it seems unlikely unless they can find shelter and heat.  Could wrapping them in a freshly killed deer carcass be enough?  Open your mind and put yourself in their shoes to make it real.  If you want to make weather scene more severe, add thunder snow.  Yes, it does happen.  I’ve seen it first-hand. 
While on the topic of thunderstorms, the most intense ones will normally form along the southern-most portion of a squall line.  Squall lines are well-defined fronts like in the photo above that can divide the United States with cloud tops exceeding fifty thousand feet.  These fast-moving fronts produce tornadoes and large hail, even at night.  F-5 tornadoes spinning their two hundred mile-per-hour winds can rip up asphalt, level homes and toss semi trailers like toys.  Add grapefruit-sized hail to this and you have absolute terror.  The tornado that tore a mile-wide swath through Moore, Oklahoma killed twenty-one, yet in spite of its destruction, pets managed to emerge unscathed from the rubble.  My heart goes out to all who are affected by such storms, and yet the resulting oddities such as tables still set when the walls are gone can make any novel pop.  Before you write about tornadoes, I recommend you listen to a recording of one passing overhead.  You will never forget this fearful sound.

Unlike earthquakes, thunderstorms give plenty of warning.  Besides news broadcasts and warning sirens, the sky provides many clues about a storm’s intensity.  Super-cells produce Cumulonimbus Mammatus clouds shown in the above photo.  If you see these clouds, be prepared for large hail or tornadoes as these clouds are the result of a very unstable storm.  A green sky means hail is on the way.  A sky that turns day into night means the air is saturated and severe downpours are likely.  Thunder is the result from energy discharges we call lightning.  Hearing thunder at the same time you see the flash means the storm is directly overhead.  Counting the seconds from the flash to the boom gives the storm’s approximate distance away.  One second per mile is a good rule of thumb.   

Dissipating thunderstorms can produce damaging concentric winds.  To illustrate this, try squeezing a full water bag an inch above a flat surface with maximum force.  Filming this will let you see the water shooting out in every direction.  Isolated thunderstorms can lose their shape quickly once their have dumped their rain, just like the water-bag model.  However, squall line storms can continue to grow even while delivering a killer deluge.

Having dealt with weather throughout two flying careers, I could write volumes on weather and never do it justice.  As a writer, I am sharing this information because when it comes to antagonists, nothing beats Mother Nature.  When writing your scenes, be sure to include her or be prepared to face her wrath.     


Bill Kirton said...

Spot on as usual, Mark. Tension, drama and the subsequent calm are all natural aspects of weather. I've just started the sequel to The Figurehead with a shipwreck scene and when I got to the end of it, I felt I'd been trying to row a longboat through a storm myself.
Of course, other great writers (apart from you and me) also knew the power of weather. Shakespeare, for example, invariably had storms to indicate that all was not right with the world, so we're in good company.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Bill. A story without weather is like a film without music. Your comment reminded me of Jack London -- a true master of the outdoors. Of course, when it comes to drama, no one tops Mother Nature.