Written by: PATTY BIRCH
One of the biggest changes in hurricane season for me has definitely been the rise of the internet. Thirty something years ago, someone would come back from “town” (Nassau, the capital on New Providence) and bring a few hurricane tracking maps printed on newsprint by one of the local dailies. At some point, someone would let me know, somehow, that it was time to listen to the radio. If I missed an update at the broadcast time, they’d let me know when the next one would be, and I could listen then.
That’s when I would pull out my sharpened pencil, mark the storm’s latitude and longitude, and then put the map aside until the next scheduled broadcast with a new update. If a storm dissipated, I would erase it. If it hit somewhere else, a line would be drawn through the dots, and the name written on the line along with the date. At the end of the season, I’d have a record of storms. A hurricane in another island country would be news, but it seemed to take a long time to find out what actually happened through the coconut wire.
This all seems kind of slow and old-fashioned, much like a rotary dial telephone at this point: laborious and a little ridiculous. Today, I’ve got the internet and NOAA’s tropical weather homepage to keep me connected moment by moment like never before.
At this time of year, you’ll find me on there, a little tired, a little anxious, making up nicknames for the five-day red, yellow, and orange storm graphs. This year, I am likening these systems to some trend that keeps irritatingly showing up in my Instagram feed: produce at the farmer’s market. Ohhhhh! Disturbance, 99L, it’s shaped like an artisanal heirloom Italian vegetable. I’ll call it, the Eggplant of Anxiety. This picture of Wind Speed Probabilities… that could be the Avocado of the Apocalypse. This little orange thing coming off the coast of Africa with a 30% chance of forming as it crosses the Atlantic, sort of an orange chubby root vegetable, isn’t it? I christen you, the Carrot of Chaos.
Ninety-nine percent of these “vegetables” never ripen and never make landfall. Thank goodness for that.
Then there’s the serious part, and I’m all over those Forecast Discussions, Spaghetti Models, and Storm Surge Watch and Warnings like a horse track addict trying to learn as much as possible about a few ponies in an upcoming race. As soon as something starts to bubble up, I’m checking potential: wind shear, water temperature, high-pressure ridges, moisture levels, and intensity models.
I can’t say whether its better or worse than the old days, there’s just so much more information, and it comes so much sooner – I have way more time to start thinking and brooding. Thank goodness there’s always more “ifs” than Uncle Ben has rice.
As sophisticated as it is, satellite tracking still requires the people element, that’s something that hasn’t changed. I think of the men on that Hurricane Hunter aircraft going into a storm to update information, and I keep my fingers crossed, shooting off a prayer into the ether for their safe flight and return. You couldn’t pay me to get into that plane, but I’m so grateful they will.
The internet has also made me more aware of our island neighbours in their own countries further south. Thanks to Forecast Discussions on a storm’s path, I know what’s happening, or just about to happen, in their world. With the internet, I can see it all as it’s raging: wind, rain, flooding, telephones out, trees down. I hold my breath, watching those updates, hoping it veers, breaks up, or moves fast. In the aftermath, I now see right away the actual ramifications of a storm, compared to what used to be just a pencil line on a newsprint map. Videos, pictures… it’s all instantly available and I can start doing something right away. There’s always a group, like Rotary or the Red Cross, collecting donations, clothes, water, any and everything, and I’m always glad to give and I also know they would and HAVE done it for us.
As weather prediction has gotten more sophisticated, there’s more to track and they track it all. Not just Tropical Storms and Hurricanes, but Depressions, Remnants, Post Tropical Cyclones, a whole slew of little x’s, o’s, and swirls, appearing and disappearing all over that Hurricane Centre page. It’s dizzying sometimes to open that page and see four systems at all different intensities all going on at the same time.
For a few weeks, I’m an amateur expert. It’s so riveting to me that I’m always amazed when I find myself preparing for some maybe-going-to-happen storm and someone stateside – who would have never known about our hurricanes in the past – calls and says, “I was just thinking of you because I thought I saw something online about a storm near you.” I could give them the whole history about how it started out two and a half weeks ago as a swirl off the Cabo Verde islands, battled the Sahara dust and a dry air patch over the Atlantic, slowly grew around a strong centre, slowed down its speed, intensified in the warmer water and… but I don’t.
Instead, I just say, “Thanks. I’ll let you know what happens and keep us in your prayers.”
And I know that now, because of the internet, they’ll be watching over us too.