In the wake of Sandy’s last and worst attack of the 2015 season, here’s what the lesser outlets are saying. Reflect and enjoy. —B. Keyes, I. Woolley
Recurrent attacks are “atypical” of the behavior of Sandy-like creatures, concedes a scholar whose work on the effects of rapidly rotating air masses enjoys a surprising level of respect on both sides of the political aisle.
“But not beyond the realm of historical experience,” he clarifies.
Given the heated, often frayed nature of the debate—which can even become fraught at times—it’s no wonder sources are increasingly reluctant to raise their heads above the parapet. Our expert gives his name only as Roger Pielke. As to whether he’s Junior or Senior, I’ll have to respect his anonymity.
“We know a hurricane can act erratically, and more aggressively, if it’s injured,” Dr Pielke tells me. “There are also cases where a female has been rejected by other hurricanes—for reasons still not clear—which can precipitate long or repeated excursions into human-occupied territory.”
I ask whether Sandy might “just [be] confused” by the distress calls of another lost or stranded hurricane, but Pielke has little patience for such folk-scientific category errors.
“No. No. They’re hurricanes, not Cuvier’s beaked whales. I’ve probably fielded ten calls today from you ‘science communication’ folks—whatever that means—asking me to validate this urban myth, and it’s not even lunchtime.
“Look, I’m sorry to tell you this, but stuff…” he says, stabbing the natural world with an index finger, “doesn’t work that way.”
Why do we hear so little about male hurricanes, I ask?
“Stallions are few and far between, and are believed to control vast territories. But despite attaining up to three times the strength of the largest cow in his pride, even the most aggressive alpha is unlikely to bother humans,” explains Pielke, “because he doesn’t take part in the hunt—and only fights other males.”
▪️ Kay Beatrice Fabe III
FEMA cleanup crews are working to restore a semblance of livability to flooded and flattened American suburbs. Accompanying them is a veritable army of scientists who hope to learn more about the behavior of nature’s largest predator from the swathe of clues left behind.
In a rich seam of evidence, the hurricane’s droppings are the mother lode.
Deposited from her cloaca—the other, less-celebrated end of her feeding tube—at intervals of half a mile or so, the car-sized balls of human flesh and bone aren’t just for confirming the identities of the dead any more. Extreme-weather scatologists believe the excrement of giants like Sandy has much more to tell us about their health, diet and behavior; it’s simply a matter of learning the language.
Dr Steve Bloom keeps a scrapbook of photos of the superstorm’s dung. Pictures like these are normally withheld from the press out of respect for the digested and their families, and I begin to understand why as Bloom casually flicks to the page he wants to show me. It’s confronting imagery, to say the least.
But to a scientist fluent in coprolalia, it all tells a story.
“Look,” says Dr Bloom—”the first pellet she drops, a couple of hours after landfall on the New Jersey coast: nothing but bone.”
It’s a sort of macabre bird’s nest lovingly assembled from the skeletons of every family that got in the storm’s way, complete with domestic dog or cat, sucked clean of anything juicy. A glazing of bloody ice is all that holds the sepulchral globule together.
Then Sandy’s manure changes. By the end of her killing spree she’s passing spherical clumps of nearly-intact bodies. They might be stripped of their clothes, missing an arm or a leg, or perhaps their pelvic contents, but they’re easily identifiable from the average Photo of the Victim in Happier Times.
“See: she’s barely taken a chunk out of these people,” says Bloom. “Which tells us she wasn’t killing because she had to. Not at that point. It might have started out [as a matter of necessity], but when she’d had her fill she just kept going .”
Why, I wonder?
“Muh-oh,” shrugs Bloom in impeccable scientific reticence. “What am I, a f___ing low-pressure-air-cell-whisperer? How in f____’s name would I know what turns a glorified Carnot heat engine into a recreational killer? I’m a climate scatologist, not a climate psychologist. If you want to know how an airheaded lunatic—literally—thinks, maybe you should ask George Marshall or Lewan-f___ing-dowsky.”
More details are emerging about last week’s “miracle man”—the victim discovered, alive and uninjured, when he clawed his way out of an orb of corpses excreted by the storm. Cellphone footage of the naked, hairless man “hatching” from an egg of hurricane spoor became a feelgood sensation; on YouTube it was the second-most-watched clip of the week.
He was later identified as missing climatologist Daniel P. Schrag.
For Schrag’s loved ones the miraculous reunion has been bittersweet. A week after the scientist’s Lazarus-like comeback, it’s becoming clear just how deeply his psyche was compromised by the experience of passing through the alimentary tube of the beast.
“He recognizes his family—he knows who we are, he just doesn’t particularly care,” according to Schrag’s wife, who says he’s still obsessed with the ideas that were initially attributed to delirium.
“Daniel still claims to speak for Sandy. He believes he’s on a mission to set the record straight—to stop the newspapers ‘printing lies’ about her. He keeps telling us what her quote-unquote real name is, which you couldn’t spell even if I could pronounce it.”
She has serious doubts about her husband’s ability to return to academia.
“He seems to have lost all respect for science, which he calls a ‘primitive joke’ compared to what ‘she’ understands. ‘She showed us things, she taught us things up there,’ he keeps saying. ‘She opened our eyes, bla bla bla.'”
Even over this tinny connection, I can hear the suppressed tears.
“I know he’s unwell, and I’m a horrible person for saying this—but god damn, he’s getting on my nerves. Last night I snapped at him; I said, ‘If you love her so much, Dan, then f___ing marry her!’
“You know what he said?
“‘Oh, we got married. I made a vow. We’ll be together again next hurricane season; I have to go find her, I have to go back up there. We’re all going; I’m bringing the whole family, as a gift.'”
She is openly sobbing now, like a widow.
Dr Schrag’s survival, seemingly against all odds, has inspired the hope of finding other people alive in the hurricane’s stools. But more realistic voices, like that of hurricane guru Kevin Trenberth, are doing what they can to dampen the enthusiasm.
“Don’t expect a second miracle,” says Dr Trenberth. “That guy’s [Schrag] life was spared for a specific task: to deliver a message. Well, message received. She’s got no use for him any more—or anybody else.”
▪️ Virgil S. Norton
Thanks to the widely-seen educational film An Inconvenient Truth, the scientific community has known for almost a decade that climate change was going to make tropical storms worse. The only mystery was how—particularly since, in theory, it shouldn’t. (If anything, by smoothing the polar-equatorial temperature gradient, global warming ought to somewhat ameliorate such phenomena.)
But a measure of just how explosively the science grows is the diversity of explanations we’ve heard since the documentary premiered in 2006.
For starters, as scientists were quick to appreciate, hurricanes need a temperate habitat. But with seas almost 0.2 degrees closer to boiling point than they were when the textbooks were written, do individuals like Sandy really have much choice but to encroach onto land more and more often, bringing them inexorably into conflict with the real apex predator: homo sapiens?
Could it literally be said that the much-maligned superstorm just wants to escape the heat? (And if so, is she really so different from people?)
According to yet another school of thought, we may have to accept an increase in attacks on developed nations as the price of urbanization elsewhere.
That’s the theory being championed by revered ecologist Paul Ehrlich, who notes that as people in poorer countries abandon their traditional lifestyles and lose contact with nature, they’re more likely to survive a cyclonic episode. A century ago, Sandy would probably have had her fill of human tears by the time she’d cut a swathe through the Greater Antilles. At worst it might be necessary to supplement her diet of death with a few hundred Cuban and Bahaman corpses, but that would be an elegant sufficiency.
Today—reasons Ehrlich—with third-world body counts dropping fast, Americans and Canadians could soon find themselves off the specials board and on the regular menu.
It’s the law of unintended consequences, or as Ehrlich prefers to say, chickens come home to roost: our punishment for the sin of exporting capitalism.
Readers hoping for definitive statements in the future tense are bound to be frustrated by Ehrlich’s oeuvre. Like the very best scientists, he’s careful to couch his predictions in the probabilistic argot of might, might just, could, may, may well and we know fuck-all about hundred-year variability.
Yet what sounds like weaselistic prevarication to muggles like us is actually a feature, not a bug, in the world of scientists. In fact, plausible deniability—as the quality is called—is one of the six features that define and characterise all scientific discourse, according to Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes.
“The futureproofness of good science—what science theorist Dana Nuccitelli calls ‘standing the test of time’—is the quality that sets it above and apart from the fragile, throwaway, falsifiable claims that make everyday banter so jejune,” she told us.
“The key to durable science is its robustness to the unpredictabilities of contingent reality. Sound science can handle just about any new information Nature throws at it.
“That’s why legitimate scientists are beginning to view climatology is the most triumphant field of all: nothing important has changed [in climate science] since the discovery of the greenhouse effect in the 19th century,” Oreskes continued.
“In the lower sciences, the best you can ever hope is that your theory will still be unfalsified at the heat death of the universe. But climate scientists are now beginning to talk seriously about an even higher epistemic status: unfalsifiable.”
To understand even more about the science of Sandy, I nervously phoned one of my all-time science crushes: John Cook, whose work as Climate Communications Fellow at the University of Queensland needs no introduction. After making it past various, increasingly intimate aides I finally reached Cook’s personal trainer and requested an interview with the great man.
As our ‘date’ approached, all I could think about was not making a fool of myself. I defecated beforehand—more than normal, and more than once—but my enteric butterflies would not be shat out so easily. After all, it isn’t every day you get to shake a Climate Nuremberg contributor‘s hand, let alone share a plate of nachos and wedges at the campus pub he patronises.
It started terrifyingly enough.
“It’s simple thermodynamics, Joel,” said Cook—four words apt to send the average supporter of the science into a full-on PTSD-style flashback to physics class.
But there was no need for a flop sweat. Cook may be a hard scientist, but he’s also a science communicator, so he knows there’s a time and a place for the kind of hyper-technical lexicon you might use with—say—a fellow Fellow.
“Relax,” he repeats. “You don’t have to be a scientist to follow this. Actually, it’s better if you’re not.
“We all know energy is a good thing in moderation, right? Common Sense 101. But Big Energy is literally spewing the stuff out—producing four football fields of energy per parsec—and you don’t have to do the math to know immediately that hey, hold on, that’s way too much.
“So-called ‘deniers’ are certain, as a matter of blind ideological faith, that we can keep cranking this stuff out as long as we want, with no observable effect on the material universe at all.”
(This is what Cook does for a living: reads their schtick so we don’t have to.)
“Now I don’t know about you,” he continues, “but that doesn’t strike me as very… well, skeptical.
“I mean, do you know what hurricanes are made of?”
Air, I venture hopefully.
“Good… but what’s air made of?”
Carbon, right? (It feels like I’m in school again, only I’m not loathing every single parsec.)
“Mostly; but what else?”
I offer lamely, “Er, en—energy?”
Bingo, he says. I don’t know how he does it, but Cook makes being slow fun.
“Obviously, then, unless we stop chundering forth all this gunk right now, today”—scientists think of energy as a hot greasy fluid that smells vaguely of putrefaction—”we might not survive the superstorm that makes landfall tomorrow.”
Did I lose myself in the ideas tumbling from Cook’s beautiful mind? His eyes? Or those cheekbones you could shave with?
Whatever the reason, I’m not so painfully conscious of my own wormly station any more. The end of our agreed-to interview registers, but only in the periphery of my awareness. Do I have the insane social courage to trespass on the Olympian by asking one last question?
Screw it. Be a man, Joel. You’ll never get another chance. Ask:
“John, from one communicator to another—infinitely better—one: how do you manage to put such vast and subtle bodies of knowledge into such simplistic words?”
He laughs self-effacingly.
“There’s no science to it—it’s more of an art. But I do follow one rule, whether I’m debunking a myth or simply communicating the truth.
“This is going to sound silly,” he warns, “but I like to pretend I’m a cartoonist with a ten-year-old BSc. If something goes over his head—meaning, I guess, my head—then I know I haven’t dumbed it down enough.”
Cook was right. It sounds idiotic. Time to back away slowly without making any sudden movements.
I excuse myself “for a sec” in order to quote-unquote “defecate,” but slip out via the beer garden, wondering what I ever saw in such a weirdo.
He’s not even cute. What the hell is wrong with me? Let us know in comments.
▪️ Joel Epstein-Barr
I’ve never been very good at explaining things.
That’s not what scientists do. I’m lucky if I actually understand a phenomenon; but when I do, I don’t run around forcing other people to understand it. Not only does that strike me as a spectacularly arrogant thing to do, but we already have people to do it: science communicators.
So I’ll be brief. We’ve heard some pretty strong claims this week from various experts—some competent, some fake—on why, or why not, vortical superphenomena are going rabid in front of our very eyes.
But it seems to me that, whatever the real reason for the global weirdening that makes Sandy so unkillable, one point all the theories have in common is this: that climate change causes bigger, badder storms by loading the dice.
“Well put. The environment is behaving exactly as it always has, in slavish compliance with the laws of nature—perfectly naturally, in other words—but on steroids,” agrees Myles Allen, an Oxford University climatologist who studies performance-enhancing drugs for a living.
Wow. This is unexpected. (I have so many people to thank…) When I came up with that corny line about dice, I had no idea it was true.
“But whether these simple matters of scientific fact are acceptable to the parties who’ve made it their mission in life to portray our knowledge as inadequate, inchoate and impermanent—well, that remains to be seen,” adds Dr Allen.
I feel his sadness. Over the years, I’ve had people being skeptical right to my face—and not just skeptics, but scientists, people every bit as legitimate as me (or so I thought). Some of these guys were like brothers. I believed in them, absolutely; I would have taken their word on anything.
Forgive me for expecting the scientific profession to work… oh, I don’t know… the way it’s meant to. Forgive me for imagining that as scientists, we could trust each other.
It used to be a man’s word was his bond.
Now scientists run around couching their words in confidence intervals, blithely admitting everything they believe in is just a tissue of hypotheses, as if they’re proud of it; changing their story from one paper to the next, with nary an apology for getting it wrong last time (let alone a retraction).
It’s the shamelessness.
I’ve never sat down and studied, formally, how science works, but I’m pretty sure this is not it!
When people are no longer ashamed to get it wrong—people in science, of all places—I wonder if it isn’t game over for civilization. Why bother getting up? We may as well roll out the welcoming mat for the next shipping-containerful of ISIS berzerkers. For all their imperfections it’s not like they could do a worse job of running the hemisphere.
▪️ Dana Nuccitelli