Naming Storms is a Serious Matter

Author: Amanda Rees


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Detail from cover art for ‘Storm’

Not at any price would the Junior Meteorologist have revealed to the Chief that he was bestowing names – and girls’ names at that – upon these great moving low pressure areas. But he justified the sentimental vagary by explaining mentally that each storm was really an individual and that he could more easily say (to himself of course) ‘Antonia’ than ‘the low-pressure centre which was yesterday in latitude on-seventy-five East, longitude forty-two North’ (George R. Stewart, Storm, 1941)

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George R. Stewart

In autumn 2015, the Met Office/Éireann started to give human names to approaching Atlantic storms – and since then, such named storms have become part of our everyday lives. The Met officials hoped that naming storms would encourage the public to be more responsive to the severe weather warnings with which they were associated, thus minimising any potential public or private disruption. Tellingly, the head of forecasting at Met Éireann, said that naming storms would help the public ‘relate’ to them. In this, they were sixty years behind the USA, which began naming storms in 1953 – following the example of the American historian and novelist of the post-apocalypse, George R. Stewart. His 1941 novel Storm is a biography of the storm Maria, from her birth in the temperature incline above a small island in the Pacific, to her death twelve days later in the American Midwest.

 

Beginning and ending with the still image of the world spinning on its axis in space, the novel provides its readers with an astonishingly complex account of the intersection of human and natural systems, as the storm matures. Besides the life of the storm, it focuses on the behaviour of key characters – the Junior Meterologist, the Chief Forecaster, the Load Dispatcher for the Power-Light Company, the Railroad’s General Manager, the Superintendents of the Road and of Telephone Traffic – but tellingly, refers to them by title, not by name.

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Storm’s named individuals – like the storm itself – are doomed: their stories intertwine and end with the storm’s activities. Individuals are evanescent: systems – and the roles (titles) within the systems – endure, in a way that the noted sociologist Talcott Parsons (whose book The Structure of Social Action had appeared only a few years previously) would have approved. Their role is to ensure that social infrastructure (transport, communication, power) is resilient in the face of threat – so that when, as the Junior Meteorologist muses, ‘a Chinaman sneezing in Shen-si may set men to shovelling snow in New York City’, the shovels, the snowplows and the men are poised to respond. Stewart’s linkage of the sneezing Chinaman with New York snow is only one example of his use of the ‘butterfly effect’, later associated with Edward Lorenz’s 1969 paper and the development of chaos theory. A burrowing chipmunk, a fallen two by four, a splash of cow manure, an owl’s wing: all are tiny agents that Stewart shows can cause much bigger effects – power outages, human death, and the potential derailment of a transcontinental train, were it not for the forethought of the engineers who had built social and technical fail-safes into the system.

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The butterfly effect: a single occurrence, no matter how small, can impact the universe

Storm is in fact a celebration of the quiet heroism of the professional civil servant. Their work keeps social life in balance, refusing to privilege the interests of one group over another, resisting the pressure of corporations and rich society folks to prioritize their needs over that of the small farmers and builders – as the retired General in charge of flood management fumes, “damage to land and crops was real to him, but as a military man he could never quite figure out the meaning of loss of business” – the money not spent today will, he thinks, be spent tomorrow. But the military doesn’t get an easy ride from Stewart either – desperate to pin down his forecast, since getting it wrong could be “a matter of a million dollars’ damage and twenty lives”, the Chief Forecaster longs for a plane to take long range observations. But “if I asked the Navy for a plane, all the gold braiders would laugh their heads off.” The responsibility of an accurate forecast rests heavy – and the language is that of war and battle, despite the disinclination of the official forces to get involved in the fight.

 

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The Donner Memorial State Park in the snow

The Road Superintendent is dedicated to keeping the Donner pass over the Sierra Nevadas open as Maria passes over (although, in what is probably conscious irony, the “refreshment stand [at the Donner monument] was boarded up for the winter”). His anguish when he fails is palpable: “The men gave all they had, but there was something grim about it. You wouldn’t have called it a joyous fight … Superintendent and all – they knew that they had lost the road”. The Power Chief is luckier – his men are able to find and fix the break in the powerlines with only a short period of disruption: “for a moment he thought of calling up and telling Martley to thank the boys for their good job … But he never made the call… Amateurs should be patted on the back, but it cheapened professionals”. Only the professional civil servant can be depended upon to pursue the public good and to acquire knowledge for its own sake: as the Junior Meteorologist muses when offered a job forecasting for the airlines, “a private meteorologist was only another fellow working for a company … When you came right down to it, the air-line people dealt in air-lines; only the Weather Bureau dealt in weather”.

 

And the Junior Meteorologist – ineffectual at dealing with people – is passionately committed to the weather and fascinated by Maria. On the ninth day of her life, she has a baby. As he’s working out the route that Little Maria will take to the east coast and across the Atlantic (eventually to threaten the west coasts of Britain and Ireland), he finds himself thinking “Why, I’ve known your mother since she was a little ripple on a cold front north of Titijima!’”. He is openly affectionate towards the storm, treating it as an individual, comparing its development both to that of a human life (birth, young adulthood, crotchety middle age, approaching death) and to the lives of nations – while ultimately emphasising its existence as a natural system. It had travelled a third of the way around the world and had been larger than the United States – it had transferred heat from the equator to the poles, water from ocean to land and earth from land to ocean. It had killed sixteen directly and many more indirectly. Its consequences, explicit and implicit, were manifold: “The saving of a crop in California might quite possibly lead to bear raids in Chicago, foreclosure in Oklahoma, suicides in Florida, strikes in Massachusetts and executions in Turkey … Only a few entomologists realised that the rain, falling just when it did, destroyed billions of grasshopper eggs, and prevented a plague six months later … It had accomplished all this without being itself catastrophic or even unusual”.

 

Fundamentally, this is a book about how professional, expert systems can and must stretch to manage natural events. Unlike other SF novels dealing with the weather (Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather, 1994) it’s not about the apocalypse – although a few years later, Stewart would produce one of the most impressive and earliest post-apocalyptic accounts of the impact of epidemic disease and the triumph of the wild. It is eerily prescient in its treatment of what we now think of as chaos theory – although not in his dismissal of climate studies as just “endless statistics about dead weather”. But its major impact – largely unrecognised nowadays – was on popular culture, both in this habit of giving major storms female names and in at least one popular song. Don’t you know that they call the wind Maria?

 

 

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