Cruising

Climate Change, Sailors and the Flat Earth Society

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Photo courtesy of Robby Robinson

One beautiful afternoon last August I sat on an old-growth cedar stump that had washed up on the beach in a winter storm and watched a blue gale blow up the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The straits are straddled to the south by the aptly named 11,000-foot-high Hurricane Ridge and 20-plus miles to the north by the beach where I sat. In awe. Big brooms of cirrus clouds swept the sky at 40,000 feet, while seven miles beneath, a 5-knot ebb current was running hard against a steady 40-knot breeze. Mother Nature can throw a party when she’s in the right mood. I thought: You wouldn’t catch me out there in a battleship.

There are two explanations for how people get caught out in blows like this: karma, and bad luck. Seas running across 6,000-miles of fetch into that kind of current equals instant chaos: 10-foot vertical waves, five feet apart at their frothing crests, all the way to your next life.

Thirty years ago, when I first started sailing in the Pacific Northwest, summer gales like this were as rare as blue whales and blue moons. The San Juan Islands were renowned as a beautiful archipelago where sailors spent the summer motoring from cocktail party to cocktail party. No longer. Summer gales are commonplace. The one I was watching was the second to come down the pipe in less than two weeks. 

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Climate change. 

I became immersed in the nitty-gritty of climate change while working on a story about cloud physics with a number of atmospheric scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute. One top cloud geek, Anthony Del Genio, had just concluded a large experiment to better understand what was going on inside cumulonimbus clouds, those massive convective formations so familiar to sailors in the tropics. Born between latitudes 25 north and south, these monsters romp around the Earth like they own the place. In a sense, they do. CRYSTAL-FACE, the experiment’s official name, involved flocks of satellites, squadrons of stubby-winged jets and battalions of scientists. The findings, said Del Genio, “blew us away.”

Clouds, it turns out, are the essential language, the nouns and verbs so to speak, of the Earth’s climate. These aerial freight trains distribute moisture and nitrogen to every living thing on our planet, whether a snowflake in the Antarctic or a bead of sweat on my forehead. None of those nouns and verbs, says Del Genio, are more important than cumulonimbus, and they’re becoming more numerous and more intense, every year.

Cumulonimbus clouds begin their dizzying rise from the atmosphere’s “boundary layer” half a mile above your mast. On their way to the troposphere, 10 to 12 miles up, the column of rising air at their core reaches speeds of 200 miles per hour. Surrounding that column is a layer of downdrafts that are just as fierce, all too often leading to what sailors know as “knockdowns.” If you’re lucky. Counter-intuitively, temperatures at the core of these clouds drop to minus 100F. Then the real show begins. Electrical charges build up between the rising and falling columns of air and superheat the surrounding atmosphere to 50,000F. The resulting lightning storms are one of Earth’s primary sources of new nitrogen. 

I interviewed a Navy pilot who flew a jet into the heart of a cumulonimbus cloud to collect data. He told me he encountered “atmospheric hostility so extreme that St. Elmo’s fire danced from wingtip to wingtip, right through the cockpit, while the bird was flipping topsy-turvy though pitch black until suddenly, it spit me out the top like a speck of garbage. Never again!”

I knew the climate-change skeptics—our modern-day Flat Earthers—would be all over me before the presses ran on that story, but I was ready for them with a new approach: do not engage with people exercising their First Amendment right to imitate ostriches.

Today, I no longer call those mysteries “climate change.” I call them climate chaos. That’s more descriptive, more accurate somehow, and sailors the world over know what I’m talking about. We’re on the beach, so to speak, where we can sit on a 500-year-old stump and watch the clouds writing a new climate story for our planet. 

Deciphering that story can be tricky and poses a thorny question for long-distance sailors: how is climate chaos going to alter the way we voyage across oceans in coming decades? That’s hard to say, but models at Goddard offer hints. In coming years: A popular summer cruise will take you over the North Pole. Airflows over continents and ocean currents will shift; they already have. Tradewinds will decrease in the tropical belt, but storms will grow in size, intensity and frequency. The low-lying atolls of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans will be toast. And finally, to paraphrase from one legendary American film: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

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