Was that thunder?
Pay it no mind, children, it's only trolls playing tenpins in the clouds, Vulcan striking his hammer -- just a common thundershower borne from the west. Go back to your television sets, Pac-Man games and comics.
After all, it has been three billion years since these same thunder and lightning storms split the water vapor, hydrogen, nitrogen, methane and ammonia of the dead primeval sky to rain down free oxygen, the stuff of life.
"That's one of the theories, at least," said Edwin Kessler, head of the National Severe Storms Laboratory here. "You can have lightning discharge in many types of atmospheres -- even the dust clouds of volcanoes are full of them. The primeval storms would've been much like ours today."
The view from Kessler's office window is of a sprawling Southwestern plain where fiesty thunderheads often appear to spin the dials of his instruments and light up the sophisticated Doppler radar equipment. Kessler and his staff have just published a three-volume report on their findings entitled "Thunderstorms: A Social, Scientific and Technological Documentary." The study, available from the Government Printing Office, has application to water management, farming, housing, aircraft routing, tornado prediction and commerce in nearly all its forms. It also suggests, by implication more than statement, the limits of technology in the face of the natural world.
A thunderhead is a bubble of the atmosphere boiling up like water on a stove. Warm, muggy air, heated by the sun, rises in a cell, cools as it gains altitude, then descends in a hail of rain and ice in what is often a 40-mile-an-hour roar. Within the cloud, which sometimes rises 40,000 feet or more, tremendous electrical discharges occur, bombarding the nearby ground with bolts and percussive shock waves.
Even Washington, D.C., so busy with itself at other times, pauses in wonder at this great natural fireworks display, this arriving symbol of Zeus, the Old Testament, Frankenstein's monster and Captain Marvel, this natural model of human dramatics. Awe is warranted: Between 1959 and 1979, 2,210 Americans were killed by lightning alone. Deaths by floods caused by thunderstorms now average about 165 a year, with annual property damage well over $100 million.
"Thunderstorms shouldn't be painted as malicious, although they always seem to be," Kessler said. "It's just that they don't tolerate foolishness well. In Maryland and Virginia you don't have so many flash floods, so the greatest thunderstorm danger is lightning.
"And the old rule is true: don't stand under an isolated tree, don't lean against a barbed wire fence. Most lightning kills by ground effect. The bolt hits the tree, then sends a localized charge of several thousand volts through the nearby ground. If you're standing there, it goes up one foot, passes through your body and comes out the other foot. Being in a car -- or an airplane -- is all right. Of course, a convertible doesn't work.
"It's just common sense, but that doesn't help cattle very much. I've seen pictures of as many as 22 cows killed by a single bolt. Apparently they were huddled together in the rain, touching each other."
Lightning deaths by state during the period 1968 to 1976 were 10 in Virginia, nine in Maryland and one in the District of Columbia. In all of dry California there were only four. But North Carolina had 53, and Florida, with more than twice the lightning deaths of any other state, had 110.
Despite such data, power in our age is less often defined by thunderstorms than by hydroelectric dams, petroleum reserves or Exocet missiles. The natural world can seem much reduced in scope in our mechanical world of air conditioning and Isaac Newton. Until, that is, a single thunderstorm, rollicking down the street like low-flying Go tterda mmerung, gives that presumption pause.
Research published by the NSSL shows that an average lightning stroke represents an energy of 10 to the ninth power of calories, or about 1,000 kilowatt hours' worth.
The kinetic energy of one large thunderstorm, if paid for at the rate of 1 cent per kilowatt hour, would cost nearly $1 million.
In a thunderstorm day in which 2 inches of rain falls over an area the size of Washington, D.C., the latent heat released is the equivalent of 350 Hiroshima bombs.
Dr. Kessler came to Oklahoma for the weather -- they have lots of thunderstorms here. As a result of his laboratory -- and the other facilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--we now know a great deal about thunderstorms and their effects on airplanes, crops, flood plains, insurance rates (U.S. farmers paid $300 million in 1975 to insure their crops against hail) and society in general.
Meteorology, in fact, has become something of a media fad in the United States. In nearby Tulsa, for example, a local television station maintains a staff of three handsome weathermen; every radio station constantly updates its forecasts; NBC's "Today" show treats it as entertainment, with Willard Scott's "weather act"; and cable TV will shortly introduce a 24-hour-a-day color channel devoted solely to forecasts.
The result has been a demystification of weather patterns -- and perhaps an untoward reliance on what Kessler calls "big brother." When everybody knows something about the weather, the implication is that we can now do something about it.
"Actually, I think meteorology has been a little overpromoted," Kessler says. "I myself have a more monastic outlook. Take tornadoes, for example. They are very severe, highly localized phenomena, and in fact they are very rare. The public has now become sensitized to tornadoes quite out of proportion to the threat.
"The fact is, we have no practical way to allay the danger of tornadoes. The best warning device for tornadoes remains your eyes. That doesn't mean we're helpless -- we still have legs, and feet. If you see a tornado coming -- use them."
Man, however, is a rational animal. As we learn more about the weather, we naturally want to control it. The stakes, after all, are high. Can a housing developer build on a flood plain? How strongly engineered does a building need to be against wind? Can clouds be seeded to water crops? Shall we dam our rivers for power and recreation? Can we pave our watersheds without fear of floods? And if we do pave our watersheds, dam our rivers, move onto flood plains -- will the weatherman somehow make it all right?
"The answer to that is that man is not a rational animal," Kessler says. "Man is a rationalizing animal. He also happens to be the most dangerous of all the critters in the woods."
There is some evidence that rationalizing man has worsened the natural violence of thuderstorms. Lightning from storms sets about 10,000 forest fires yearly in the United States. Before civilization, such fires occured in natural cycles, burning off underbrush and contributing to the health of forest stands.
Now, with skilled fire suppression techniques, we are able to prevent many such fires. But when a fire really gets going, it has more fuel than ever -- since ground clutter has been spared regular burning -- and truly cataclysmic fires can result, in which crowns of trees explode in flames and the entire woodland is destroyed.
Flash floods, which typically occur after heavy thunderstorm activity, are now the greatest weather threat in the United States. Eight-five percent of all presidential disaster proclamations relate to flooding, according to the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration.
The flash flood danger seems to be worsening, too: The death toll averaged about 200 per year during the 1970s -- twice the rate of the 1960s and triple that of the 1940s. The increase seems to be the result of urbanization, increased use of receation areas in flood-prone land and the failure of dams.
The worst of these floods have been very bad indeed: Black Hills, S.D., 1972 -- 237 people died when thunderstorms dropped heavy rains, inundating Rapid City; Big Thompson Canyon, 1976 -- 139 dead; Appalachia, 1977 -- 22 dead, $500 million in property damage; Johnstown, Pa., 1977 -- 77 dead; Kansas City, Mo., 1977 -- 25 fatalities; Toccoa, Ga., 1977 -- 40 died, half of them children, when an earthen damn failed, sending a torrent into a mobile-home park.
Studies of many of these disasters show a common pattern of human behavior: People are slow to react to warnings of natural disaster. They not only don't panic, they don't do anything. In the Big Thompson Canyon flood, one Colorado patrolman sent to warn vacationers found it necessary to use flashing lights and his siren to turn back cars headed toward the coming flood.
And when they did flee, many victims did so in the presumed safety and mobility of their automobiles. This was a fatal mistake, as roads often parallel stream beds. In the Kansas City flash flood of 1977, 17 of 25 deaths occurred in cars. Many of the victims of Big Thompson Canyon, one study shows, could have escaped harm simply by abandoning their automobiles and climbing 24 feet up the canyon walls.
Dr. Kessler, as the custodian of this sobering information and as a longtime student of thunderstorms, says simply: "There is a limit to what we can do." There is a limit to the prediction of highly localized storms, for which, he advises, "you have to use common sense. It's still necessary sometimes to look out the window."
In fact, we may be learning -- as a forced lesson of ecology, economics and simple survival -- that our best-laid plans are more grandiose than grand. Artificial rainmaking, once a darling of technological potential, is now pretty much kaput. A headline in the Aug. 6 issue of Science magazine reads: "Cloud Seeding: One Success in 35 Years."
"Yes," Kessler said. "Cloud seeding was really always a placebo for proper water development programs. It was still a very prominent idea just five years ago. Characters like me have dashed those hopes, I'm afraid."
Project Skyfire, a program by which tiny aluminum neddles were dumped in thunderclouds to suppress lightning and hail, has now been terminated, its results uncertain. Project Stormfury, an aggressive plan to seed the outer clouds of hurricanes and snuff out their dangerous inner winds, also has been dismantled.
In the 1950s, an era when many claims were made for commercial rainmaking, a scholarly inquiry was made into the success of Project Whitetop. After five seasons of attempted rainmaking, research data showed an actual decrease of rainfall.
In a way, it is almost a comfort to know that the lavish, outlandish thundersqualls that blast away the tepid nights of summer Washington and Oklahoma alike remain beyond precise prediction and too wild for harness.
If nothing else, they give us reason to quake in our boots at a power beyond our own. Besides, Kessler says, they usually do much more good than harm.
"I'm an amateur farmer, myself," he explained, clasping gnarled hands behind his head, looking up from his charts and statistical tables. "I enjoy working in the fields. The other day it was very hot, and I was about to go and cut some hay when suddenly this warning went off on the television screen, beep! beep! beep! It was a warning of severe thunderstorms. And I thought to myself, if that thunderstorm blows down a barn anyplace, we're sure to hear about it."
"But I went out anyhow. I was looking forward to it. Maybe it would cool things down some. Maybe we'd get some rain out of it. You really can't go through life cringing from natural phenomena, you know."