Last Friday night the Boston runway looked like an Arctic landing, bits of tarmac barely visible through sheets of blowing snow. I had a good view of the runway with the plane tipping like a seesaw, coming in on the tail of an explosive cyclogenesis, or bombogenesis, media-shortened to a bomb cyclone. This unusual storm had just devoured the East Coast and was starting to clear out, the airport only recently re-opened while still experiencing severe winds, the bay casting bergs of ice into city streets. One of the highest tides on record had flooded a Boston subway station.
I’d rather have taken the storm in its teeth and arrived a day earlier because I do enjoy turbulence. Assuming we could have landed. The horrible bouncing and shudders, stomach acids in your throat, then in your feet. I like it when people around me scream, bonus if the passenger next to me grabs my arm, not wanting to die alone. Planes don’t tend to crash in storms. Weather is a factor in about a quarter of all air crashes, often only one component in a cascade of other predicaments. Planes tend to stay together, they tend to land, and most people go on happily with their lives. The roller coaster ride comes with no additional charge.
The woman next to me on the flight was pale with impending mortality. She told me she’d finally met the partner of her dreams, they were getting a house together. After a lifetime of relationship calamity, it was all finally working out, and she has a book to write. She said it helped to talk as we bucked and rolled for our landing.
I’d rather die on impact, I told her. I didn’t want to drown in an aluminum tube with 200 other people just shy of the runway. She said she didn’t care, keep talking.
I’m not insensitive to the needs of fellow passengers. I just love the world and its storms. The sky is a cabinet of swirling, perilous curiosities. You think you have all your variables nailed down, then you step outside. Doors open to the live, uncontrolled air. Clouds flee overhead on countless errands. To the river, to the ocean, to the sky, there is no stopping the profligacy.
We were about fifty feet off the runway when the engines roared back to life. The plane strained skyward, pressing us into our seats. Escape velocity. Desperate petroleum sucking jets pitched us back over the city. Once the plane regained its dignity, leveling off to swing around for another try, the pilot came on to say that the plane ahead of us hadn’t been able to get out of the way. Thebomb cyclone had cancelled more than 3,000 flights nationwide and everyone was now trying to get in.
In his 1856 book “Philosophy of Weather and a Guide to Its Changes,” Connecticut State Representative and early prognosticator of meteorology T.B. Butler wrote:
“Now, we rejoice in the genial air and warm rains of spring, which clothe the earth with verdure; in the alternating heat and showers of summer, which insure the bountiful harvest; in the milder, ripening sunshine of autumn; or the mantle of snow and the invigorating air of a moderate winter’s-day. Now, again, we suffer from drenching rains and, devastating floods, or excessive and debilitating heat and parching drought, or sudden and unseasonable frost, or extreme cold. And now, death and destruction come upon us or our property, at any season, in the gale, the hurricane, or the tornado; or a succession of sudden or peculiar changes blight our expected crops, and plant in our systems the seeds of epidemic disease and death.”
Sing it, Honorable Mister Butler! Again, I wouldn’t admit to a pathological lack of empathy, but the forces swirling around us keep tapping our shoulders, or beating us with lead pipes. In their wordless ways, they announce there is so much more than the keyboard clattering machinations of our kind. These forces have us at their mercy, and make for the easiest small talk to share with strangers. We all have to face the weather head on.
This bomb cyclone would be a precursor to a weakened polar vortex dropping like a hood over the Northeast. The vortex usually sits on the top of the globe like a halo, and would hemorrhage into an unstable jet stream, letting the coldest air on Earth slide much farther south than it belongs. My destination was the White Mountains in New Hampshire where I’d show up for temps pushing -20 degrees, and I’d have a clear view of Mt. Washington with gauges dropping to a hundred below, possibly the lowest temperature on the planet for that day.
Last time I was near a blown out Polar Vortex was four years ago as I trudged across frozen Lake Superior off the coast of northern Wisconsin. The Arctic atmosphere had migrated fully into the middle of the Northern Hemisphere. I was alone and harnessed to a wooden toboggan that carried a few days of gear for camping on the solid, booming lake. First night on exposed snow and ice, I barely got out without frostbite. After that, I relied on a snow shelter I built, slowly raising the temperature inside from -27 to -10, the entrance dug down and back up like the neck of a drain to keep my warmth from escaping. Every breath outside was through teeth and beard. Forced underground at night, I kept a tea candle burning to warm the space. Its soft light cast across the inside of the shelter, ceiling made of scrape marks from a snow shovel. I lay in my in my bag reading the marks like cuneiform.
Most variables we do our best to skirt around. We’ve got lint brushes, air conditioners, and Poo-Pourri. But weather is on us like a beast. There’s no getting it off. I love the forced surrender. The umbrella whipped inside out. The tingle on the cheeks. The pause before opening the door and stepping into the fray. In Spanish — same in a number of languages — the word for weather and time are the same: tiempo. They are both elements that flow around you and cannot be stopped. Not death and taxes, but time and weather are inevitable. People just about everywhere seem proud that conditions turn on a dime, as if it’s strictly a local phenomenon. Don’t like the weather, they ask. Just wait an hour.
I’m now in the White Mountains, the pilot having successfully stuck our landing to a plane full of applause. The far-sub-zero days I arrived for have already passed. By the time this post is out, temperatures will have risen to 58 degrees. Snow has piled up, and torrential rains are now expected, two inches of precipitation on the way, and within 24 hours we’re forecast back down to -11. Which you’ve got to love, screaming and gripping the arm of the passenger beside you, taking the next magnificent plunge.
Image: NASA, January 4, 2018