Weather, a force to be reckoned with
Fallback subject of conversation for centuries, fearsome at its most extreme even in the New Forest!
Introductory note: This week Hugh and Mark take a look at a topic close to our hearts which is the weather, often used as a conversational ice-breaker. Imagine a day of driving rain and wind so strong that it could topple our rather stout Prime Minister, you might be greeted with ‘turned out nice again’. It’s the way we English cope; screaming insouciance.
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Weather, a force to be reckoned with
A little while back your scribbler was a flyer, both fixed wing and rotary and as such had to learn about meteorology. Let me tell you this, if you think the omnibus edition of the Archers is boring, try studying met. As your scribe it is my sworn duty never to bore you and so I offer you ‘met lite’. There are clouds of different shapes and sizes that can be found at varying altitudes. They all have their own names which, like naughty pupils, we shall ignore. Instead, we shall concentrate on the most powerful, most feared, most damaging storm cloud, the cumulonimbus.
This is a cloud that kills livestock and damages cars irreparably. Fields of crops can be destroyed in a matter of minutes. It can create flash floods which have swept away cars, sometimes with the passengers trapped inside. In a port in central France, I saw a boat with an awning (sort of a nautical tent) which was peppered with holes. It looked as if it might have been the result of human vandalism but it had actually been nature at her most spiteful. Last year, in the Cornish village of Coverack, sheds were washed from gardens and windows shattered by fifty pence sized hailstones. The cause was the very same cloud which strikes fear into the hearts of mariners, farmers, drivers and flyers alike. The cumulonimbus. The top of this cloud can be as high as sixty thousand feet. That’s eleven miles or the distance from Lymington to Cadnam. This tall column of billowing water vapour and ice crystals has immense power and both amateur and commercial pilots respect it, rightfully so.
Would Sir prefer the hypoxia or the frostbite?
Soon we’ll be allowed to jet off to sunnier climes. Then, as you sip your warm overpriced G&T and look lazily out of your small oval window, you’ll be looking down upon the world from around forty thousand feet. Try to remember that you’re in a hostile place, the temperature outside that little window is around minus forty degrees centigrade. The clouds that you fly through are not made up of water droplets, they’re ice crystals. Also, consider that the air pressure at that altitude is so low that if exposed to it you would quickly become unconscious through low oxygen levels in the bloodstream (hypoxia) and if you remained there you would die. Through the miracle of modern aviation, you can enjoy a bit of Downton Abbey and sip your drink in the safety and warmth of a rather lovely aluminium cocoon. When you see a thundercloud in the distance try to remember that the top of it is at or above the cruising altitude of airliners.
The supreme energy provider
Ultimately, we depend on our boiling sphere of hydrogen for all life here on our earth. Our sun provides everything, well almost. You see it doesn’t provide imagination and it is because air is invisible that for the next part of this article, we need you to use your imagination. The sun gives us heat; remember the last time you were on a hot sandy beach without sandals, hopping and dancing as you made for shade? When you next go for a walk in the forest consider how the sun heats the heathland which in turn heats the air around it which then rises. The moisture in the air will remain invisible until it reaches an altitude where it is cold enough to condense and then, voila, you see it! Glider pilots are drawn to forming clouds like bees to flowering heather because they know there’s lift to be had. The cumulonimbus forms in exactly the same way as other clouds, it’s just more theatrical. Not so much your local amateur dramatic society, more Broadway, more Hollywood.
One thing leads to another
Normally this is the end of the story as the newly formed cloud wanders away (in a lonely manner I presume) to be replaced by others. However, with the cumulonimbus things sort of get out of hand. In the same way that a fractious toddler stuck in a playsuit gets hotter and hotter and more and more fractious, the formation of a cumulonimbus grows quickly and becomes bigger and angrier. These huge clouds are the result of a chain reaction. A chain reaction is something that can be observed by watching your scribbler preparing supper. One glass of wine has an effect so delicious that it is soon followed by another which is equally delicious; and so on. The end game is waking up on a stone-cold kitchen floor at two in the morning. Apparently.
The formation of a cumulonimbus is similar in that when there is sufficient warm moist air the cloud turns into what is in effect a giant vacuum cleaner. As the cloud gobbles up more and more warm moist air it becomes yet more powerful and hungrily draws in even more. This air rises to great heights where it freezes and forms hail stones of varying sizes. The huge updrafts in the centre of the cloud create static energy; you must have felt the effect of static when you take off a crackling jumper. Once the static charge in the cloud is great enough it strikes the earth as lightning and then frightens horses and small children with its thunder. This is the Brian Blessed of clouds, a huge presence that is impossible to ignore.
Eventually this meteorological leviathan which can end up being fourteen miles in diameter and eleven miles high is defeated by its own size. There is no longer sufficient heat energy to hold the enormous weight of water within the cloud. After taking around an hour to form the cloud then collapses dropping biblical quantities of hail and rain upon anyone or anything unfortunate enough to be below it. A cumulonimbus is estimated to carry around one million tonnes of water. It’s hardly surprising that when its life cycle is over and it returns its contents to earth that there can be such havoc.
The next time you hear a forecast which predicts thundery weather, take a look out of your window. If you are lucky you might see one of these anvil-topped monsters prowling in the distance. Imagine that you could be looking at a million tonnes of water and consider the plight of those beneath it. However, if you are out walking and it has suddenly become quite dark and strong unpredictable gusts of wind are coming at you from all directions it might be a good idea to find shelter. If you are playing golf, step away from the bats and brace yourself. Above all, do not invite an early visit to your maker by waving a metal stick at a highly electrically charged cloud. The experience could be rather shocking.
Not many people know that in 1540 Hatchet Pond suffered from a plague of frogs thought to have been delivered in egg form by a large storm cloud. Our natural feature was disfigured by thousands of these hopping blighters. Fortunately, a French chef by the name of Monsieur Cacher le Saucisse introduced the locals to the delights of frogs’ legs. He returned to France with his fortune, never to be seen or heard of again. How mysterious.
Ed note: it's the 1st of April today...
Nature deserves our respect so the next time you see one of these clouds try to remember that our feeble efforts at power generation are no match for our sun. Look to the skies, there are huge forces at work.
More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh
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