Story 8. Skates Pays a Visit to the South
It was early January in 1973 and Thermo the Flying Thermometer was making another journey across North America. He loved sailing over the snow-covered ground, the iced-over lakes and frozen waterfalls. It was a view he could not get any other time of year. While he soared over the white and sparkling wonderlands, Thermo monitored the broadcasts of the human weather forecasters with the radio receiver Dr. Key had installed inside him. From those transmissions, he knew the humans were expecting some snow and ice in the eastern part of the country, but from the alarming readings on his instruments, Thermo suspected the humans didn’t have the full picture.
Those readings advised Thermo that freezing air was funneling southwestward east of the Appalachian Mountains. He also knew that very moist air was coming northward from the Gulf of Mexico. From previous broadcasts, Thermo had heard meteorologists in the mid-Atlantic and southern states call this phenomenon “the wedge.” From what Thermo could tell, this wedge had the potential of producing a particularly bad ice storm across the Deep South.
Thermo turned on his jets and headed toward Atlanta, Georgia to investigate. Upon landing, he went to work taking more weather observations.
“Yikes!” he said out loud. “The temperature here is already down to 34 degrees, a stiff wind is blowing from the northeast, and my internal dew point meter reads 27. This spells trouble.” With those kinds of readings, Thermo felt that the human forecasters should at least consider the possibility of an ice storm. It sure looked like the making of one to him.
In truth, the state of meteorology wasn’t that great in the 1970s. Weather computers could not yet calculate conditions down to a grid of just a few square miles. In addition, forecasters lacked vital information about air temperatures and moisture content through all levels of the atmosphere, something essential to predicting ice storms. Still, Thermo thought the humans could do better, and wished they would at least warn people of what might be coming.
What was coming was a creature that Thermo had only heard about, a beast that lived high above the coldest clouds and had a reputation of viciously toying with humans during winter. The creature’s name was Skates, and Thermo had a nervous feeling the monster was nearby. Thermo flew up into the clouds to see if he could spot any traces of Skates. What he saw made him shiver not only with cold, but also with dread.
“Oh no,” sighed Thermo. “Skates has been here all right.” Snow was already falling from Alabama to the Carolinas. But if what he had heard about Skates was true, the snow wasn’t going to be the worst part. On a hunch, Thermo flew down to a lower altitude and took a measurement.
“Oh my, the temperature is above freezing here,” he noticed. “That means the snow falling from above will melt into raindrops in this warmer layer of air. If the air below me is freezing, the rain will turn to ice, and a lot of humans are going to be in trouble.”
Thermo dropped down closer to the ground, taking temperature readings all along the way. He was almost to ground level before he noticed much change, and the change disturbed him.
“Just as I feared!” he cried. “The temperature here is below freezing. That means the raindrops will freeze onto tree limbs and power lines and bridges and roads.”
And that is exactly what happened. As Thermo watched helplessly, the freezing rain became heavier through the night and into the following day. He heard the loud cracks of pine trees and saw the flickering of lights as thousands of homes lost power and went dark.
Finally the little thermometer shouted, “I’ve got to do something!” Thermo had a sickening feeling in the pit of his thermometer that, just like with Phoon’s incarnation named Camille, he might possibly prove powerless. As he rose higher, he spied what he was looking for, and it made him cringe. Up ahead was a thin, blade-like, upside-down-pyramid-shaped diamond figure.
“Skates!” Thermo whispered, his voice shaking, not with fear this time, but with rage.
With an evil grin on his cold hard face, Skates was busy feeding more water into the clouds. At first Skates was too occupied to notice Thermo, but the sound of the flying thermometer’s jets gave him away.
Surprised, Skates whirled around and furiously barked in a low and sinister voice, “What are you? I have never seen such a small flying machine way up here.” Then Skates’s evil grin returned. “Why, you’re shaped just like a cake,” he observed with a menacing chuckle. “Maybe you could use a little icing!” The monster advanced toward Thermo.
Thermo was too angry to be frightened. “Stop it!” he yelled. “Stop pouring freezing rain and sleet on the South or I will melt you with my jets, you…you horrible icicle!”
Skates was amused at the boldness of this little thermometer. He let loose a long low throaty laugh. “You funny boy! You have no idea what you are up against, half-pint! I’ll cover you so thickly in ice that you’ll never fly again!” Then the creature reached out to grab him.
Almost too late, Thermo saw that Skates meant business. The ice monster was bigger and more powerful than he, and just as offended. As Skates’s icy tentacles started to enfold around him, Thermo turned his jets on full and made a narrow escape as fast as his engines could take him.
As he sped away, Thermo felt humiliated and helpless, resigned to the truth that nature’s villains would succeed in their dirty work once again. Downcast, the little warrior dreamed of a day when he might eventually make a difference in the lives of the poor humans.
Right now that day seemed light years away.
In the real world, the Great Ice Storm of 1973 across the South occurred January 7-8. It was the result of a combination of Gulf moisture meeting up with cold air forced against the Appalachian Mountains, a meteorological phenomenon called “cold air damming,” or as locals often call it, “the wedge.” One to four inches of ice accumulated, closing schools and leaving 300,000 people without power for up to a week. Of course, the storm was not produced by a malevolent ice creature but was a natural event. This author was an eleven-year-old child at the time, living in the small town of Tignall, Georgia, located about 50 miles south of Athens in Wilkes County. The area was hit hard by the storm. I remember that due to power outages, people stored their frozen food outside to keep it from spoiling. I was pleased to be out of school, but quickly bored from hovering near a fireplace for days with only a couple of books to read. In Tignall the temperature stayed below freezing for nearly a week.
As I recall, none of the TV meteorologists at the time expected the storm. Most forecasters called only for a cold rain across north Georgia. Nowadays, computer models would forecast an ice storm like the one in 1973 at least 48 hours in advance.
An ice storm of such magnitude over north Georgia today would be a disaster of epic proportions. Since 1973, the population of metropolitan Atlanta has grown from less than two million people to nearly five and a half million. Unfortunately, the power line infrastructure has not changed much since the early 70s, and two-to-three inches of ice and sleet would cause massive outages. Even though worldwide temperatures now average about a degree and a half warmer (Fahrenheit) than in the early 70s, it is too early to write off another ice storm for the Deep South.
The Climate Guy
The text and artwork are copyright by Guy Walton. I would like to get this book published. Please drop me a note if you are willing to help.
To see the rest of the World of Thermo stories click: http://www.guyonclimate.com/category/worldofthermo/