Friday, May 16, 2008

PBS: Savage Planet: Extratropical Cyclones

PBS has a syndicated series called “Savage Planet” and on May 13 covered the topic “extratropical cyclones” as if they were capable of producing their own kind of mega-disasters.

Actually, people who live along the mid-Atlantic seaboard know these storms as “noreasters.” The largest of these storms often occur in the late winter, just as spring is trying to arrive.

The show covered the notorious March Blizzard of 1993. It started in the Gulf and flooded communities along the Florida Panhandle much like a category 1 hurricane, surprising residents on the might of March 11. As the film shows, it caught some young people camping in the Smoky mountains with five feet of snow at higher elevations. It moved northeast and created heavy snow, for late in the season, from northern Alabama and Atlanta up through Washington DC and New York, pummeling southern Long Island.

I remember the storm in Arlington. It was around 60 degrees and sunny Friday afternoon, and the thunderstorms came very quickly in the evening. They simply continued and changed into snow, with thunder all night long. Saturday, there were 40 mph winds all day with sleet, and then as the storm pulled away Saturday night there were violent thunder snow squalls that dropped close to a foot of snow in two hours, more than has ever fallen in such a short time in the area. I-95 in south Arlington was actually closed. The next day, Sunday, the crew from Paramount was filming a scene on the snow-covered Mall with Tom Cruise in the film of John Grisham’s novel “The Firm.”

They called this the “Storm of the Century.” Stephen King made up such a fictional storm for his TV miniseries, and had it bury a Maine coastal village in late February, about the most likely time.

Everyone remembers the 1996 January blizzard in DC, but a similar storm in early February that year tracked about 70 miles further south and actually dropped even more snow on southern Maryland and some of Tidewater Virginia.

The second half of the show covered the great 1953 winter “cyclone” that hit England and the Netherlands, starting January 31. The area known as Brighton was devastated by floods, and dikes in the Netherlands overflowed. The bet is that global warming may make these storms more common and a bigger threat to Europe. Or, melting ice caps could disrupt the Gulf Stream and actually send England and northern Europe back into a “little ice age.”

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