The first question we always ask is “why?” Why, when the rest of us are hunkered down in our kitchens gathering canned food, water and batteries, are some seemingly-hypnotized people glued to their laptops or preparing their minivans for a hurricane chase?
Self-described "weather weenie" Angela Fritz emailed the Huffington Post with her story of when she first became fascinated by the weather:
My mom tells this story about when I became a weather geek. I was 2 years old and there was a massive thunderstorm rolling through Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. She says I would walk right up to the huge picture window in our living room and press my face to the glass and just stare at the storm through lightning, thunder, wind and rain. I can honestly say I don't remember wanting to be anything else.
In an interview on Monday, Fritz seemed incredibly excited to be in the path of the oncoming storm. “I can hardly leave my computer," she said. "I haven't done laundry, I barely have time to eat. But these kinds of events are why I became a meteorologist. I am in awe of Mother Nature, frightened by the impacts and trying to communicate my understanding with the public all at the same time. I’ll sleep when it's over!”
And Fritz is in good company. She’s currently an Atmospheric Scientist at the Weather Underground, a crowdsourced weather-monitoring service and home to a huge community of "weather geeks." The Weather Underground (also called the "wunderground"), according to Fritz, has only 65 employees but has generated a nebula of tens of thousands of weather-obsessed contributors, bloggers and photographers who occasionally (or more than occasionally) post content and conversation to the site.
The talk is always meteorological, often nerdy and currently electrified with news of Hurricane Sandy. A topic du jour: What kind of storm actually is the so-called hurricane? It started as a tropical storm, was reclassified as a hurricane, and is now being classified as a "post-tropical storm," less devastatingly concentrated than a hurricane but far larger in size. And, of course, that leads to wondering which scenario is preferable: in Fritz's words, a “strong hurricane with isolated but extremely destructive impact” or a “very large but weaker storm that affects most of the eastern seaboard”?
But weather geekery is, by Fritz’s defense, hardly the callous hobby that haters of "weather weenies" claim.
“Meteorologists and weather geeks always get backlash for appearing to ‘enjoy’ an otherwise tragic storm," she told us via email. "I walk the line of being amazed by the power of nature and being terrified of the impacts. When it comes down to it, my ‘excitement’ is always, always put to bed by my fear for people in the path of the storm.”
That’s what keeps her and the other Weather Underground geeks inside even in the midst of the hurricane.
“It's been a dream of mine to intercept a hurricane landfall, but so far in my career a landfalling hurricane means I need to be indoors to communicate it to the public,” Fritz went on to say.
Still, Fritz sites Weather Underground’s recent purchase by the Weather Channel as a sign of hope: “I'm hoping now that we're working with the Weather Channel that I’ll get my ‘day in the rain’ soon.”
But what about the hurricane hunters who are actually out in the storm? For that perspective, we talked to Joshua Wurman, a hurricane-hunting scientist who has been featured by the Discovery Channel.
The Wall Street Journal, which published an article by Wurman on the 29th, gives Wurman’s credentials in an anecdote:
The author is a scientist who “chases” hurricanes. Most recently the author deployed his radar truck on a levee in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, cut off in all directions by flooding, sharing the levee with vicious giant rat-like nutria, cows, horses and alligators trying to escape the flooding, in order to collect valuable data available only inside Hurricane Isaac.
Wurman, who spoke with us via email, says that to hurricane hunters Sandy is a disappointment, more a "Northeaster" than a proper hurricane.
“When we speak about high-end wind events and high-end wind damage, we’re really talking about much more intense storms like Hurricane Andrew, for example, or Hurricane Charlie which had winds upward of 140 miles an hour," Wurman wrote. "That’s the level of winds that can really do structural-type damage. Sandy, though it seems much different if you’re in its path, seems likely to knock down a bunch of trees.”
Wurman's scientific team, which specializes in strictly hurricane-type events, isn’t going into the storm, and he’s pretty sure most hard-core hurricane hunters won’t be diving in either. In an email to HuffPost, he sums up his feelings about Sandy thus:
If I lived in New Jersey and just wanted to go out recreationally, sure, I might take the kids out to a bluff near the beach and we could watch the big waves. But I think you’re mainly gonna get people coming locally and at least some of the people I know who are pretty aggressive about chasing hurricanes recreationally to get photographs or video are not going after Sandy for similar reasons to why the science teams aren’t going in.
Wurman is also skeptical of those in the throes of Frankenstorm hysteria, writing, “[Sandy] may knock down power lines, and of course there’s so many people in this area that if even five percent or ten percent of people lose their power, that’s a lot of people, so it tends to make big headlines.”
But that's nothing, he says, compared to what could be.
“Hurricane Katrina had a 30-foot storm surge. This storm might have a storm surge of 10 feet, but the predictions are under ten feet even though it’s possible. I’ve seen some say 6 to 11, but the expectation is nothing near what a major hurricane would do," he wrote.
Take a look at our big news page for complete coverage of Hurricane Sandy 2012.