07/20/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Constant of Change: Finding Meaning in Storms

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

"It is not a death when [icebergs] melt; it is not an end, but a continuation of their path through the cycle of life," writes Camille Seaman, best known for previous photography of the polar regions, for which she was honored with a solo exhibition, "The Last Iceberg" at the National Academy of Sciences in 2008.

"I don't think there is real death, but instead transformations into something else," she muses, "For example, an iceberg doesn't die. It ends its existence as an iceberg but becomes water again. This becomes the water that we drink, then sweat, turning into a rain cloud, and then an iceberg again. It's interconnected and interrelated."

The melting iceberg, reappearing like a cloud, the cycle of life. In her recent The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit touches, among other things, on ice, the arctic, arctic explorers, her journey to Iceland, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and transformations: "Even decay is a form of transformation into other living things, part of the great rampage of becoming that is also unbecoming. It is cruel, it is death, and it is also life, degeneration and regeneration."

Seaman, a 2013-2014 Knight Fellow and 2013 TED Fellow, in her TEDTalk about Stormchasing on which her recent photography focuses, talks about the constant of change.

And she talks about the interconnection of all life. Seaman, who is from the Shinnecock Tribe of Long Island, tells of growing up communally on an island near South Hampton, New York, and of how her grandfather, when she was a young girl, pointed up to the sky and said, "Do you see that? That's part of you up there. That's your water that helps to make the cloud, that becomes the rain, that feeds the plants, that feeds the animals." The interconnections of all life, of the clouds, its water, to the ground, from the ground to the plants, from the plants to animals and humans, to perspiration, back up to the clouds.

She says elsewhere "because of being raised communally, it wasn't until my mid-20s, I realized the pervasive isolation in western society. It's one of society's great illusions. We aren't alone; we even share each other's molecules."

Such interconnectedness also forms the bedrock of gestures of empathy, of mutual aid, of living with. Schopenhauer, who made compassion a central principle of his ethics, also to critique Kant, wrote: "Compassion alone is the real basis of all free justice." In On the Basis of Morality, Schopenhauer continues on to discuss how it dissolves the boundary between, between people, between beings.

Seaman wonders: "How can we think that we are separate and don't have a great affect? Each one of us has the potential to create a drop in a pond and create a ripple. As a single, it's just a ripple but if there are many of us we create a wave. There is great power in that and in our ability of consciousness."

In 2008, Seaman started storm chasing, focusing on superclouds known as supercells. Supercells are clouds and thunderstorms that can be up to 60 miles wide. They contain a steady and strong upwardly rotating column of air that can rise 65,000 feet into the atmosphere. They can produce spectacular tornadoes, although only 2 percent do. They can drop a large pummeling of enormous -- up to grapefruit-sized -- hail, drench in torrential downpours and whip in strong, damaging winds.

A very tactile experience. Seaman describes being enveloped by the moist air, its denseness, the winds, the undulating, swirling movements, and the colors a supercell brings forth -- of pale greens and turquoise blues -- or, inversely, the sunlight it blocks, turning day into an ominous darkness below.

The same year that Seaman started chasing supercells, "A NASA study in December 2008 found that warming [of more than a degree and a half Fahrenheit] was enough to trigger a 45 percent increase in thunder-clouds that can rise five miles above the sea, generating 'super-cells' with torrents of rain and hail. In fact, total global rainfall is now increasing 1.5 percent a decade," writes Bill McKibben in Eaarth.

In other words, given global warming, supercells will continue to be generated. They are most common in but not isolated to the Great Plains in the United States.

"Change is the one thing that is truly certain and inevitable," Seaman says, "its time we learn to let go and recognize that we are in servitude to each other."

Seaman zooms out to consider how these supercells or clouds refract the same force that helped to create our galaxy, our very planet. Everything is connected. Change is constant. How we respond is an option or an open question.

Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Nation, The Progressive and the Washington Monthly.

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