Excerpt

Storm

George Stewart

August 18, 2021 
The following is excerpted from George R. Stewart's novel, Storm, newly reissued by New York Review of Books. Stewart was a sociologist, toponymist, and founding member of the American Name Society, and the author of more than twenty books, including Names on the Land, available from NYRB Classics.

The new Junior Meteorologist ($2,000 a year) was working at his table. The telephone rang and he answered it mechanically. “Weather Bureau . . . Fair tonight and Wednesday; no change in temperature; moderate northwest winds . . . You’re welcome.” He clicked down the receiver with unnecessary vigor, showing his irritation. In the five weeks since he had come to work in the Bureau, the weather had been inane. Sometimes he wanted to take up the telephone and shout into it: “Blizzards, lightning, and hurricanes!” But as he bent over his table again, irritation oozed away. Instead, there swelled up within him the joy of the workman, of the scientist, even of the artist. For, as he often told himself, his present task was the only one of his daily assignments over which he could work with some degree of calm and detachment. It was not like the hurried preparation of the early morning map upon which the forecasts were based. His present work had its uses, but they were a little removed from the immediate present. On the table lay a large map which he had almost finished preparing.

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It was large not only by its own dimensions but also by its coverage of about one half the northern hemisphere. At its top were the Arctic regions; from these the two continents slanted down—to the right, North America, the left, the eastern portion of Asia. In the center of the map stretched the great spaces of the North Pacific Ocean. The outline of land and sea, the parallels and meridians, the names and numbers of weather stations formed the printed background. Upon this the Junior Meteorologist had entered the current weather data as they had been reported by radio and telegraph, internationally, some hours earlier.

Visitors to the Weather Bureau found such a map confused and unintelligible. But to its maker it was simple, beautiful, and inspiring. Now he was giving it the final revision; with the care of a poet polishing a quatrain, he erased an inch of one line and redrew it with slightly altered curve.

He laid aside his eraser and colored pencils, and sat back to look at the work. Involuntarily, he breathed a little more deeply. To him, as to some archangel hovering in the ninth heaven, the weather lay revealed. Suppose that the telephone should ring and some voice inquire the weather in Kamchatka, upon Laysan Island, or at Aklavik in the frozen delta of the Mackenzie. He could reply not only as to what the weather actually was but also with fair assurance as to what it would most likely be in the near future.

The first sweeping glance assured him that nothing exceptional or unforeseen had happened in the 24 hours since he had prepared the last similar map. Antonia had moved about as he had expected. Cornelia and the others were developing normally. Not at any price would the Junior Meteorologist have revealed to the Chief that he was bestowing names—and girls’ names—upon those great moving low-pressure areas. But he justified the sentimental vagary by explaining mentally that each storm was really an individual and that he could more easily say (to himself, of course) “Antonia” than “the low-pressure center which was yesterday in latitude 175 East, longitude 42 North.”

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The game, nevertheless, was beginning to play out. At first he had christened each new-born storm after some girl he had known—Ruth, Lucy, Katherine. Then he had watched eagerly, hoping in turn that each of these little storms might develop in proper fashion to bring the rain. But one after another they had failed him. Of late the supply of names had run short, and he had been relying chiefly upon long ones ending in -ia which suggested actresses or heroines of books rather than girls he had ever known.

In the five weeks since he had come to work in the Bureau, the weather had been inane. He wanted to take up the telephone and shout into it: “Blizzards, lightning, and hurricanes!”

Upon the present map four such storms stood out boldly—concentricities of black-pencil curves about centers marked LOW the curves sharpening to angles as they crossed certain red, blue, or purple lines. Sylvia was a vigorous storm now centering over Boston; it—or she—had just brought heavy snowfall to the northeastern states and was now moving out to sea, leaving a cold-snap behind. Felicia was a weak disturbance over Manitoba; she had little past and probably not much future. Cornelia was a large mature storm centering four hundred miles at sea southeast of Dutch Harbor. Antonia, young and still growing, was moving out into mid-ocean some 2,000 miles behind Cornelia. In spite of their distances apart, the storms overlapped, and a curved belt of disturbed weather thus extended from Nova Scotia clear across to Japan.

In the western United States, however, and over the adjacent part of the Pacific Ocean the black curves nowhere crossed colored lines or sharpened to angles; they lay far apart and were drawn about points marked HIGH. To the Junior Meteorologist these were all obvious signs of clear calm weather. In the jargon of his trade, this region was covered by “the semi-permanent Pacific High.” He looked at it malignantly. Then he smiled, for he noticed that the High had today accidentally assumed the shape of a gigantic dog’s head. Rising from the Pacific waters it looked out stupidly across the continent. The blunt nose just touched Denver; the top of the head was in British Columbia. A small circle over southern Idaho supplied an eye; three concentric ovals pointing southwest from the California coast furnished a passable ear.

Dog’s head or not—the Pacific High was no laughing matter for California. While it remained, every storm advancing in boldly from the Pacific would sheer off northeastward. A drenching rain would pour down upon the south Alaskan coast and Vancouver Island; a steady drizzle in Seattle and Portland. But San Francisco and the Great Valley would have only cloud, while still farther south Los Angeles would continue to bake in the sunshine. In its actuality, invisible to man’s eye, the Pacific High lay upon the map as clearly as a mountain range—and not less important than the Sierra Nevada itself in its effects upon the people of California.

Far away from the American coast, in the upper left-hand corner of the map, long lines which were close together and almost parallel ran from the interior of Asia southward to China and then curved eastward into the Pacific. To the Junior Meteorologist this too was a commonplace—the visible sign of that great river of wind, the winter monsoon, at work pouring out the cold air from Siberia. He noted in passing that the temperature at Peiping was eight below zero Fahrenheit. With more professional interest he let his eyes follow along those curving lines which ran into the Pacific.

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Here and there in this region as elsewhere in the ocean he saw a little cluster of notations representing the weather reports furnished by radio from some vessel. Over one of these he paused. The ship, 300 miles southeast of Yokohama, had reported a barometric pressure of 1011, but by its position on the map it should have reported about 1012. A difference of one millibar, he realized, was inconsiderable and might easily result from an inaccurate barometer or from a careless reading of the instrument. For these reasons he had at first permitted himself to neglect this particular report. But now he reconsidered.

The ship’s position was about half way between the island weather-stations of Hatidyosima to the north and Titijima to the south, about 200 miles distant from each. But the temperature of the air at the ship was only two degrees warmer than at Hatidyosima, whereas it was twelve degrees colder than at Titijima. This was clear indication that the ship had already been engulfed in the cooler air which was sweeping out with the monsoon, and that somewhere between the ship and the southern island the cooler air which had come from the north would be pushing against the warmer southern air. He himself had already recognized this fact by drawing a blue line, indicative of a “cold front,” from the center of Antonia westward and southward clear to the Chinese coast. Along such a boundary between cool and warm air a new storm was almost certain to form somewhere.

No other ships reported from that vicinity. Glancing at the wind-arrows of the two island stations, he saw that they tended to contradict rather than confirm the reading of the ship’s barometer. Hatidyosima had a northeast wind instead of northwest; Titijima a west wind instead of south or southwest. Practically, he realized, the whole matter was of no importance, but he felt the twinge of scientific curiosity and the challenge of a difficult problem.

Methodically he checked back over the maps of the last ten days, and determined that there had never before been an occasion to doubt the accuracy of the reports from this particular ship. He paused a moment with eraser held above the blue line. The ship’s barometer-reading, he considered, along with the general probability of the whole situation indicated an incipient storm. The failure of the island reports to confirm would mean only that the disturbance was as yet too small to have affected them. This in itself lent a piquancy, for seldom was it possible to spot a storm so close to its beginning.

He erased a little section of the blue line, and drew in a red line at such an angle as to indicate a shallow wave. Then around the crest of the wave as center he drew a black line in the shape of a tiny football; this he labeled 1011, and inside it he printed, in minute letters, LOW. So much accomplished, he again surveyed his work, and smiled. As a baby possesses the parts of the adult, so the baby storm displayed as in caricature the features of a mature storm. The red line symbolized the “warm front” along which the southern air was advancing and sliding over the northern; the blue line symbolized the “cold front” where the northern air was advancing and pushing beneath the southern. The black line shaped like a football was an isobar, indicating a barometric pressure of 1011 around the center of low pressure, symbolizing also the complete circuit of winds around that point. As a baby is without teeth, so also the storm was lacking in some attributes of maturity. But just as surely as a baby is a human being, so also was his new discovery a storm in charming miniature—provided always that he had rightly analyzed the situation.

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For a moment he looked contentedly at his creation, and then glanced over the Pacific, considering the future. The general setup seemed to indicate that in the next 24 hours the new storm would move rapidly eastward. As it moved, it could grow both in area and in intensity; its winds becoming stronger, its rains heavier.

Suddenly his fingers itched for a slide-rule. He remembered his training under professors who considered weather a branch of physics; his own thesis—almost entirely complicated equations—had won him High Honors. Such equations now flashed into his mind with photographic exactitude; they dealt with velocities and accelerations, with the Coriolis force, and frictionless horizontal rectilinear flow. They contained such delightful terms as ½Ait², ΔT°′°, and 2mvω sinφ. To a well-trained mathematical meteorologist they were more beautiful than Grecian urns.

He shrugged his shoulders. The local Weather Bureau had to deal in immediate practicality; there was little need and no time for mathematical abstractions. And besides—he was forced to admit— with data supplied by a single ship and by weather stations 200 miles from the center of activity, the application of highly refined methods was hardly warranted.

The local Weather Bureau had to deal in immediate practicality; there was little need and no time for mathematical abstractions.

With resignation he again turned his attention to the map, and considered the lonely cluster of notations in the ocean. That particular ship, he presumed, had just passed through the area of disturbance. In a few hours it had probably crossed the boundary between warm and cold air more than once, and had experienced changeable but not very pronounced weather. The ship was moving west; the storm, like all such storms, was moving easterly. Ship and storm would not meet again, and yet for a moment the two lingered together in his thoughts. Doubtless the ship would be of interest to sailors, but to him it seemed wholly dull and mechanical. It might be one of twenty built to the same specifications, indistinguishable from the others unless you were close enough to read the name. But the storm! He felt the sudden rise of feeling along his spine. A storm lived and grew; no two were ever the same.

This one—this incipient little whorl, come into being southeast of Japan—would live its own life, for good or for bad, just as much as some human child born the same hour. With the luck of favorable conditions it would grow and prosper to a fine old age for a storm; just as possibly it might languish, or be suddenly annihilated.

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There remained one other detail, and this called for no marks on the map. He must name the baby. He considered a moment for more names in -ia, and thought of Maria. It was more homely than Antonia or Cornelia; it did not even sound like them. But it was a name. And, as if he had been a minister who had just christened a baby, he found himself smiling and benign, inchoately wishing it joy and prosperity. Good luck, Maria!

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Excerpted from Storm by George R. Stewart, published by NYRB Classics, August 2021. Text copyright © 1941, 1947 by George R. Stewart.




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