The buzz about a “bomb cyclone”–sometimes known as a “weather bomb,” but the emphasis on the first word seems oddly apt–off the east coast of the United States served to register shock, but we are hardly surprised by extreme weather any more. Flooding shorelines and blanketing eastern states in snow, in what became the coldest holiday on record, the description of the winter hurricane evoked fears of a strike on the Homeland launched not by terrorist attack but global warming. If the notion of an “oceanic” was famously described and likened to a subjective sense of contact with the eternal, a feeling outside of perceptible limits, the bomb cyclone that appeared in a kink of the Gulf Stream encountered cold air in the Atlantic off the coast of the United States on January 4, 2018, uncorked unprecedented levels of snowfall. ice and tidal flooding, driven by cold, arctic winds over the entire eastern seaboard, from Maine to the southern states. The spread of the storm demanded new visualizations of a powerhouse combination of low pressure and high hurricane winds that may reveal the new relation between the local and the regional. The visualizations of the “bomb cyclone”‘s sudden appearance struggle to capture the huge expanse of its impact as it over doubled in size and intensity in coastal waters–
–that cascaded across a vast array of coastal lands, with an energy that warped weather systems as it moved up the Atlantic coast, gaining increasing disruptive intensity as it moved up the Atlantic coast, so that it may indeed have seemed something like a terrorist plot–weren’t it already driven by increasing rising sea-surface temperatures such as those driven by the Gulf Stream. Rather than a form of weather terrorism, the bomb cyclone seems the all too common casualty of global warming, as extra-tropical cyclones stand to go on the rise.
The collective disorientation to extreme climactic variations over a year of increasingly unpredictable extreme weather–from hurricanes to fires to mud slides in the United States and western hemisphere–introduced new seasonalities oriented to hurricanes and wildfires into common parlance and to the national consciousness, as we now measure our sense of time and risk by seasons of global warming. The new seasons defined the greatest billion dollar extreme weather disasters in American history, costing in toto upwards of $306 billion— a record. The arrival of the “bomb cyclone” that dramatically began 2018 with the threat to cover cities with snow, obstruct transit, pound shorelines with waves, drop temperatures, paralyze the coastline, freeze pipes, and precipitously increase snowfall, condensing climate woes. It was to maps that most turned in order to measure the arrival of cold, but it was also harder than ever to orient viewers to the scattering of snows, swirling water vapor, frozen rain and gusts of wind that spun into being and from the offshore on January 3, 2018.
In part because data visualizations fail to register time, or the immediacy of its arrival, the sudden generation of a new weather system off the coastline was difficult to capture as an event that suddenly changed weather systems across the eastern seaboard, or that registered the relation of its creation–the phenomenon of bombogenesis” with a suitably biblical connotation–to the massive stoppages of traffic, power, and electricity which cascaded spatially across the seaboard, as if to suddenly suggest a new relation of land and sea.
Since Hurricane Katrina, if not before, maps of environmental disasters have increasingly become emblematic not only of poor governance, but of our shared vulnerability to extreme weather. They raise the specter of such inabilities to cope with natural disasters and extreme weather, and the decreased abilities or preparation for natural disasters. And after a year of extreme weather, immediate reactions to the arrival of the bomb cyclone showed not only how poorly the national infrastructure is prepared for the extreme weather that will be the norm of increased climate change, but confirmed yet again how out of step the Trump administration was with the global warming it had been busying denying, in this case with plans to open leasing for offshore drilling in the outermost territorial waters of the United States, in regions of Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) lying over three miles removed from the shores. It was with a spectacularly poor sense of timing that the Trump administration has proudly come to showcase as a new site of ensuring energy independence to the nation.
Indeed, if the past eight years saw the subtraction of large swaths of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from prospective drilling by extractive industries to protect marine habitats, the Trump campaign decided to focus on the exploration of the Outer Continental Shelf, as if it were a new area of exploration and widely expand drilling as a means to unleash the nation’s “vast mineral wealth,” in the language of a con man and swindler, dangling the notion of “energy independence” before an uneasy electorate as if it promised an end to global entanglement.
But in an era of extreme weather, the prospects of extracting mineral resources from the newly expanded offshore regions seem increasingly and increasingly less rosy–and perhaps the very maps of weather challenges the charted the bomb cyclone and winter hurricanes become emblems not only of poor weather conditions, but the inability to govern the very areas of the “offshore” that the Trump administration has prided its ability to extract revenues, as they allow extractive industries to explore the removed continental shelf. Although the new administration has come to map the OCS as an imaginary frontier and potential source of untapped economic wealth, containing 98% of technically recoverable oil and gas lying in national lands, the very viability of that access depends on the continued denial of the actuality of global warming, and of the increased sea surges and coastal waves bound to be increasingly typical of global seas, and to redefine our own coasts and shores. For in enlisting Energy Transfer Partners and Royal Dutch Shell Plc to study sites for natural gas drilling off Louisiana, and to open five-year leases on drilling for minerals and gas off the shore, Trump’s administration has not only allowed the leasing of offshore lands in the name of “energy independence” beyond the Gulf of Mexico, but worked to end the very safety rules of offshore drilling adopted after the BP oil spill of Deepwater Horizon–dramatically increasing the chance of “deadly oil spills,” worried Miyoko Sakashita, director of the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, leaving extractive industries liable for fundamental safety systems for monitoring any equipment failures in offshore rigs. The uneasy waters of the bomb cyclone reminds us of the extent of areas that are now open for drilling along the outer “continental shelf”–a notion of “coastal waters” that really refers to the mineral seabed, previously not open to leasing–and their increased vulnerability to future storms across the oceanic expanse. If the increased area that has been proposed to be opened to drilling–even in the most sensitive of ecosystems–expose the seabed to drilling across the “submerged lands” the lie just beyond the state-owned shelf lying closer to shore, withdrawn from leasing from 2007, when they produced over a quarter of the oil in the United States, suggest a huge windfall for energy companies, who now stand to be able to place bids on offshore lands once more.
While the shuttering of bids on leasing offshore seabed lots from the federal government ended a practice from the mid-1950s of leasing submerged lands in the outer continental shelf, which lie beyond state jurisdiction, the campaign promises of Donald Trump to return to a vigorous leasing program stands to develop the outer “offshore” to tap its mineral wealth, opening the 94% of “submerged lands” closed to drilling to bids–and doing so with far less public oversight over development of areas for oil and gas exploration from state and local government, as well as the public–as well as legislators who have long opposed coastal drilling or ocean stakeholders, rehearsing the familiar argument that such lands were indeed “taxpayer owned” as a basis to “streamline” extraction of oil and gas from the seabed, without regard to underwater canyons, coral reefs, delicate ecosystems, and National Marine Sanctuaries and Monuments in the OCS from potential drilling.
Not that Trump or Zinke had mapped these lands themselves with unbearable vagueness and an apparent lack of attention to local detail: the notion that such “federal offshore” lands were defined as “off-limits to development” was a broadside launched in 2012, as the “technically recoverable federal oil and natural gas resources” were embodied by the American Petroleum Institute as a brief for future prospecting, at the same time as the elimination of $4 Billion of tax breaks for the oil industry was presented as discouraging oil exploration–advocating exploration with a very, very broad brush.
Natural Gas Resources (trillion cubic feet) and Oil Resources (Billions of Barrels) in OCS
If the American Petroleum Institute promoted the image of “vast undiscovered oil and gas reserves” in huge tracts of land lying undersea, in an estimated 89.9 Billion Barrels of oil and 327.5 Trillion Cubic Feet of natural gas, plans for “unlocking offshore energy” were realized by the Trump administration on January 5, to considerable applause from the American Petroleum Institute for making “over 98%” of areas with technically recoverable oil open to drilling.
The remove of regions long intended to be declared part of our national territory to affirm rights of oil and gas extraction seem increasingly undone by the increasingly unruly oceanic areas we once were so quick to claim lay within our sovereign bounds. If the ability of the government to lease these lands was based on the map–and the maps of the removed continental shelf that was absorbed into the national territory in the 1940s, the manner that drilling rights have been waged on maps as it was safeguarded from exploration seemed suddenly questioned by extreme weather events–and indeed raise questions of where responsibility for disruptive events in the outer continental shelf would lie for an oceanic region we have only begun to map for future prospecting.
Yet as winds battered the shores of the Atlantic, dumping freezing sudden snows and arctic air over the region, was the colonization of the coasts with equipment of energy extraction the best idea?
1. The confluence of not and cold weather extremes were predicted to “assault” the eastern third of the United States with more “severe weather,” as a “monster storm will hammer locations from Georgia to Maine” bringing thick snowfalls and precipitous drop in temperatures; as cold air was sucked in from the arctic, a drop in air pressure set of winds that sent record high tides to ram the coast as windstorms snarled holiday traffic across the east coast and rattled nerves–even if it also may have provided yet another instance of . The bomb cyclone “ignited” by the colliding meander of the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream with cold air, creating a dramatic drop in pressure in Atlantic waters, was itself the latest evidence of the dangerous effects weather extremes. In a sense, coming from California and with fires very much on my mind–in specific, the mapping of fires’ spread in Southern California and in the North Bay, whose parched landscapes have helped define a new landscape of combustibility fanned by increased Santa Ana and Diablo winds–the visualizations that sought to provide some orientation on an imbalanced climate was already a focus of attention.
But with particular poignancy, the maps of the sudden air pressure drop seemed to concretely render the actual absence of any center of American leadership on climate policy or climate change, as the steady generation of visualizations of climate imbalances sought to offer some grasp on our increasingly volatile weather combining extreme aridity and intense precipitation, and characterized by warming air temperatures and freezing rain, spinning wildly out of control and sending snows, high winds, breaking waves, and arctic temperatures across the entire eastern seaboard without warning. In an era of forecasts, the bomb cyclone suggested just how much the prediction of extreme weather was becoming impossible: long after the hurricane season’s end, the arrival of a winter hurricane raised a curtain on the dangers of such extreme climactic variability.
The bomb cyclone resulted from the confluence of the warm Gulf Stream and arctic air provides more evidence of increasing climactic instability, high winds, and sea surges across the oceans of an increasingly warm world of weather extremes. While we were assaulted by visualizations of “observed” snowfall analyses when the northeast already faced blizzard warnings and storm watches extended along the entire coast, the human aspect of its creation–or its impact–was increasingly removed for viewers of images on television news, who watched a winter cyclone at the end of the hurricane season, and bringing a foot of snow to much of the east coast, as if metaphorically bury any human presence beneath it, as if to hope they might crawl their way out, like the alligators frozen in North Carolina ponds who stuck out the frost.
The meteorological violence provoked by such a sudden fall of air pressure off of New England has unleashed winds as strong as Hurricane Sandy, and lower temperatures than on Mars, sets yet a new standard for the explosion of climatological assaults. Rather than the southern Gulf Coast, or the west coast fires, or the aridity of the great plains, the climate’s coherence was undone along the eastern seaboard, as a coastline already battered by storms, as a kink in the warm gulf stream met an influx of arctic air. And for one morning, the influx of cyclonic streams of frozen precipitation snowed in the coast, for a few days making the eastern United States and Canada the coldest places on earth–and the sites of the greatest temperature anomalies.
Viewers struggled with the cognitive problem of integrating human experience or presence in the color pallets of the rich data visualizations of the arrival of colder temperatures–and indeed of moving from the global–or regional and continental. Reading the local effects of the huge drop of temperatures and arrival of arctic air after the sudden drop in barometric pressure posed difficulties of coming to terms with the local effects of the pressure of such a regional onslaught of snow local populations–or of putting human inhabitants into the space of the weather map. The problems were reflected, perhaps, in the soundbite of the day that temperatures were colder in Maine than on Mars, or that with windchill, parts of the White Mountains were a full 100°F below zero: the spread of subzero temperatures at a remove from their impact on humans–save, perhaps, in 4,000 cancelled flights on the east coast, a rise in proliferation of traffic accidents and downed electric wires that made heating failures widespread. The plight of the homeless were minimized and most stories punted on their relation to global warming or the burning question of climate change.
Perhaps the arrival of the snow and tremendous drop in local temperatures as a result of the bomb cyclone was just too overwhelming to process as we were faced by snows and sudden drops in temperature, and just wanted to measure their extremity, stunned tat the sudden prospect that this was just the new normal. How to process the plunging of temperatures save with some bizarre sense of irony? The arrival of bomb cyclone was most oddly paired with the sudden announcement of the plans for the expansion of permits for offshore drilling that the government had so opportunely decided to announce at the same time, with a sense of timing that created a bizarre juxtaposition on news feeds. While we are used to tracking hurricanes arrival, or were used to NOAA mapping them in the recently concluded hurricane season that so devastated Puerto Rico, the Gulf Coast, and parts of coastal Florida, the sudden appearance of the pressure-shifing “bomb” suggests the climate is turning against itself without a few hours of prediction window, creating a ” bombogenesis” of a sudden free-fall drop of barometric pressure, disrupting not only the seas, unleashing of blinding snows unheard of save in the High Plains of the Old West, when the fall of snowflakes occurs with such a density to disorient all without shelter, in ways that seem a plague on the populations of homeless and most vulnerable.
The sudden drop in temperature, which meteorologists quantify as exceeding twenty-four millibars in just 24 hours, seemed to immersed much of the globe in a weird unearthly gale akin shimmering rain, suspended in odd patterns over the earth rather than directly falling to the ground, uncorking of hurricane-force winds with gusts of fifty miles an hour and higher brings a sudden smothering that warps space itself. But it must be put in context. The cyclone bomb was an intensely immediate manifestation which occurred to fourteen of the previous 20 hurricane-force wind events in the North Atlantic in the winter of 2014, as wind speeds accelerated beyond historical averages. The eruptions, which occur as cold air masses move over warming waters, and collides with the warm air above a warming ocean, are evident in the higher windspeeds over the warming Atlantic, and while perceived as an acceleration of freezing winds, with disastrous cascading effects of snowfall, arise from our ever-warming seas, by which they are generated–much as the hurricanes over the warming Gulf of Mexico that hit its coast–and of which they are the consequence.
The sudden warping of climatological space takes its spin from the shifting contours of cold and warm air, creating a specific” density” of hurricanes and cyclonic winds that have rarely–if ever been–observed before. In ways that suggest the specific appeal of climate change to the End of Times crowd, bands of deep blues in the visualization above that collapses thirty years mark areas where winds have accelerated to levels above the historical 1981-2010 averages, much as the lower than usual wind speeds over the Pacific Ocean in the same period have helped produce far more dry lands in the western states, than usual, increasing their combustibility to new heights, to the extent that flames are ready to be fanned by the high, hot winds over the central plains. If such models began to be measured to ensure the safer navigation of waters, by NOAA, in an increasingly heavy area of navigational traffic and shipping, the sudden occurrence of twenty hurricane-force events measured between just January and February of 2014 set a record of something like a time-bomb for the increased acceleration of winds today from early morning. Howling winds awoke most east coasters, followed by the noisy grating of clunky snow plows pressed into service to clear accumulated heaps of snow.
Another means of visualizing the increasing transformation of hurricane winds to such episodes of bombogenesis, or immediate pressure drops, must start from the increased anomalies in sea surface temperatures of waters themselves, as sensed with accuracy from satellite measurements of stations of earth observation–remote observational stations of the very sort that the Trump administration sees fit to curtail–which suggest the effects of a growing arctic oscillation sending cool air south from the upper north, cooler waters released from melting ice and polar caps, and rising sea surface temperature in the Gulf of Mexico, central Atlantic, off eastern seaboard of the United States, over the same thirty year period of 1981-2010. If weather anomalies became more apparent for the first time in that period, the changes analyzed in the fall of 2017–just before the election–revealed a troubling record of disparities in sea surface temperatures created something of a schizophrenic palette of sea-surface temperatures–
–based over a thirty-year period in relation to earlier temperature norms, which was only posed to increase in extremes in the most recent prediction of rising temperatures in sea surfaces worldwide for 2017-18, where the cyclones rise due to increased sea-surface temperatures by two degrees C since 1990, seems only poised to increase the juxtaposition or enjambment of cold and warm waters, and warm waters and cold air.
JAMSTEC mid-October forecast of sea surface temperature anomalies for 2017-18 winter season (December/January/February). The boxed region shows La Nina conditions (colder-than-normal, blue) in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and the circled region shows a mixed bag in the northern Pacific. (forecast map courtesy Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology)
It seems significant that we are hear these predictions from Japan–a nation far more rooted in nautical traffic, fishing patterns, warming waters, and sea-level change. It seems almost as if our own remote sensing data has failed us. But it is also evidence of how weather maps have come to illustrate a sense of our unpreparedness and poor governance, and increasingly makes the once neutral tools used to map weather a pointed image of political critique of ungovernability, as much as only as tracking water patterns for convenience or easy consultation on maps. The increasingly powerful content of weather maps as a barometer of political governance–and of mapping social preparedness, as well as personal safety–suggests the extent to which we are all more and more ready to admit our vulnerability to climate change, and the inadequacy of a continued official denial of its existence.
But the problem of mapping the raging winds of the offshore “bomb” whose howling will be heard across the coast, in a climactic culmination of a week of cold days that will dump snow across the easter coast, was felt in perhaps correct ways as an attack on the usually solid weather systems of our nation, and as if the weather systems of the world were now able to be framed as a clear national threat. While its eye was solidly located over the sea, but stream blizzards and gale-force winds across the entire coastal region and far inland, paralyzing motion and reminding us again, as we watch maps indoors on screens, of how interrelated extreme weather conditions are, and help force us to get our minds around the complexity of the cascading effects of climate change. If isolating the wind currents that will be most out of the ordinary seems the primary challenge of needed maps–since it is so hard to measure or render those howling winds, blowing at near horizontal angles across urban canyons, paralyzing traffic and causing authorities to urge inhabitants to remain indoors until it passed.