One night last week I was awakened by crashing thunder. Rain lashed against the windows, surging with the wind, as if trying to break them.
I got out of bed to take a look. The sky, which should have been fully dark at this hour, was instead only intermittently dark. Lightning flashed so frequently that the sky was mostly light. Although I'm usually one to enjoy a good thunderstorm (from indoors, that is), this storm made me a little nervous. It was battering the house and bending the trees with a fury I have seldom witnessed. For the first time ever, I wondered if we were safe in our upstairs bedroom. Should we sleep downstairs instead, in case a tree might come crashing through the roof?
But by morning, all was calm. The sun shone, and the sky was bright. I stepped outdoors and was pleasantly surprised to see how normal everything looked. A few small branches lay scattered about the driveway, but nothing substantial. I marveled that the dogwood blossoms were still fastened to the trees, that the little pansies in my window boxes had made it through. How could such fragile little flowers survive such a beating?
Sometime during the storm, the electricity had gone out. We were cut off from our usual sources of news, so all I knew of what was going on in the world was what I could see around me.
Later that morning, I decided to go out for a run. I stopped to talk to a neighbor who told me that a tornado had swept up and over our ridge druing the night, uprooting trees, flattening chicken houses and a barn. About a half-mile down the road I talked to another neighbor who had actually heard the tornado charge past at about 3 am. "It sounded just like they say it does," he explained. "Just like a freight train, only without the whistle. And it lasted only a few seconds."
I ran on. Before long, the scene became dramatic, chaotic. Trees, some of them large, lay across the road. A crown of new, green leaves at one end, exposed roots covered with fresh soil at the other end. Some trees still stood, but their trunks had been snapped in the middle. Jagged splinters protruded from the still rooted trunk. And the top portion was folded over, its topmost branches and twigs crushed against the ground next to the rest of the tree. The sweet smell of freshly cut wood seemed out of place; it doesn't belong in a mature forest.
All around was a mess, but an intrepid neighbor was working to make the road passable again. Cutting through the trunks and branches that blocked the road, he admitted he was tired, having been out there with his Bobcat since first light.
Three days later, my husband Andy and I took a walk along the ridge in a different direction, and then down one of our smaller country roads. We'd heard from a neighbor that funnel clouds had touched down there as well. And soon we came upon the evidence. Uprooted trees and severed limbs, thrown by the storm into the road, had been pushed aside and were now resting against the grassy slopes lining the road. Here and there trees stood, minus tops that the storm had torn away.
Here, it was more than trees that had been damaged. A barn, neat and tidy-looking just a few days before, was now collapsed and spread over the grass. Pieces of it were caught in nearby--and not so nearby--trees. Fortunately, the tornadoes caused no human deaths, even though we later learned that the system churned its way up the valley a distance of more than 20 miles.
Since the tornadoes swept through our area, I have heard neighbors commenting about the power of nature and acts of God. But it seems clear to me that these terms no longer fully capture the state of our situation, because now, even our weather is partly man-made. At an accelerating rate, over the last two centuries we have been changing the atmosphere of our planet. And climate scientists have been telling us that the effects of these changes, especially the near doubling of the proportion of carbon in our atmosphere, would result not just in warming, but in an increase of extreme weather events as well.
Over the course of the last year, we have seen many examples of extreme weather. Two of the most dramatic were the crippling drought in Russia and devastating floods in Pakistan. And last week's storm is part of this picture. Our little tornadoes in Virginia were a piece of a southern regionwide tornado system that killed more than 300 people. It was a storm the likes of which have not been seen in North America in 40 years. No, the weather is not what it used to be.--April Moore