The Ultimate Storm?

Working up the scenario for my Great Christmas Blizzard, which I’ve decided will take place in 2045 (because why not make it take place the same year as the great rogue comet in one of my other stories, right?), I find that my attempt at Superstorm Sandy Deluxe turns into The Day After Tomorrow Lite. Scaling up Hurricane Sandy, multiplying the effects by three as it hangs around for a week as a cut-off low, and having it take place in late December during an already-unprecedented cold wave all combine to make a storm that truly deserves the title “Snowmageddon”.

Hurricane Sandy’s precipitation (liquid equivalent) suggests, with the landfall steered southward to Ocean City, three times longer duration and converted into powdery snow at a 30:1 ratio, snowfall totals exceeding 50 feet for the city of Washington. Snowdrifts would easily be large enough to overtop the Capitol Dome, considering sustained winds are in excess of 100 miles per hour. That would take some deep tropical moisture to bring about, but in this perfect storm, which was a major hurricane in the Caribbean before slamming into the East Coast, there would indeed be such a moisture source.

Brainstorming with ChatGPT, such conditions, combined with the copious lightning and hail, would put the structural integrity of the Washington Monument in serious question; the Capitol, for example, is a low-lying sturdy structure that would be insulated by a big snowdrift, but a tall thin obelisk like the Washington Monument could very well crack open, with a lightning strike during the blizzard quite possibly felling the iconic tower altogether.

New York, meanwhile, would be on the storm’s right front quadrant; like during Sandy they wouldn’t get nearly as much precipitation, but especially in conjunction with the strong high pressure system over Newfoundland this part of the coast (the Northeast US into parts of the Maritimes) would receive the brunt of the storm surge. Easily 20 feet, if not more, with waves on top of that perhaps being at least that high. Whole port towns in Maine could be swept out to sea. All of Lower Manhattan would be submerged (most of New York City is relatively high up, so would be unaffected).

A Blizzard…with Tornadoes

The real danger, though, is the tornado outbreak. As in a hurricane, this sector of the storm is ripe for tornadic instability, which has the nigh-unique feature of occurring while the air is still cold enough for precipitation to fall as snow. Temperatures warm up with the southeasterly wind flow, but they were near all-time record lows to begin with, and the storm is deeply ensconced in an arctic air mass, so the degree of warm-up is limited.

Supercells could come off the water producing snow-wrapped tornadoes. I’m thinking a particularly large specimen, a multiple-vortex tornado of similar magnitude as the 2013 El Reno tornado, will track right over New York Harbor. Due to the cold outbreak beforehand the harbor is already frozen, but the tornado is easily strong enough to loft chunks of ice (already broken up by the storm surge and wave action) out of the water and into the air, forming a thicket of icy projectiles around each vortex. Tracking through Brooklyn and Manhattan, this tornado will destroy a whole swath of the New York skyline…while a hurricane-force blizzard is occurring…and the city is flooded from the storm surge.

Does it sound like the Christmas from Hell yet?

I’m just getting started. Decca Roadhouse’s husband (and Georgia’s in-law), Hernando McThurston, is a storm chaser by passion, having gotten into it after his wife Dymphna was killed by a tornado in Tennessee. By the time this story takes place, a decade or two after “Orphans of Opry Tower”, he’ll be in his fifties. His children Fintan and Fia are in their twenties, if not thirties, and he’s lived a good long life. Hernando was nearly killed by a tornado himself in Mississippi once some years back while storm chasing, causing him to swear off chasing tornadoes outside the Plains.

I was thinking, however, that the superstorm will lure him back in, and he’ll use a tiltrotor aircraft specially designed and enhanced for being in close proximity to tornadoes to track this ultimate dream of every storm chaser. Turns out it’ll be the last storm he ever chases: pummeled with ice, shoved by a downdraft, and faced with the sudden and explosive expansion of the vortices, the storm will prove too much for Hernando, and despite his best efforts he’ll be sucked in, his aircraft ripped to shreds on live television, and him along with it.

Hey, at least he’ll die doing what he loves.

The Desperation of a Christmas Widow

Decca’s husband dying might be what motivates her to undertake a perilous journey to cousin Georgia, as she senses she’s hiding something in her calls to her, and she doesn’t want to take the slightest chance of losing her like she did her husband, all powerless and immobile to do anything about it. Turns out what Georgia’s hiding is her new mysterious boyfriend who came in out of the storm, and Decca’s reaction is a bit of a panicy grief-stricken death wish. It all works out in the end, but it takes the triplets from “Orphans of Opry Tower” to charter a specialized Breitspurbahn train with a nuclear-melter locomotive attached to the front of it, the drill head similar to those used for nuclear tunnel-boring machines (more than hot enough to melt snow), and undertake the journey down the Great Appalachian Valley route to the Shenandoah.

The track doesn’t go straight to Georgia’s house, though. To get there they’ll have to tunnel up what may well be hundreds of feet of snow and emerge onto colossal drifts whipped by 150 mile-per-hour wind gusts, copious thunder and lightning, hail falling horizontally, whiteout conditions, and wind chills approaching a hundred degrees below zero. Oh, and they have to climb a 2000-foot-tall ridge to boot. Even the best polar explorers or mountaineers might consider that to be a suicide mission, and neither Decca nor the triplets answer to that description.

A Storm where you can only navigate with a Vehicle designed for places like Triton

There might be another way, though: in this universe vehicles exist that are designed to use nuclear heat to melt their way through ice and snow, usually in the context of melting down from the surface to the subsurface oceans of icy planets in the outer solar system (e.g. Europa, Enceladus, Ariel). Might the orphans find one and bring it to the Shenandoah, using it to tunnel under the snowdrifts to Georgia’s house up on the mountain?

Even then, there’s some risk. Such vehicles are not designed to face down hundred-mile-per-hour winds and driving snowfall, though they are space-rated, so that shouldn’t be a huge problem. A more serious issue would be how the drifts peak at several hundred feet deep but trough at snow depths that are perhaps just a few feet deep, which would necessitate the melter slide on top of the surface snowpack as it melts it until it hits another drift and can be more insulated from the severe weather conditions.

The level of control Decca and company would have over the vehicle in such instances would be limited; remember, it’s just sliding along without control surfaces or propulsion. Any bump or wind gust that tumbles the vehicle on its side or upside down and arrests its momentum would doom the expedition, since there’s no way to right it; the vehicle is far too heavy to be righted manually, and its design was not weighted so it would naturally fall into the correct position (remember: it’s designed for outer space).

So I’m thinking Decca and company successfully navigate this thing up the mountain, until the last stretch, where they tumble and the worst happens. They bring along arctic gear just in case, and mountaineer their way on up, but are in pretty rough shape when they finally arrive at Georgia’s house, where she takes them in just like she did her ghost-like lover. They all are introduced to each other, and spend Christmas together next to a warm fire during the storm of a lifetime.

How does Decca even get to the Train?

Where exactly Decca boards this train is a bit unclear to me now. I was originally thinking she’d board it at Abingdon, but they get the 100 mph winds and 10 feet of snow; much less severe overall than the Potomac valley gets, but still formidable conditions to ski all the way down from her family’s house to the train track (wherever that even is). Then again, might the vehicle be able to detach itself from the train chassis and melt its way up to where she is through the 50-foot drifts? That would explain that.

Another possibility was Decca traveling in by car from the Sipsey Wilderness of Alabama (where she has her vacation home) to Nashville, where she would meet the orphan triplets and they would then go down the entire length of the track to the Shenandoah.

The Sipsey to Nashville would be a much less formidable route. Less being relative, of course. Temperatures hover around 20 below zero, all-time record lows, and gusts reach hurricane force, but at this point that route has no snow coming from the storm, just cloud cover. Snow that had fallen previously would blow across the road, but regular ol’ snowplows would easily keep it passable.

The real question in that instance is, assuming Decca still has a hot-pink electric convertible, whether she runs with the top up or the top down. Top-down might seem like a madwoman’s gambit in such weather, but if she wrapped herself up a la a World War I airplane pilot she would make it just fine. Alternatively, her car could have a very strong heating system, the vents keeping her toasty warm even in the midst of such a formidable windstream.

Nashville ultimately gets a few inches of snow from the storm; Knoxville more like a foot. But in a place like the Sipsey the weather would be rather creepy; well below zero, strong winds, and cloudy skies galore.

Deep Cold for the Deep South

Which raises an interesting question: what would the outer periphery of this system be like on the cold side really far south, with the strongest arctic outbreak? Tallahassee in the 1899 cold wave reached -2 degrees Fahrenheit (in fact the only time subzero weather has been recorded in the state of Florida), so in a stronger outbreak like this one it’s very possible that subzero cold could extend as far south as Pensacola, right on the Gulf coast. Oh, and it’s worth noting that due to the stormy weather there will be little daily range: it’ll get that cold and stay that cold, day and night, for days before letting up. Gusts reach hurricane force; wind chills hover around 30 degrees below zero.

Subfreezing temperatures would prevail as far south as Miami Beach. Only the Florida Keys would remain unfrosted, and even then only barely; the strong wind currents over warm water will create epic quantities of sea smoke, subsuming the entire island chain in dense fog for the duration of the storm, as winds rip through at hurricane force with temperatures not even rising out of the thirties at Key West. Even Nassau in the Bahamas will fail to escape the forties (in the process being colder than St. John’s, Newfoundland 2000 miles to the north; under the influence of a blocking high it may well be sunny, calm, and 50 degrees there).

These same wind currents over warm water will generate massive bands of ocean-effect snow, forming snow squalls that drape themselves from the Tampa Bay area clear across the state to Miami and the Everglades; the Keys and the Bahamas are pummeled by ocean-effect rain squalls.

New Orleans will fail to escape the single digits, as hurricane-force gusts rip over a Mississippi River that’s sending ice floes into the Gulf of Mexico (this actually happened in 1899, by the way; ditto for the gulf-effect snow in Tampa).

Path of Destruction

Needless to say this would be an apocalyptic event for much of the tropical vegetation across the region; there might not be a single palm tree or citrus plant left alive in the entire state of Florida.

Though interestingly enough, in the southern reaches of the state the heavy snowfall might protect the plants from the worst of the freezes (i.e. those that get down deep into the twenties), owing to snow insulating them so they stay around the freezing point the whole time.

No doubt the Shenandoah, not to mention the rest of the Mid-Atlantic, would experience some substantial damage to the forests and the like as the result of such a severe storm. An awful lot of the vegetation and wildlife just isn’t going to make it.

As for the human beings, although the New York skyline and the Washington Monument are not long for this world, cities in this universe have a robust enough infrastructure deep underground for everyone to take shelter in for an extended period of time. It helps matters considerably that there’s enough transportation capacity to easily permit everyone who wishes to evacuate the region to do so very quickly; those left behind are either storm watchers or truly crazy individuals. As for the places like New York, relatively few people actually live in the city anymore in this setting; the vast majority of the population make their primary residences the countryside, and they just visit the city when it suits them. On a day like that Christmas from Hell, few will be visiting or working in the city.

The combined effect is that there will be far fewer fatalities than one would expect from miles-tall buildings toppling like dominoes right through one of the world’s largest skylines.

Nevertheless, across a huge swath of eastern North America, the impact of this great storm would be unmistakable, one for the ages. The storm of a lifetime: and it’s all coming to Georgia and her fellow characters, right on one comet-graced Christmas…

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