How to tell if it will snow or not!

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Satellite image from the University of Dundee, January 2010

Usually I end up writing my ‘In Defence of Meteorologists’ posts after negative incidents – namely, when people complain about them failing to have performed their duty as magical future-telling wizards with 100% accuracy…

But this time I’m writing it following a happy incident. It’s snowed in the UK, yes, snowed, in November, and a lot of people are pretty pleased about this, because who doesn’t love snow? However, the inevitable response is actually pretty dismissive of the entire field of meteorology as a result, and it goes something like this: ‘I can’t believe they *actually* got something right for once!’

It seems that even when a good thing happens, meteorologists are still sidelined. What would it take for people to treat the utterly impressive work they do with any kind of respect? I see others rise to defend other areas of public service, such as the NHS, when somebody has had a bad experience and insists on tarring the whole service with that brush, but I don’t see as much of this in meteorology, and it’s probably because people don’t have as much of a personal connection with the field, nor enough knowledge. So, my intent is to change that.

Weather forecasting systems are the supercomputers of our time – they deal with more variables than anything else, with greater levels of uncertainty even than the most tricky field of insurance, and they are awe-inspiring bits of tech. I mean, check out the Cray High-Performance Supercomputer plans that are taking up a huge portion of the Met Office’s investments at the moment.

Cray_Supercomputer_Newecmwf

Here’s an existing Cray supercomputer in the ECMWF offices

The fact that in this day and age we have any kind of way to predict the future at all is stunning. And let me make a distinction – it’s not actually ‘prediction’ – it is ‘forecasting based on probabilities’, because actually knowing what’s going to happen in the future is impossible.

Why is it impossible? You might think that, provided we had all the correct equations ready and all the possible variables of the earth-atmosphere system input into a machine, that we would be able to solve for all future configurations of that data?

Well, no. It’s not that simple. See, especially when it comes to fluid dynamics, there are some non-linear equations, such as the Navier-Stokes equation, with are unsolved in certain areas and this is a pure mathematics problem. Despite the issues with turbulence and flow interactions, however, the weather forecasting services still manage to make truly impressive efforts. And in the future, who knows? In fifty years I imagine we will have advanced even further, and I look forward to returning to this article when that happens, to compare how much better things have gotten. Endless possibilities!

There is much misconception about weather forecasting because of the sheer number of illegitimate reporting being done. The Daily Express is well noted for this, for instance, and other news outlets have been known to issue scaremongering reports rather than reasoned and interesting reports on the actual science being done, which is a shame, because it means that when the Met Office releases something with scientific legitimacy, it is often overload for the non-scientific layperson, who ends up classing it ALL as bogus.

Here’s some starter info from the Met Office on how snow forecasting works. But in addition, I would urge everyone to learn to read synoptic charts (the lovely surface pressure charts with all the cool lines and stuff going on over them). If you do this, it would be well worth your while and allow you to have a clearer idea of what weather forecasters are talking about. Synoptic charts are beautiful, and once you understand thickness lines, you yourself can more accurately understand whether reports of snow are likely to result in actual snow or not.

Met Office synoptic chart for Sunday 22nd November

Look for the dotted lines. They will be either blue or red (note – these are not the lines with the blue spikes or the red semicircles – these are much smaller, thinner dotted lines that may not be apparent on first glance). These lines don’t show up on every graph. If and when you find them. then look for the tiny number reading around this. These numbers tell you what the air pressure is at the top of the air column. In general if it’s above 528millibars, it means you’re probably on a warm patch of air (because warm air rises). If it’s below, you’re likely to get snow (and remember, likely does not equal inevitable). So, based on the above chart:

riskofsnow

This means it’s likely that the part of the world that I live in is likely to experience the snow that those in the UK are experiencing today (since the air mass is moving from west to east). And remember too that thickness lines are one thing, but to get snow you also have to have the right temperature range and the right amount of moist polar sea air coming in.

Thickness lines are a complicated subject. But you can gain a lot just from looking at the areas of highs and lows. In general, areas of Low pressure bring cyclonic weather, where air converges and rises. This is responsible for the tropical thunderstorms around the Equator, and also for the cold and wet batterings the UK gets from the North Atlantic. Areas of High pressure bring cloudless summer weather to the UK, but they also can bring ‘Siberian’ weather in the winter. Cold, dry and icy. Almost the whole inner area of Antarctica, for example, is a constant area of high pressure, and it is the driest place on earth (yes, even drier than the Sahara – it is officially classed as a desert).

So just knowing a.) what season it is and b.) what kind of pressure zone you have overhead can go a long way in aiding you with knowing what sort of weather to expect. Then there’s knowing where the prevailing weather fronts and air masses are currently sweeping in from. Knowing this gives you a real sense of connecting with the complicated and chaotic earth-atmosphere system once you get into it!

On a related note, the UK has a very interesting convergent trough approaching this noon (check out the flecked black line over Cornwall and South Wales – this is cool because usually the circular centres of lows are convergent, so having a convergent line is extra awesome):

convergent-trough

I hope more people get interested in the cool charts available (for free!) from reputable weather agencies. NOAA – the American Oceans and Atmosphere Administration – is also excellent for this, as is the ECMWF – the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, based in Reading.

And if you’re not already using the free Met Office app, you really should have it on your smartphone at all times. It’s great – not only does it give you UK weather forecasts and world forecasts, it also provides synoptic charts (aka surface pressure charts) and satellite data of cloud coverage, temperature readings and rain cover.

Another thing that complicates our weather research is government policy. The Met Office currently gets £117 million to run its service every year. It’s peanuts compared to many other services, such as the NHS (£115 billion), and even the Church of England (£170 million). That’s right. The government spends more money each year on the upkeep of old Church of England buildings than it does on the Public Weather Service… And to make matters worse, because of budget cuts, the BBC has dropped the Met Office’s contract starting next year. The mere fact that they’re opting for an even cheaper service signals the importance of ‘money savings’ over rigorous science, and that is a real shame.

Imagine if, instead of wasting energy dissing meteorologists, people with platforms spent that energy exploring the actual state of the tech, the actual state of the field of weather forecasting? We would surely all become more knowledgeable, more aware, and maybe even lead to more improvements in the field! That sounds like a much better use of time to me.

St Jude’s Storm Approaches

Brace yourselves, Britain: a storm is on its way!

You may have heard about it already. You may be thinking this is a bit much for one week, what with the storm that hit London on the night of the new Thor movie premiere last Tuesday, and what with the torrential rain bands that have swept across these past few days, but we haven’t seen the end of it yet.

If you haven’t check the Met Office and the BBC, who are currently producing the best reports on the event, you should do. There’s some great maps and graphs which show the expected route and rainfall concentrations, and wind speed. The storm is in the process of passing over as I write this, but is due to hit with fullest force on Monday.

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The South of England is said to be the most severely affected, with greatest wind speeds of more than 70 miles per hour. The actual eye of the storm is most likely to pass over Wales and the Midlands, and the whole of the UK is probably going to experience bad weather in general, but currently the strongest estimation of the storm’s course is that the South will suffer.

In an amazing display of coincidence, the storm is falling on St Jude’s Day. Now, St Jude is the patron saint of depression and lost things, so naturally the storm is names after this saint. It’s so poetically British. I love it. I just hope the storm doesn’t quite live up to its namesake!

I am wondering if this constitutes a sting jet, as purely by coincidence I have been reading a lot about sting jets, especially in relation to the ’87 storm, recently. A similar pattern was seen there, and again the South was the first and worst area to be hit.

The ’87 storm was said to be caused by one of these sting jets – a sting in the tail of the cyclone, which at the time was very unexpected and caught even the meteorologists off-guard.

As seen by the ’87 event, storms like this at the end of October are quite common. A large part of it has to do with the way the jet stream is deflected as the seasons change. The changing ocean temperatures as the Northern hemisphere gets colder affects convection, and can cause eddies to form at the polar front (which Britain is in the path of). The boundary between warm and cold air at the polar front is usually wavy (these are called Rossby waves) but eddies can ’pinch off’ and deflect the Jet Stream, which also travels along the Polar Front boundary. This makes anomalous cyclonic weather during October, and that’s the basic mechanics of it.

The Met Office also have a video out which shows the whole thing in more detail (with pretty visuals).
This is one of those storms that I can feel in my arthritic bones. It should be pretty spectacular at the very least, and relatively dangerous at the most.

Just remember the basics – don’t play in flood water, check if you’re in a flood zone (the Environment Agency has all the details) and if you are, don’t leave valuables within floodwater reach! I know for a fact that some train services (like South West Trains) are operating on reduced schedules so don’t forget to check your local services for and changes. Some travel services are actually advising people not to travel at all tomorrow, but that’s a bit optimistic for those of us with obligations like work.

The rain should start soon, tonight, and the full force of the storm should be felt tomorrow morning, especially the early hours. Stay safe!

The Spinning Twins and Bad British Weather

Met Office photo depicting twin low pressure zones locked together over the UK and Europe

Something interesting is happening in our skies.

It may not look like much from down here, where all we can see is a seemingly-endless sheet of stratocumulus, but way up there, a very strange pattern has taken shape.

The What.

Usually our British weather undergoes the following kind of pattern: a single spiral of low-pressure air sweeps in from the sea, usually from Iceland or the Gulf Stream ways, giving us rainy, ‘miserable’ weather. Then a spiral of high-pressure air moves up from Western Europe to give us more amiable weather. We alternate between the two. Which is why Britain is often rainy, with short breaks. Pretty simple.

But since last week, something interesting happened. A low pressure spiral of air passed over the UK – and got stuck. Another low pressure spiral joined it but did not move it completely out of position. Instead the spiral movements of the air sort of provided reinforcement for each other – a positive reinforcement cycle – and kept each other circulating over the same patch of land, namely, Britain and North-Western Europe.

There was even a point on the Met Office charts for late Wednesday night which showed three low pressure zones together over the UK!

While it’s not the weirdest thing in the world for there to be more than one low pressure zone in a weather pattern, it is strange for these zones to maintain each others’ presence in the same location for such a long period of time! It’s been a week now, and the charts indicate it’ll be at least another week before they manage to shift.

Check out the Met Office’s surface pressure animation for the next few days and you’ll see what I mean more clearly.

The Why.

The UK sits at the forefront of the battleground between cold polar air and warmer subtropical air. The line drawn between the two is called the Jet Stream; you’ve probably heard of this thing before in the news every so often.

Well, something the Jet Stream does is it undergoes these oscillations: wave-like patterns which make it change position. You might have heard of the North Atlantic Oscillation (hint: it’s also the name of a band) but what we’re going to focus on here is the Arctic Oscillation. Now, when the oscillation is in one phase, the Jet Stream may be located further up to the north of Scotland, drawing up warmer air over most of Britain; when the oscillation is in another phase it may be located closer to London, pushing down polar air over most of Britain.

A positive oscillation pattern is ideal – this basically means the waves in the Jet Stream are low, so it’s a lot calmer and more like a straight line, and weather is more regular. A negative oscillation is not so good. This means that the waves are much bigger in scale, so the undulations are a lot deeper and weather is more chaotic.

At the moment we’ve got what we call a neutral oscillation – which is not ‘no oscillation at all’, as you may think the name implies, but rather means it’s mid-way between positive and negative. And it’s been trending more and more towards the negative over the past decade.

This set of spinning twins is an example of this in action. The Jet Stream’s effectively turned into a Big Dipper, and a couple of low pressure zones have gotten entangled in one of the dips – right over our heads here in the UK. Lucky Britain, eh?

The Bad.

We should be operating under warmer weather more typical of British Summer Time now – and we did experience a nice unusual warm period almost a month ago now. Remember those numerous cloudless days before all this bad weather kicked off? Again, this was due to part of these natural oscillations, in which the waves were placed so that warm, high pressure Mediterranean air got ‘stuck’ over our heads for almost a week (but you never hear talk of oscillations when the weather’s good).

That warm period was a boon for plant life, and now plants seem to be suffering from this unexpected cold in many regions. Especially after another cold winter , the poor things aren’t doing too well! Same goes for animals – lamb birthing etc.

And of course, rain tends to ruin people’s outdoor plans! It’s not nice either for those with arthritis or something similar. Time to bring out the warm socks again in many cases!

The Good.

It’s probably time to admit that this is one of my favourite kinds of weather. With low pressure zones, especially when it’s got a good old combination of cold, warm and occluded fronts all bundled up together, you get a huge variety of clouds. It’s a cloud smorgasbord. Every day I have been able to revel in an array of dramatic cloudscapes, from the puffiest of cumulus towering in intensely sunlit skies, to wispy cirrus preceding walls of blanket-grey stratus clouds. Bands of rain that sweep over in only a couple of hours or even minutes, allowing you to gaze upon the raincloud leaving, with fibrous, veiled tendrils of rain trailing beneath it like some sacred shroud. Unexpected rainbows against cauliflower backdrops, huge anvil nimbuses with mammatus udders, the strangest shades of blue at sunset.

Anvil headed nimbus cloud with mammatus 'udders' hanging beneath
Anvil headed nimbus cloud with mammatus ‘udders’ hanging beneath
Strange blue skies at sunset against a creamy cloud backdrop
Strange blue skies at sunset against a creamy cloud backdrop
Storm cloud trailing virga, or wisps of rain, beneath it
Storm cloud trailing virga, or wisps of rain, beneath it
A grand cumulonimbus capillatus incus over South London
A grand cumulonimbus capillatus incus over South London
Dramatic cumulus cloudscape
Dramatic cumulus cloudscape
A natural cloud stripe
A natural cloud stripe

 

It’s beautiful.

If you need some more convincing, just check out this luscious slideshow from the BBC, displaying recent lenticular clouds over Yorkshire.

So it’s hard to tell how long it’s going to stay like this, but it isn’t forever. If anything, when the next high moves in, we will enjoy and appreciate it all the more.

 

SNOWPOCALYPSE – DAY 4

I was in a blizzard today in London!

If you were also in a blizzard or had any other form of snow today, then you may wish to enjoy SNOWPOCALYPSE DAY 4!

If you weren’t lucky enough to have snow, then you may enjoy a brief digression into SNOWPOCALYPSE DAY 4!

DAY 4.

The blizzard hit during the early hours of morning.

By the time it was over, Egbert and friends were up and ready to obtain the various forms of nourishment they had said they would obtain the night previously. The coldness of the dawn made them shiver and groan and Egbert noted how much like zombies they seemed.

Outside there was now another murderous two inches to the snowfall from the previous day.

Cider Sy went down to the pub alone to get the beer drums, leaving Egbert and Jimmy to go and get food. Mistletoe was staying in, filling up the bathtub with fresh water and speed-sewing fleecy draught blockers for the doors.

Out on the streets, the story was much the same as the previous day. Egbert and Jimmy weaved and ducked between and behind things like abandoned cars, lampposts and post boxes to avoid being too obvious. The lamppost thing did not work too well; while Jimmy was just about thin enough to get away with it, Egbert was most certainly not. They had just ducked behind one particular lamppost when a policeman further down the street clocked them.

‘Quick!’ Jimmy grabbed Egbert’s hand and dragged him into the nearest alcove. By pure chance, it was the alcove of a newsagents and they hurried in, cursing the tinkle of the shop door as they did so.

‘How handy,’ Egbert murmured, but it was a moment too soon, for the bobby’s helmet was bobbing up and down outside the window. He was dragged around one of the aisles by Jimmy and they raced to the back of the rather small and cosy shop, squishing themselves into the narrow space below the counter.

The door tinkled again. The policeman had entered.

They waited with bated breath. The sounds of footsteps came closer and closer until soon they could see the policeman’s boot on the other side of the desk.

Egbert balled his hand into a fist, getting ready to attack should he need to, but before it came to that, there was a loud noise and another loud noise. His delayed-onset interpretation soon became Oh god it’s a dog! Oh hey, it attacked the policeman, he’s yelling! He’s going out of the shop! We’re saved!

But no sooner had they scrambled out of their hiding place than the dog had turned its attentions on them.

‘I don’t want to hang around to find out who the owner is, do you?’ said Jimmy.

‘No. Let’s just grab stuff, pay and leave,’ Egbert replied.

Dodging the incessantly barking dog all the while, they took an assortment of things off the shelves, after which Jimmy started heading for the door. She turned to see Egbert dump a load of coins and notes on the counter.

‘So you were really serious about the paying part, eh? Interesting.’ And with a flash of her golden hair she was out the door. Egbert followed her, leaving the dog to bark its angry solo out to the tinned peas and mackerel.

They managed to avoid trouble on the way home, but had to take a somewhat circuitous route to do so, for there was a gang congregating further down the street from Egbert’s house. This route led them further in the direction of Egbert’s office before doubling back and heading home, and he wondered briefly if the other Berts were still holed up in there. What had become of Cuthbert, and his bag of salt?

The whole world had gone crazy. Egbert was glad to get home, and by chance, Jimmy and he arrived at the same time as Cider Sy, who had brought back an armful of scampi fries along with the empty drums.

*

By the time they got inside, they discovered Mistletoe had found an old wind-up radio from her Luddite phase and managed to get radio reception. Only Radio 1 was working, and the news was not quite what they had expected.

It emerged that the Prime Minister had died in the morning snowstorm, caught between Number 10 and the Houses of Parliament. What was once a short walk had ended up a death march, and now the country was leader-less. Well. Unless they still counted the monarchy, who were all still holed up in Buckingham Palace, which they didn’t.

A scuffling sound roused them from their meal. Egbert hoped it was not more trouble headed their way, and no doubt everyone was thinking the same thing, for they all fell silent. The scuffling continued, getting louder and more erratic. Mistletoe hesitantly got up without scraping her chair on the floor, and peered out the window.

‘No way!’

‘What is it?’ Jimmy hurried over to join her. ‘Hah! It’s loads of gritters, look.’

Egbert and Cider Sy joined them.

‘Militant gritters are out in force,’ murmured Cider. ‘Oh, that’s going to make the evening news.’

‘They’re fighting a losing battle,’ said Egbert with a noticeable trace of irony. ‘It’s definitely going to snow again tonight, with the clouds like that. A couple more inches and they won’t be able to overcome the terrible freezing foe.’

The snow suddenly began to tinkle down again, and the flakes became bigger and faster until soon they could barely see a metre out the window.

‘Wow, well it’s tonight already,’ said Mistletoe, ‘and it’s only lunchtime!’ Egbert groaned.

‘Okay, okay. No weather forecast is perfect!’

As the snow began, there was a deep, ululating hum and they realised the gritters were singing. The sound was haunting, and it carried on and away into the street, whisked away on the blanket wind, merging and lapsing into the now more common sounds of rampant gangs and human chaos.

The whiteout lasted the rest of the day. It blocked the radio signals, it blocked their vision, it stopped everything dead still until all they had left to do that day was eat scampi fries and put on extra pairs of socks. Egbert was afraid, but he tried not to show it. Yet again, he wondered what had become of the other Berts. Cuthbert and his grit –  had he now joined the gritters? He hoped so – there was safety in numbers. The other Berts – it was unlikely that they had reached their homes further South.

What would they all do if the snow did not stop tomorrow?

He supposed the whole escapade was still better than filing claims forms, at least.

 

SNOWPOCALYPSE – DAY 3

The madness continues…

DAY 3.

Egbert awoke on an unfamiliar sofa. He was draped in blankets, jumpers, towels; an assemblage of warm fabrics, and none of them were his. He looked to his left and saw a crop of short golden hair sticking out from a blanket. Oh. Jimmy. The looting. The snow. Of course.

It all seemed unrealistic still, and he had to check that the snow chaos had really happened as opposed to the more realistic and also more disturbing scenario that, filled with grief after his girlfriend had died, he had ended up in a strange girl’s bedroom.
Nope. The snow was a legitimate excuse for his situation, he told himself. And besides, they had not even so much as shaken hands let along touched.

He tiptoed over to her meagre kitchen. Surely it would be okay to raid the tea and coffee making facilities? She shouldn’t mind, especially not if she was woken up to a nice hot brew.

Jimmy woke when the kettle started roaring. Egbert made her a strong coffee and then set to making a milky one for himself, watching the anticyclonic spiral action of the liquid as he stirred in the milk. His mind was still up in the clouds.

There had been more banging and shouting in the night. More groups loitering in the streets outside. It was not really safe, he felt, and Jimmy felt so too.

‘I don’t want to spend another night here alone,’ she said, a kind of pout crossing her lips.

‘Well I don’t want to spend another night here at all,’ he replied.

‘No offence, your flat’s fine, but the location’s not so good. It’s right next to the markets. It’ll be a magnet for trouble.’

A fresh chorus of voices started up on the streets outside. He heard sirens, for the first time since the snow had begun.

‘What’s going on out there?’ Jimmy strained against the window to see.

‘Looks like the police have finally arrived,’ said Egbert. Then his face fell. Policemen were tackling rioters and looters, but it looked like ordinary people were getting drawn into the mess too. It looked too violent for comfort.

Soon came a knock at the door. Egbert dashed over to pick up the pointy umbrella again, and yelled a barrage of angry curses at whoever was doing the knocking.

‘It’s the police,’ came the responding shout.

‘It’s okay, we’re fine. We don’t need any help,’ Egbert replied. Behind him, Jimmy mouthed the words ‘I don’t trust him.’

‘I don’t care. We’re evacuating the building. This is a danger zone. You have to come with us.’

Egbert and Jimmy were silent.

‘Okay, stand back,’ said the policeman. ‘We’re going to break the door down.’

Egbert looked at Jimmy. ‘Is there any other way out of this flat?’

She pointed to the window. ‘Yes. There’s some stairs outside there.’

‘Okay. Let’s do it.’

They scrambled into their coats. She lifted the window and they squeezed out onto the narrow spiral staircase below. It took minutes but felt like aeons. When the door was finally kicked in and the flat entered, they had just reached the bottom of the staircase. It took Egbert a quick recalculation of streets and back alleys, then he pulled her along. ‘We can hide at mine for now.’

She nodded and followed him numbly.

*

‘Oh Eggy, you’re okay!’ Mistletoe gave him a big hug the instant he entered the house. ‘Ooh, who’s this?’

‘Name’s Jimmy,’ said Jimmy proudly. ‘I hope you don’t mind if I camp out here for a while? Police broke into my flat and stuff.’

Mistletoe nodded. ‘Wow. Yeah, sure. We have a spare room here and everything. Our last housemate moved out a while back. Is that cool?’

Jimmy nodded, smiled, and a bond of friendship formed between them. Then Mistletoe turned her attention back to Egbert.
‘So, where were you all night?’

‘I had to stay at Jimmy’s,’ he said. ‘We got followed by this gang. It’s murder out there.’

Cider Sy picked that moment to walk in.

‘Murder? Oh yeah, sure. All fifteen centimetres of it.’

‘Quit your snowcasm, Egbert almost died!’ Mistletoe said.

‘Really?’ Cider Sy raised an eyebrow.

‘No, that’s an exaggeration. I almost lost my footing a number of times, though.’ Egbert sighed and automatically ate the crisps Mistletoe passed him.

They got Jimmy settled in to the spare room, then they set to making dinner. The power cut out halfway through so they had to settle for a half-cooked pasta dish, for once thanking their lucky stars that Mistletoe had requested it be veggie food. They ate in the living room, dimly lit by candlelight, and tried to use the remaining battery on their mobiles to gain access to the news.

It was hard to find and maintain a connection. In the end, they managed to ascertain three things. One – that the Mayor of London had shut himself up inside his home and was refusing to come out. Two – that the Royal family had done the same thing. And three – that according to the Prime Minister, this snow situation was ‘unprecedented’ and had led to the mobilisation of all police forces across the country. And that was it, before all connections cut out. The age old question of whether Android phones did internet better than iPhones became obsolete as neither would operate with any degree of efficacy.

‘Well, Cider Sy announced, ‘England seems incapable of handling the two feet of snow it has been dealt, so it’s come to this.’ They waited expectantly. ‘We need some kind of plan,’ he finished.

‘Like what?’ asked Egbert.

‘Like, some way of getting food and drink and that until this is over.’

‘What kind of drink, eh?’ said Mistletoe. ‘You know your pub’s just down the road.’

Egbert groaned. ‘I have visions of spending the rest of this snow fiasco camped out there like a stereotypical British apocalyptic comedy film.’

Cider ignored him. ‘Oh I don’t need a plan for booze. That’s sorted. But – looking at the contents of the kitchen – I fear there is only so much Pot Noodle I can take.’

‘Good point,’ said Mistletoe.

‘The streets will be crawling with cops and robbers,’ Egbert began, and was promptly interrupted by Jimmy.

‘Bet you’ve been itching to say that!’

‘ – so anyway we should get out early, find some shop and if it’s empty, we leave money on the counter and take what we need.’

‘Fair enough,’ said Cider. ‘I was going to say I can just get stuff from work but I guess there’s only so much pork scratchings and scampi fries I can take too.’

Soon they were all in agreement. The following morning would be an early one. They would try to beat the crowds to the shops, and would fill the bath with fresh water in case it were to run out. Cider would pick up some spare drums from work so they could melt water from snow, if it came to it. A plan. Everything would be okay.

Later that night, Egbert reflected. He had not even told anyone about Marcy yet. There would be time enough for that, he was sure. For now things were too hectic, and he did not want to upset anyone.

 

:::READ ON FOR DAY THE FOURTH:::

SNOWPOCALYPSE – DAY 2

The second instalment of the tongue-in-cheek snow story I began yesterday.

DAY 2.

‘ARE YOU PREPARED?’ read the headline, emblazoned in offensively thick block capitals across the front of the paper. Egbert sighed and handed the paper back to Cider Sy, determined to get back to his morning coffee. He was sitting in the kitchen, trying to rouse his body from its log-like state induced by the combination of too little sleep and too much cold. He had hazarded a brief glance outside when he had woken up; the world outside was white and powdery.

‘Well, are you prepared?’ Cider Sy asked.

‘Of course.’

‘Okay. The station’s closed.’

‘What, King’s Cross?’

‘Yep.’

‘King’s Cross is closed?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘B-but, you can’t close King’s Cross! And St Pancras too?’ He was met with a nod from Cider. ‘That’s – that’s like closing Clapham! It just can’t be done!’ Egbert was angry, and mostly at the fact that he had woken up at six in the morning in the biting cold for nothing.

‘Well, it’s totally snowed in, Egbert,’ said Cider Sy. ‘I just been down to check. It ain’t good.’

‘What the hell were you doing out so early anyway?’

‘I wanted orange juice.’

Egbert left it there, and not a moment too soon, for Mistletoe bounded in.

‘Hey, look at this!’ She slapped down another piece of paper in front of Egbert – this time it was a computer printout. ‘I’ve been reading some interesting stuff about that whole Mayan doomsday thing – ‘

Oh god, Egbert moaned inside.

‘ – and this guy, Roger Efferington, right, says they miscalculated the whole thing. By like, a few weeks. So the doomsday stuff should actually happen this week! I found a whole blog about it too, look, read.’

Egbert reluctantly read, but had to stop after the first line.

‘“The world’s ultimate awakening”… I’m sorry, Misty, this really isn’t my thing.’

His nose was suddenly filled with the smell of orange juice. Cider Sy was peering over his shoulder, scanning the page with what might have passed for interest to anyone who did not know him better.

‘This week, huh? You actually believe that?’ Cider Sy glanced up at Mistletoe.

Mistletoe shrugged. ‘I dunno. It’d be exciting, though.’

‘Not if you have to go in to work.’ Egbert downed the rest of his coffee and tied his shoelaces, before standing up and reaching for his coat.

‘Are you still going in?’ Mistletoe asked, casting an incredulous eye out the window.

‘Come on guys, I still have to go to work.’

‘Suit yourself.’ Cider Sy slunk into the seat he had just left. ‘See you later. If you don’t lose yourself in the snow, that is.’

‘Not with this carrot top, mate,’ Egbert retorted, pointing to his hair. Sometimes he considered self-deprecation to be his best comeback weapon in an arsenal otherwise full of groan-worthy jokes, and as he watched Cider smile and Mistletoe wish him a safe journey, he knew it had paid off this time.

*

He should have taken Cider Sy’s warning about the state of things outside more seriously, he thought as he tramped through more than a foot of fresh snow just to get to the gate. Further out in the street the heavily-trampled snow had compacted and turned to ice in the continuing sub-zero temperatures. The sky above was a blank sheet, and all he could glean from that was that there was more snow up there; it just had not fallen yet.

Cider had been right about the trains too. Both the underground and overground stations had been closed. There was a mob of angry people outside, demanding answers from the few staff members on duty.

‘If you’ve already got your ticket,’ said the day-glo-jacketed rail worker, ‘then London buses are accepting them today.’ Egbert did not bother trying to move closer to the front of the crowd – this was news enough and he half-snowploughed, half-ice skated on towards the nearest bus stop.

He sat back against the awkward sloping seat and tried calling his girlfriend. But his phone had lost all signal. He cursed. Then he became absurdly aware that there was someone else at the bus stop too. A girl was sitting next to him. She had short golden hair and one of those pixie-ish faces. She wore skinny jeans, an oversized jumper and a khaki biker coat. And high heels. It was very odd.

‘Hi,’ said the girl.

‘Hi,’ he replied. He met her eyes for a second, then looked back down at the strange clothing coordination. After a while he could not hold his curiosity in any longer. ‘Um, why are you wearing heels? I mean, isn’t that really stupid in this weather?’

‘Are you kidding?’ said the girl. ‘Heels are the best thing for getting through thick ice. It’s the ice pick effect. Better grip.’ She kicked her legs out in display. Egbert thought about it for a second: smaller surface area, more pressure applied. It actually made sense. Then she said, ‘So um, why are you trying to get signal in a whiteout? Isn’t that kind of silly?’

They sat in silence for a long while. Egbert drifted back into his internal world, which seemed frozen in anxiety. When would the bus come? When would he hear from Marcy? When would this anticyclone up and leave?

‘I don’t think the bus is coming,’ said the girl sadly.  ‘We’ve been waiting forty minutes now, you know. My toes are froze.’

‘Yeah, same here,’ he said.

She grinned, shook back the random long bit of hair at her forehead, and decided to strike up more of a conversation.

‘You going far?’

‘Not really. Just across to Baker Street.’

‘Ah. You could probably walk that if it doesn’t come.’

A while later she said, ‘So what’s your name?’

‘Egbert.’

‘Egbert? You don’t look like an egg at all. You’re way too skinny. Oh, I get it. It’s ironic, right?’

He suddenly became very aware that he was talking to a hipster. He took in her clothes once again and recalled a definition from one of the many humour blogs he had seen. A feral sweater girl. Yes. Whatever that was.

‘No, it’s not ironic,’ he replied. ‘It’s just… boring, I guess. My parents were either cruel or unimaginative, I can’t figure out which. So what about you?’

‘I’m Jimmy,’ she said proudly. She noticed his puzzled expression, which led to the retort, ‘Yeah, it’s a dude name, but so what? It’s cool.’

He had a feeling she might have a rather embarrassing first name, but decided against asking.

The bus was not coming. Okay, so they had established that already. There was only one option left. He would have to walk to work.

He stood up, bade Jimmy farewell and good luck, and hiked on, any delusions of intrepid adventuring being impeded by the occasional embarrassing slip on hidden ice.

*

Not long later his mobile phone rang. He looked at the number – it was Marcy’s. Hastily answering the phone with half-frozen ham-hands, he said; ‘Marcy”! Oh god I’m so glad you called!’

But it was not Marcy who answered the phone.

‘Hi, I’m calling from Heartlands in Birmingham…’ said a nasal female voice.

He caught his breath. That was a hospital near Marcy’s house.

‘… and we’ve had a woman brought in following a car accident. Her name’s Marcy. I’m trying to contact her relatives.’

Egbert felt a muscle he didn’t know he had twitch beneath his eye. ‘You have Marcy there? Oh god, is she okay? I’m Egbert. Her boyfriend. Please, is she all right?’

There was a pause, a sharp intake of breath from the unfamiliar woman on the other end of the line.

Then…

‘I… don’t know how to put this, but she was in intensive care all morning. She didn’t make it.’

‘No. No, no, no, that’s not right!’ His shallow mutterings gave way to deep rooted shouting. ‘That can’t be! She was a careful driver. How? How was she hurt? Why didn’t she make it?’

‘She skidded on black ice under a bridge. Two other cars involved. She lost consciousness, she was put on life support and needed surgery. But we were too late. I’m sorry.’ The combination of her genuine voice and the visceral images being generated in his mind made him lose the ability to be mad. He mumbled something incoherent and hung up.

He had no idea what to do. For a good few minutes he stopped dead in a snowdrift in the road, his life crashing to a standstill along with him. The chaos in his head mounted to such an intensity that he ended up blanking it out entirely and his feet started to carry him on in the direction he had been going. To work. His girlfriend had just died and he was carrying on to work like everything was normal, except for the snow.  The slightly detached part of his brain reckoned this was some kind of survival instinct, purposefully made to react to stressful situations, so he just went with it.

*

It took a full hour to navigate the treacherous roads to his office. What was normally a ten minute tube ride had become a proper mission of – dare he say – epic proportions.

Only Norbert and Albert were in.

‘Where’s everyone else?’ Egbert asked.

‘Dunno,’ said Norbert. ‘Well, Tim, Terry and Todd made it in. Oh, and Cuthbert on fourth floor.’

‘Must be the magnetic Bert field,’ said Albert with a snort.

Egbert ignored this entirely. He fired up his computer and tried to work, and while he was glad that nobody had picked up on his inner distress, he became aware all too quickly that he was unable to concentrate on work. He stared for a long time at the conversion report on his screen until he eventually caved and opened up a browser window, typing in the URL for the Met Office. He had barely gotten to M-E-T when the browser auto-completed the rest of the address, so often it was that he went there.

He gaped. It was a wider gape than the one he had done the previous day, and the blink that followed it was more blinky than the one the previous day too. If the charts were right then this was getting serious. The weather front appeared to have settled and stagnated right over Scandinavia and all of the UK, and for the five day forecast at least, it was not showing any signs of letting up. The Azores high was far out of reach, and even the low pressure cyclones from Iceland were not pushing down or even attempting to dislodge it. Like a last staunch supporter of the Cold War, the anticyclone from Siberia was here to stay.

Plastered across the UK map were amber and red snow warnings. Another blizzard would move in tomorrow, and there was a big red warning over London. How much of that applied to his area? He had just started to enter his postcode to get a more detailed report when the power suddenly cut out. He looked around. The lights were out too. Everything was.

He buried his head in his hands. For god’s sake, was one little weather report too much to ask? Before he had enough time to start thinking about other, more depressing things, he got up and put his coat on. He saw Albert and Norbert had stood up too, in the absence of having working computers, and he caught their attention.

‘Well, let’s go home,’ he said.

‘Oh, we’re not leaving,’ said Norbert.

‘No,’ said Albert. ‘Our trains have been cancelled. And we live outside the city, remember.’

‘How did you get in this morning, then?’ Egbert asked.

‘Oh, we were both at a friend’s party in Euston last night,’ said Norbert. ‘Not too far from your place actually. We walked in.’

Egbert thought it best to leave them to it. They clearly had enough food and drink to last them, what with the kitchen supplies and the vending machine – although they would probably have to break into that last one.

He met Cuthbert in the stairwell on the way out the building. Not that he knew Cuthbert very well anyway, but he thought the man was certainly behaving rather oddly.

‘Our worst fears are being realised,’ mumbled Cuthbert. He was clearly delirious.

‘Cuthbert, what the hell is that in your hand?’ Egbert pointed towards the blue freezer bag that looked like it was full of ice.

‘S-s-alt.’ Cuthbert glanced at him shiftily and yanked the bag out of his reach. ‘It’s for grit! You have to start hoarding grit. If you don’t you might die!’

‘I really don’t think you’re in any danger of that,’ said Egbert.

‘No, you don’t get it. It’s going to get so much worse! It’s like end times. Please believe me! Please believe me!’ Cuthbert’s plaintive wailing reminded him uncomfortably of his own assertions that yes, it would definitely snow, why won’t anyone believe me, uttered only yesterday. He left the man cowering in the stairwell and hurried out the building.

Back out on the streets he went, greeted by a soft flurry of snow which piled down on the existing layers. More people were out and about now, and the mood was one of excitement and… a sort of apprehension, which he did not expect. There was a sense of freedom, and that was both good and bad.

It was primarily bad, he decided, because he got hit by a snowball halfway down the street. He yelled angrily and the young guy who had thrown it merely prepped another one. He hurried on.

It was cold. His gloves were not enough, the cold was biting into them. And speaking of biting… He enviously watched a woman chow down on a sandwich.

Oh god – he was so hungry. Cold and hungry.

He was halfway home when he recognised the person across the street. A khaki jacket pulled up to the neck, a crop of golden hair sticking out from the top – it was Jimmy. He hailed her from over the road and she smiled, stopped and waited. He walked over.

‘Hi,’ said Jimmy.

‘Hi again. What’re you still doing round here?’

‘I could ask the same of you, you know.’

‘We had a power cut at work.’

‘Ah. Well, I work at the falafel shop over there and I know it’s like, only just the afternoon, but the stoves broke down. So nothing to do. Shop’s closed.’ She sighed and kicked at a lump of snow. ‘Guess I’ll go home.’

The youths playing in the streets both behind and ahead of them seemed to have taken on a new element. This element involved a little bit more violence than Egbert was comfortable with. There was no sign of the police – indeed there had been no sign of any kind of authority (save for the two railway staff that morning) since the snowing began, and now people seemed to be realising just how much they could take advantage of this.

He narrowly missed another snowball. The person who threw it shouted and made a rather pathetic comment about his ginger hair. He swore as loudly as he dared and whispered to Jimmy; ‘Let’s go.’

They hurried off down the street in that peculiar half-step half-run that indicated they wanted to be out of there fast, but did not want to draw that much attention to themselves. This technique seldom worked, for it attracted far more attention to them due to the silliness of their steps.

When they turned the corner he realised they had come to the same bus stop from the morning. The street was relatively silent, although they could hear people banging about round the next corner, where Kings Cross St Pancras lay.

‘Can we stop for a sec? I want to try and find out what’s going on,’ Egbert said, pulling his phone from his pocket to check the signal. Jimmy nodded. Since the crowds had started coming out she had gone unusually silent.

So they cowered in a bus shelter and read the latest news on his tiny smartphone screen, Jimmy hanging on to his shoulder closely to get a decent view. It turned out he had a couple bars signal, bu the connection was still wafty.

‘Snowpocalypse starts with a bang!’

‘Crisis as multiple tube stations closed!’

‘Stockpile your food – more snow to come.’

‘Breaking – Supermarket supplies reach all time low due to stockpiling.’

‘Record amount of car crashes in severe icy conditions.’

‘Power cuts across London.’

‘Parts of Birmingham collapse after freak blizzard hits.’

So far so hyperbole, he reckoned. But still, it was scary. What would happen next?

He started to lose signal again, and by the time he had reached the weather reports, it cut out completely. Again. Egbert cursed. His only clue to local forecasting now was the sky itself, and that was as blank and expressionless as porridge.

More people arrived in the street. Further down the street a gang smashed in a shop window, sending three feet of snow thundering into the building. They both looked up and watched, stunned.

‘Can you take me home?’ asked Jimmy.

‘Sure,’ Egbert replied.

‘I wouldn’t normally ask,’ she began, ‘but it’s just that they’re kinda freaking me out.’

‘Hey, I don’t mind. It’s scary. I’m scared too.’

They took their chance when the gang started on a young chap walking down the other end of the street, and they ran as fast as they could in the ice and snow until they had reached the next street. From there, they walked as calmly as possible, sticking to small, narrow spaces.

After ten minutes of walking, Jimmy led him out onto a much broader street. Smithfields market, one of the biggest markets in London, stood proudly opposite him.

‘I’m over there,’ she said, pointing across the marketplace to a tallish building with lots of windows.

‘Wait, you live behind a marketplace?’ Oh great, Egbert thought. Today it would be shoplifting central, if the streets near Kings Cross were anything to go by.

There was a shouting from behind them. The gang from King’s Cross. Egbert’s heart gave a thud. He pushed Jimmy on.

‘Go! Go!’

They pretty much ran from there on, dashing straight through Smithfields and on to the buildings opposite. Down a short alley and up some stairs. The shouts behind them were drawing closer.

‘Get the key, quick!’

She fumbled in her bag, becoming more clumsy the more urgent things became. Eventually she managed to get the key out and open the door. They tumbled inside and Egbert slammed the door behind him, pushing the lock to. And not a moment too soon. A loud hammering on the door. A cry of various obscenities. Lots of foul language usually reserved to describe a woman’s anatomy.

‘You dare come in here and we’ll kill you!’ Egbert yelled in response. He picked up an umbrella leaning by the door. ‘We’re armed!’ His voice had a confidence that completely belied his inner terror.

There was a murmur on the other side. One of the gang saying they were wasting their time; there would be better, easier pickings back down at the market. The hammering stopped, as did the obscenities, and soon footfalls grew quieter as the foul group went off down the stairs.

Egbert relaxed his grip on the umbrella. ‘Ugh. Glad that’s over.’ He glanced around at the flat. It was a small, messy studio setup. A sofa bed, a television, and the basic essentials.

Once he had recovered from the exhaustion, he forced himself to stand upright. ‘Okay, I’d best be off. I don’t want to intrude any further.’

But Jimmy looked out of the window. Snow was falling faster, the sun was getting lower, and the shouting was still going on in the streets below.

‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘You can stay here tonight if you like. It’ll be safer.’ Egbert’s jaw started to drop. Then Jimmy added, ‘You take the sofa bed. I’ll take the floor.’

He was about to protest but she folded her arms and gave him a look that he could not quite describe, but that told him it was better not to argue. And besides, the way things were looking outside, it was safer to stay put for the time being. She was right.

And so he slept that night in a strange bed. He did not like it much. This bed did not know his particular shape, it did not know how to form the correct arrangement of lumps and bumps to fit him. The bed and he had barely met; it felt more rude than anything else to sleep on it so soon. Well, never mind. Sleep on it he must, for what lay ahead would be even more challenging.

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

:::THE MADNESS CONTINUES ON DAY 3:::

SNOWPOCALYPSE – DAY 1

A story inspired by the insane twitter ramblings of spoof account @DMReporter, and of course, the dramatic-yet-totally-undramatic snow. The forecast for the story includes inclement weather, characters with quite silly names, and a light smattering of meteorological stuffs.

DAY 1.

Egbert looked at the weather report. He blinked. He looked at it again. Indeed, without a shadow of a doubt, it was going to snow that afternoon. There was no mistaking that menacing Siberian high pressure zone moving in.

He had graduated from Oxford ten years ago with a degree in atmospheric geophysics, and sadly had lost out on a top-notch research position at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre to a fellow student a tiny bit better than him. And things got worse after that – his parents made him move out, and he went to London – because it seemed like ‘the thing to do’ at the time.

Then there came an office job where he sold insurance to people who didn’t need it in order to fund a marriage that didn’t last. It had been two years since the divorce and while his home address had changed, he was still stuck in the insurance rut. Looking at the weather reports was now his only reprieve from a life of inadvertent monotony, and sometimes this wistful mood caught him completely by surprise.

He only realised he was staring blankly at the screen when someone tapped his shoulder. He jerked upright and aimlessly hit some keys in a sort of automatic attempt to convince himself and whoever had interrupted him that he was indeed still working.

‘Egbert! What’s up, my man?’

No cause for alarm. It was only Norbert.

‘Looking at – what is that, a weather report?’ Norbert’s thick eyebrows raised in a disapproving fashion.

‘Yeah. It’s going to snow this afternoon.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Norbert looked out of the window. ‘Doesn’t really look like it to me.’

Egbert tried not to sigh. ‘Just because you can see the sun right now doesn’t mean it’s not going to be bad later. There’s a cold front moving in from the North, and the high pressure zone…’

It was no use. Norbert’s face had glazed over.

‘Whatever, dude,’ he said. He turned to leave, almost bumping into Albert, who in turn narrowly missed a collision with the pointless decorative cheeseplant in the corridor.

‘Eggy!’ Albert hailed him in that faux-friendly way he always did. Egbert mumbled ‘Hello’ back to him, and pretended to carry on working. He could hear his colleagues behind him, chattering now about the snow with no small amount of mirth.

There were a lot of Berts in that particular office. Nobody knew why. Some people theorised that they just seemed to gravitate to the building, like fine particles of iron filings to a massive magnet. On his floor, there was himself, and Norbert and Albert, who unfortunately took the coincidence as a sign to be overly familiar with each other. There was also a Cuthbert on the fourth floor, but they had never spoken. The last thing Egbert wanted to do was expand the Bert circle.

The news of snow soon started to broadcast on the BBC channel in the staff canteen. A grave-faced news reporter talked of the Met Office’s warning, and told people what in Egbert’s mind was just a reiteration of common sense. Wrap up warm before you go out. Wear sensible shoes. Don’t slip.

‘Maybe ol’ Eggy’s right,’ joked Albert.

Norbert laughed. ‘Wouldn’t bet on it.’

*

Evening fell. The snow did not.

‘You idiot,’ his girlfriend Marcy said. He had called her not five minutes ago whilst walking towards the tube station, and already she was on the defensive. She was not happy, primarily because he was trying to convince her not to come down from Birmingham. He had been scared about snow, and ice, and her driving in it. She had taken it the wrong way.

‘Marcy, I’m just trying to be sensible about this. Someone’s got to believe me about the bad weather, and I’d like it to be you of all people.’

‘Oh for goodness’ sake,’ said Marcy, ice cold tones cutting their way into his mind as sharp as the wind trying to cut its way through his jacket. ‘It’s not snowing like you said, and we haven’t seen each other for two weeks, and I’ve still got to go to London anyway for that conference! It just… It just feels like you’re trying to get rid of me!’

‘No, no, Marcy, that’s not it at all!’ But Egbert was not going to get out of this easily. Emotion was winning over logic; and a lot of it was his own emotion. He could not deal well with other peoples’ anger. ‘I don’t want to get rid of you. I want to keep you safe…’ His words did not come out in the voice he intended. He ended up sounding horribly condescending and yet highly squeaky at the same time.

‘Safe? God, Egbert, I can take care of myself, you know.’

He managed to somehow string out the awkward conversation against his own will until he reached the station. Marcy exploded in a final torrent of words.

‘I don’t care, Egbert. I’m coming down whether you like it or not. I’ll leave first thing tomorrow. And that’s final!’

She hung up.

Egbert spent the rest of his commute in a glum mood. He picked up a copy of the Mail on the way. He didn’t pay for it – as if! – but rather picked it up from its discarded perch on an empty tube seat.

‘SNOWPOCALYPSE’, proclaimed the headline theatrically. Egbert sighed. What a load of tosh. Yes, it was going to snow, he knew that much. But this kind of reaction? It was either total disbelief or imaginative over-belief that seemed to plague everyone else but him.

He skimmed through the rest of the article.

‘Snow expected to hit…. Up to two centimetres in places… Lorries with grit have been called into action… many rail line already suspended… school called off…’

The tube rattled on to King’s Cross. Egbert alighted, then plodded past the interesting, busy, cultured zone into the back streets where his shared terrace house lay. Above, night had truly set in, and the cloudy sky reflected the light pollution of London with a bright red glow. Night was always tainted red in London.

Inside, Egbert was deeply troubled. The sky was getting heavier, but the snow was late. What on earth was causing it to move so slowly? In his mind, visions of slow-moving anticyclones blocking up huge tracts of land whirled into place and delicate chaos spiralled out from it like ants scattering before the thud of an elephant’s foot. It was scary.

The silly headlines must have been getting to him, he decided. He trudged up the stairs to home, assuring himself it would all be fine.

Indoors, Mistletoe was doing a tarot reading for Cider Sy in the living room. Mistletoe was a big hippy, in the new-school way. No tie-dye but plenty of foresty looking chic clothing and chunky crystal necklaces. She was an artist, and her room in the massive four-roomed terraced house was half-bedroom, half-art studio. As a result, she hardly left the house.

Cider Sy on the other hand, whose real name was Simon and just so happened to have a passion for various types of alcoholic beverage – was always in and out of the house. He worked in a traditional pub a few streets away that sold real ale.

‘So apparently I’m going to meet the girl of my dreams, yeah?’ he said flatly.

‘No, it means you’re going to get a great opportunity and the changes you make at this crucial stage can attract people to your loving core,’ Mistletoe corrected him. Cider Sy stood up and smiled wanly.

‘Well, Psychic Sally, I’ve got food waiting for me in the oven, so you’d better move on to your next customer.’ And he winked at Egbert.

‘You want yours done?’ Mistletoe asked hopefully.

‘Nope,’ Egbert said firmly.

‘Apparently it’s going to snow tonight,’ said Cider, to his complete surprise. He got the feeling Cider was not really bothered, however; he was too busy focussing on the chicken drumsticks he was fishing out the oven. ‘Yeah, heard it on the news. Apparently some minister or somebody’s annoyed because they haven’t budgeted enough grit. Dear god, man, not enough grit!’ His funny pronouncements made Mistletoe laugh.

Egbert hung around making his dinner and ended up lounging in the living room with his housemates, watching reruns of Big Brother, commenting and wondering on what it would be like to be trapped in a house with a bunch of people – who would crack first, who would fight who et cetera. They had just determined that Egbert would likely go insane by the end of the first week, and that Cider would win because of his total ambivalence to the rest of humankind, when something completely interrupted them.

There was a sudden flash of blue light that scoured its way across the living room – nobody reacted at first, it was too much like the blue glare of a police siren. But the loud bang that followed made them all stand to attention. It was a humongous crashing noise, a single deep burst, like a whale hitting a steel ship, or something like that.

‘Oh my god, that sounds like a plane crash,’ said Mistletoe.

They ran to the kitchen and opened the back door. From their rather impressive vista across the empty car park, flat warehouses and single storey buildings they saw a huge storm cloud gathering. It was hanging low to the ground, across Central London. The bang had in fact been a thunderclap, and it came again in that single, definite, powerful vibration, preceded by an intense flash of ball lightning, the likes of which he had never seen before, only read about in textbooks.

And the ground was covered in snow. It was a shock to him at first, until Mistletoe said rather dramatically ‘Wow, that’s like, so much snow!’ and he became aware that one centimetre was really not that much at all.

The thundersnow-storm was a bad omen, though. Now the snow was falling thick and fast. It was going to get much, much worse.

But Marcy was still in Birmingham, and the spiral arm of the weather front would not reach her until after morning, he was sure of it. She would be safe.

‘Come on guys, let’s go in before we freeze to death,’ said Cider. Egbert agreed, and followed him in just as the snowflakes started to work themselves into a real blizzard-like frenzy.

The cold was the awful penetrating kind that slaughtered the effect of pithy electric heaters such as the ones at his flat. He fell asleep wearing three pairs of socks and a hoodie beneath the covers. And that was that. He was in no way prepared for the tumultuous events that were to follow…

TO BE CONTINUED

 

:::READ ON FOR DAY TWO:::

On the Origins of Thundersnow

So today there was a flurry of snow crossing my part of the UK. I say a flurry because it was hardly thick enough to settle, although I hear up north it’s a different story.

Anyway, the snow did not settle but seemed to gather and bunch up in the sky, bits of flake swirling around in the air, whipping up a treat. Before I knew it there was a massive storm forming! A huge banging sound – it was more like an explosion than a traditional rumbling peal of thunder – tore through the house and outside I witnessed massive blue flashes of ball lightning, originating from within the cloud of snow. It highlighted the snowflakes in a way I’ve never seen before, then minutes later the storm had dissipated and I was left stunned. My neighbours had rushed outside too and were staring up at the sky and chattering excitedly.

Thundersnow is very rare, and usually associated with freak storms in Northern parts of the US. It’s not really something that happens here that often.

thundersnow infographic depicting warm air convecting after contact with cold air
[Washington Post thundersnow infographic – click to go to original WashPost article…]

The reason it’s so rare is that for storm clouds to even form at all you need some kind of convection mechanism, and the heat required for this is not usually present in the kinds of temperatures experienced in snowy weather. But sometimes a mass of cold air can slide in atop a mass of warm air, and if the warm air is very humid, close to the dew point but still cold enough to be icy, a weird kind of instability occurs and it will start to convect.

The nimbus head of the storm won’t usually be as high as your average cumulonimbus because these precise unstable conditions won’t last long enough to let it rise so high. And the energy will probably be dissipated relatively quickly, just as I saw today.

A thundersnow-storm will likely be accompanied by a shower of hailstones (which also happened today). This happens when the convective potential is very high, causing strong updrafts and rapid motion. What was interesting was that the hail hit about ten minutes before the thunder began. And when the thunder did start up, I don’t think I’ve ever seen ball lightning so fierce and blue!

The whole thing was so short and violent but it was an epic experience.

Novel madness – first draft complete!

Yes, you heard that right! One hundred and sixty thousand words and I have completed the first draft of Nimbus. In its plainest form it is a novel about clouds coming to life, a vision of a future flooded Britain. And it’s been a long time coming. I had the first idea for it in 2008, after all.

It began with this phrase that entered my head as I sat idly at work, bored to tears with insurance claims and trying to put it off by looking out the window at the cumulus clouds that passed by;

“The gods came alive, and the clouds started moving – big hulking giants bobbing sedately, purposefully through the sky – and as mere humans on this earth, all we could do was watch.”

And since then it has grown into a behemoth of a tale. I had not started studying geology or meteorology when I began writing the novel, and now, halfway through my geosciences degree, I have been able to pour some scientific awesomeness on it in addition to my usual human-centric fare.

It must have been fate that the theme for Sky Blue started playing on shuffle when I typed the final words of the final chapter. I may have cried a little.

Today, I went to East Wittering to sit in the sun and start proofreading the manuscript (keyboard kindles are awesome for making notes). The clouds were too perfect today, they really added to the mood.

The lovely view from where I sat

So now, to celebrate this milestone I am off to an Italian restaurant where I shall enjoy wine from volcanic vineyards and epic portions of calzone.

Ciao!