Another Life: Leaned on from the ocean, hammered through the hills

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate forecast for the end of September is a very strange tangle of frayed and tentative red lines

Stormy weather: a gale can be enough to lure you down to the sea. Illustration: Michael Viney

Stormy weather: a gale can be enough to lure you down to the sea. Illustration: Michael Viney


The first gale of autumn had branches writhing on the ash tree outside the window and hillside gulls learning to fly backwards again. But its gusts were also oddly reassuring: this much of the seasons, at least, was turning up on cue. The sun still crosses the equator on or about September 22nd, heading south, and a cooling northern hemisphere with equal day and night still brings what we have come to call the equinoctial gales.

I just missed one such that the island could well have done without – or did Hurricane Debbie, indeed, even belong in such a category? It’s 52 years since, arriving in Ireland for a year’s time out from Fleet Street, I found myself cycling west into an autumnal and battered Connemara, arrestingly silent, as if still in shock from the tail end of the hurricane.

Debbie was born over Africa in August 1961 and travelled out into the Atlantic as a tropical storm heading westwards. It could have joined the annual gathering of Caribbean hurricanes but instead was swung around by the westerly winds and accelerated northeast towards Ireland, deepening as it came. It brushed the west coast around Achill on the morning of September 16th at a sustained 130km/h (80mph), stripping roofs and whirling haystacks into the sky. Its island-wide havoc was credited with 11 deaths.

So, moving west again with family, some decades ago and for good, I knew enough to accept the sea wind as a lively and bracing companion but one I might not like when it was angry. There have been times when it was very stirred up. In the early years of a flat-roofed extension the sight of the dark crack opening and closing where the walls met the ceiling (such was the upwards suction of the wind), or of our single-glassed windows billowing ever so gently inwards, bred a certain tense stoicism at the fireside.

Slowly, however, we learned that being leaned on from the ocean was far preferable to being hammered through the hills. A southeast gale, funnelling through Doolough Pass (where it raised whirling waterspouts on the lake) and rushing like an express train down the side of Mweelrea Mountain to slam into our gable, eventually lifted half the slates off the roof.

There was a time when the right kind of gale could lure me down to the sea, feeling its strength quicken as I passed the last field banks, fences, bumps and hollows in the pastures, the stolid rumps of sheep and cattle. Step out on to smooth sand and wind speed begins to climb rapidly.You lean a bit, then quite a lot, eyes watering, breath shallowing. Long skeins of flying sand rattle and hiss around your boots. Stones and shells are left balanced on little pedestals of sand, like mushrooms. Sometimes, if the breakers are high enough, they can offer pockets of strange shelter at the edge of the foam.

High energy
On an exposed, “high energy” strand like ours, its basic sculpture hammered out over centuries, the impact of swells from distant storms is readily absorbed. It takes big local waves spanning extra-high tides to start reshaping the shore. We have, indeed, seen the dunes bitten back, the low fields retreating behind their new rock armour, the old pyramid of a sandy burial mound reduced to a round patch of stones.

Ireland’s wind records show that the past couple of decades have actually been a bit calmer, especially in summer, as the North Atlantic storm track is drawn erratically northwards to the poles. While we may get fewer storms, however, the steady warming of the ocean is likely to make them more extreme.

Such, at least, is the promise of the climate models. “Extreme”, “intense”, “severe”: such typically vague adjectives sprinkling the predictions make the future seem all the more threatening. And a wider understanding of how climate works in the North Atlantic, my own included, lurches from one uncertain grasp to the next.

My latest awareness of the bloody obvious is that the North Atlantic Oscillation – the famous NAO that governs so much of our winter weather – and the much-discussed “jet stream” blamed when we freeze are virtually the same thing. What oscillates north or south, as cold polar air confronts the warm air from the tropics, is the polar jet stream, rushing high, west to east, across the ocean. It can be pushed about by air masses, of low or high pressure, called Rossby waves.

Pushed to the south, the NAO is said to be “negative”, in which mode the Mediterranean may get wet winter gales and we get Siberian frost. I sometimes check the graphic index of the NAO that is readily searchable on the website of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As I write, the graph’s forecast for the end of September drops deeply into negativity in a very strange tangle of frayed and tentative red lines. This is something I have never seen before, and I wonder should we worry.

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