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10.30.2002

Vermont Braces For Hyperstorms

I think I am too much a coward ever to study climatology, because there are so very many ways for the world to become suddenly and dangerously inhospitable, in a very short stretch of time. For several weeks I had been distracted by the possibility that the great Atlantic conveyor might be about to halt ( as it has done several times in the recent geologic past ), and now here comes a New York Times article to bring the peril much closer to home.

It seems we don't know half of what the climate can do - sediment samples from New York and Vermont show evidence of recurring storms whose strength lies completely outside the range of human experience. The storms are orders of magnitude more violent than anything in recorded history, even though they are relatively recent - the last batch hit Vermont just three thousand years ago. Accounts of the storms may still survive in Native American folklore.

Scientists examining cores out of lake beds in New York and Vermont have found a cycle of these monster storms separated by long periods of relative calm. And predictably enough, as is always the case when scientists make such discoveries, it turns out we are right about to hit one of the stormy periods:

Buried in the muck were layer-cake patterns of sandy soil, each layer evidently formed when slopes crumbled under torrents of water and were washed into the lakes. Some of these layers are 10 times as thick as one apparently left by the greatest flood recorded in Vermont, which killed 84 people, drowned thousands of cows and demolished 1,200 bridges in November 1927.

This new finding ties in with a suspicion I've always had that we don't understand zilch about the way the climate works. I feel like we are the kid in the control room, pressing the shiny buttons, actuating the levers, and something ponderous and very large has started to move. But I'm a sucker for amorphous anxieties like that.

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