The power of instability, and stories

This post — a return after several years away — is not a deep musing on how the last year has destabilised us all.

It’s not an angry argument for why we need to challenge the boring, stale and stable ideas of what power looks like (although I’d like to write one).

It’s not even an inspiring listicle about how my life has changed since it lost all stability (i.e. since I became a mum).

It’s about thunderstorms.

We are in the break between teaching semesters here. For me, that means shifting from teaching weather and climate science, to helping science students become better communicators.

I love being able to teach two different areas about which I’m so passionate, although it does take me a while to switch from one to the other.

So to help with the switch, here is a story — the best way to engage people with science — about the power of our atmosphere.

It’s the story of Lieutenant Colonel William Rankin.

William Rankin was a pilot in the US Air Force, who served in WWII and the Korean War. One day, in 1959, he was on a routine solo flight along America’s east coast.

Before he left, the meteorologist on duty told him there would be isolated thunderstorms along the way. Thunderstorms are the ultimate result of instability: warm air rising freely in a moist atmosphere leading to truly dramatic and dangerous weather.

Being a seasoned pilot, Rankin knew that if he came across a towering storm, he would need to fly over it to avoid getting caught in the violent cloud.

Cumulonimbus clouds can get pretty high. They can span the whole height of the atmosphere, over 14 km. Most of us in Melbourne are now well aware of our 5 km or 10km radii, but 14km is about from Melbourne Zoo to Melbourne Airport.

It was a scary situation, but Rankin knew what he was doing. He was confident that he could fly over the top of such a cloud in his plane, as long as the engine didn’t conk out.

Obviously we are at the start of this story, so what do you think happened?

That’s right. The engine died.

Right above a tower thunderstorm.

Rankin heard a bang, a splutter, and before he knew it, a light reading FIRE was flashing in the console.

Being a pro, Rankin pulled the level instinctively for the emergency power pack – and it came away in his hands. He was stuck, 14km above the surface of the Earth, in a falling plane, wearing only a summer jacket.

At about 14km above the surface of the Earth, it’s about -50ºC, and the air pressure is very, very low. To leave the plane would be suicide. But what else could he do?

He reached down and pulled the emergency eject handle on his seat. His watch read 6pm as he was catapulted out of the cockpit and began to fall down into the cloud below.

Instantly, every exposed part of his body began to sting with the cold.

The change in pressure also meant his body expanded to compensate. He started bleeding from his eyes, his ears, his mouth. At one point, he looked down at his body and saw a huge stomach, like a pregnant woman.

He managed to get his oxygen mask on, and as he descended into the icy top of the cloud, he felt his parachute deploy.

Thank goodness, he thought, my ordeal is finally over.

But as he descended further into the storm, Rankin realised he was no longer going down. He was being pushed up, and down, and up and down, and shoved side to side by the violent winds inside the thunderstorm.

And he wasn’t the only one.

Hailstorms were being formed in the cloud: big balls of ice that were being tossed around and coated by a layer of water that would then freeze.

He was now vomiting from the incredible spinning, he had no idea which way was up.

He was being pelted with hail, he had to hold his breathe to stop from drowning in dumps of falling rain. After a huge flash of lightning he saw his parachute billowing up above him like a cathedral, and assumed that he had died.

But, he didn’t. After that final lightning strike, he noticed that the rain was getting lighter, the air less turbulent.

Rankin landed in a pine forest, and was able to stumble out of the woods and find help.

He was bruised all over, there were imprints of stitching on his belly, but he didn’t break any bones.

Just after he landed, Rankin checked his watch again. He knew he was at 47000ft (about 14.3 km) when he jumped out of the plane at exactly 6pm, and that it should have taken 10 minutes to reach the ground. When he finally reached the ground, it was 6:40 pm.

The power of that storm kept Lieutenant Rankin in the air for an extra half an hour.

Instability is powerful indeed.

I first read this story in the fabulous Cloudspotter’s Guide, and recently shared it with the students of John Monash Science School.

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