My Fourth of July was supposed to be picture perfect this year. We would be spending the week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina at the beach with my sister’s family and my mom. My kids would get to spend a week building sand castles, riding waves, and collecting seashells with their cousins just like I had each of my childhood summers. Salt water taffy, mini-golf, a trip to the sand dunes—the all-American vacation would end with fireworks over the ocean.
The week was shaping up to be perfect weather: highs in the 80s, ocean temperatures just right with gentle waves and sandbars. But then the Weather Channel went and ruined my bliss.
There looming off the coast of southern Florida was the first Atlantic hurricane of the season, named Arthur, and he was headed our way. Growing up near the Virginia and North Carolina coasts, my family has weathered our fair share of hurricanes.
The problem with a hurricane is that you never know which way it’s going to go. We’ve seen the damage of toppled trees and power lines from Hurricane Isabel in 2003, but we’ve also seen storms no more menacing than a strong thunder-boomer.
My mom and I anxiously monitored the TV for updates on the likely path that the storm would take, with error bars 200 miles wide. Soon, the talking weather-heads popped up in town, dressed in windbreakers and waterproof boots—never a good sign.
With predicted winds of 50-60 mph and gusts up to 100mph, Arthur sat on the cusp of a Category 2 hurricane. Not the most powerful storm, but the beautiful, yet fragile Outer Banks are barrier islands generally about a mile wide and 3-7 feet above sea level. With the Atlantic to the east and three sounds to the west, the islands can flood from both sides, especially with the turning winds of a cyclone. Flooding and high winds bring other unpleasantries, like septic system contamination and power outages.
As Arthur creeped closer, the projected path narrowed, bringing the eye right over our vacation house, less than 100 yards from the beachfront.
Even though I had managed to bring no work on vacation (a minor freelancing miracle), I thought about how best to evaluate and communicate uncertainty when it comes to a weather event or climate change. Annoyed by the sensationalistic storm-chasing reporting, I also acknowledged that it’s hard to fill 24 hours of weather coverage. But as I weighed whether to scrap my family’s cherished, biennial beach vacation and head for higher, safer ground, I craved as much solid information as possible.
Weather (and climate) uncertainty
Hurricanes usually leave you plenty of time to get out of their way. That is, unless you and half a million other vacationers are trying to leave the Outer Banks all at once via the single, two-lane bridge to the mainland. The oft-scrolling quote from the North Carolina governor stuck in my head: “Don’t put yer stupid hat on.”
Like climate, hurricanes depend on a literal swirl of interacting factors—wind, rain, speed, direction, fronts, humidity, ocean currents and warmth. It gave me a renewed appreciation for reporting on and writing about uncertainty in science stories, especially when readers are relying on that information to make important decisions. We packed up and headed out on Thursday morning, about 15 hours before the storm was scheduled to make landfall. With two kids under the age of 6, it was the smart decision. Arthur did little damage, but even Jim Cantore couldn’t have predicted that with much accuracy.
Hurricane Arthur was the earliest recorded hurricane to make landfall in North Carolina since records began in 1851, which raised speculations about climate change shifting storm seasons. I also realized that climate change—and any amount of sea level rise it brings with it—will not be kind to the sea oat-covered dunes that I love. Even a few inches of rising sea could erase the Outer Banks as a family vacation spot for the next generation.
In the end, we spent the Fourth taking the kids to the pool and enjoying a backyard barbecue with good food and good neighbors. It was still an all-American Fourth and we only risked a few mosquito bites.
Image credits: NOAA via Environmental Visualization Laboratory and Kendall Powell