Extracted from the Richard Hughes novel, “In Hazard” by Alan Mason
“The thing to remember about the atmosphere is its size. A little air is so thin, so fluid: in small amounts it can slip about so rapidly, that the conditions which give rise to a hurricane cannot be reproduced on a small scale.
In trying to explain a hurricane, therefore, one must describe the large thing itself, not a model of it. For it is only when one thinks of the hugeness of a parcel of air on the world, the big distance it may have to shift to equalize some atmospheric difference, that one can realize how slow and immobile, regarded on a large scale, the air is.
It happens like this. The air above a warm patch of sea, somewhere near the Canaries, is warmed: so it will tend to be pushed up and replaced by the colder, weightier air around. In a warm room it would rise in a continuous gentle stream, and be replaced by a gentle draught under the door – no excitement. But on a large scale it cannot: that is what is different.
It rises in a single lump, as if it were encased in a gigantic balloon – being actually encased in its own comparative sluggishness. Cold air rushes in underneath not as a gentle draught but as a great wind, owing to the bodily lifting of so great a bulk of air.
Air moving in from all round towards a central point: and in the middle, air rising: that is the beginning. Then two things happen. The turning of the earth 1 starts the system turning: not fast at first, but in a gentle spiral. And the warm air which has risen, saturated with moisture from the surface of the sea, cools.
Cooling, high up there, its moisture spouts out of it in rain. Now, when the water in air condenses, it releases the energy that held it there, just as truly as the explosion of petrol releases energy. Millions of horse-power up there loose. As in a petrol motor, that energy is translated into motion: up rises the boundless balloon still higher, faster spins the vortex.
Thus the spin of the earth is only the turn of the crank-handle which starts it: the hurricane itself is a vast motor, revolved by the energy generated by the condensation of water from the rising air.
And then consider this. Anything spinning fast enough tends to fly away from the centre — or at any rate, like a planet round the sun, reaches a state of balance where it cannot fly inwards. The wind soon spins round the centre of a hurricane so fast it can no longer fly into that centre, however vacuous it is. Mere motion has formed a hollow pipe, as impervious as if it were made of something solid. That is why it is often calm at the centre of a hurricane: the wind actually cannot get in.
So this extraordinary engine, fifty miles or more wide, built of speed-hardened air, its vast power generated by the sun and by the shedding of rain, spins westward across the floor of the Atlantic, often for weeks together, its power mounting as it goes. It is only when its bottom at last touches dry land (or very cold air) that the throttle is closed; no more moist air can be sucked in, and in a few days, or weeks at most, it spreads and dies.
1 The earth is a ball, turning about an axis: so a point on its surface near the Equator is moving faster than a point further from the Equator. The border of a system of air, therefore, which is nearest the Equator, will show a tendency to lag behind the border which is over a slower-moving part of the Earth’s surface: and if the system is limited, will give it a twist.”
Hurricanes and Shipping (in the 1930s)
“Every seaman was taught what paths West Indian hurricanes usually follow, and where the invisible obstacles lie which tend to deflect these paths towards the north. Thus he could generally avoid running into a hurricane altogether.
But if he should find himself on the fringes of a disturbance, there were further rules which enabled him to calculate, by observing the barometer and the wind’s change of direction, where the centre of the vortex lay at the moment; and so, whether he was in a quadrant where he would be sucked in, or buffeted out: in what direction to make his escape.
For, just as a rapidly spinning top only creeps across the nursery floor, so, though the velocity of the hurricane wind itself is huge, the shifting of the whole system is not very fast. It seldom averages more than twelve miles an hour, while the storm is intense: and is sometimes only three or four.
And yet, sometimes ships used still to get caught. Some slow-moving sailing-vessel, or laden steamer: either an eccentricity of the storm’s motion trapped her into a false move, or else she did not discover her danger quickly enough to get away.
Now, however, with the advent of wireless, (radio) there is little danger even of that. For now, when a hurricane is abroad, all shipping in its neighbourhood keeps tag on it, and telegraphs data regarding it to a shore station. Thus, be its behaviour never so eccentric, the meteorologist on shore is able to watch, as plainly as with his direct eyes, every movement of the hurricane and every variation of its strength: and the least tendency to diverge from the path and the velocity forecast can be immediately observed: and the news, twice a day, can be broadcast back to shipping.
That is really what I mean by ‘belling the cat’. You can hear the bell tinkle, twice a day. You can hear the hurricane’s approach before it is anywhere near you. It is usually fixed things, such as banana trees, one hears of nowadays as having been damaged by a hurricane : not shipping. Ships (which can run) are safer in those latitudes than government offices (which cannot).”
(The novel tells of how a modern merchant ship, in the 1930s, gets accidentally caught in a hurricane, loses power so that it is totally at the mercy of the winds, how the crew cope with a terrible emergency and finally come through without losing the ship, or any lives.)
Richard Hughes (1900-1976) was a talented writer, who had a play produced in London and a book of poems published while he was still a student at Oxford. His first novel “A High Wind in Jamaica” (1929) later made into a film, is about a group of children experiencing a hurricane and an earthquake.
“In Hazard” (1938), was followed by a projected trilogy, starting with “The Fox in the Attic” (1961) and continuing with “The Wooden Shepherdess”, (1973). I don’t think the trilogy was ever completed. It tells the story of closely related English and German families and the rise of Nazism in Germany.
I think that Hughes has always been a rather undervalued writer. Though his output has not been large, the quality of his writing is excellent as this short extract may illustrate.
Alan Mason August 2011