The Calm Before the Storm
We’ve all heard it before, whether we were enjoying a day at the beach or waiting for our uncles to fire up the grill, and it goes something like this:
Mom: “Ah, what a beautiful day!”
Dad: “It’s a wonderful day for grilling up some dogs”
Grandpa: “Ah, yes, the dreaded calm before the storm, mother nature’s finest trickery.” (okay, I may have just turned your grandfather into Ahab from Moby Dick, but just roll with it please.)
My sister used the phrase throughout our vacation this year. Every day we were there, it was supposed to rain. Every day it didn’t rain. But the water was always calm (thank goodness, because I am a terrible swimmer with a fear of drowning and I still choose to venture into the ocean. But that’s for another time.) So every day when we went to the beach, she looked at the water and said “it’s the calm before the storm.” But it never stormed? Which lead me to wonder if there was actually such a thing as “the calm before the storm” or if it is just a myth?
According to The Discovery Channel1, “storms are caused by an updraft of moisture and heat.” But I’m sure that means absolutely nothing to you, because it sure isn’t doing anything for me. So I turned to a very helpful demonstration from how stuff works2.
There are 3 steps to this “updraft of moisture and heat”:
- Moisture and heat are sucked up toward the storm. Powerful updrafts pull some of this upward (to the top of the cloud)
- Some saturated air is removed due to the updraft. It spills out of the top of the highest storm clouds.
- While it descends, it is compressed, which makes it warmer and drier. Warmer and drier air is more stable. It also causes a reduction in cloud formation, thus creating the calm before the storm.
*you can watch this short clip here. The visuals are a tremendous help
According to the same article by howstuffworks, large storm systems often do not bare any warning. This is due to their complexity, as smaller storm only have 1 unified system and large storms have several2. So basically, it’s a 50/50 chance. Some storms provide a warning while others leave it up to the meteorologists to track.
Although not all storms have a “calm”, several natural disasters do. As I learned from the Thailand/Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, tsunamis are known for their rapidly receding tide. But the warning only gives you a few minutes to reach higher ground3. Tornados also have a “calm”, but it occurs during the storm in the center of the tornado (known as the eye). I’m not sure if this is a comforting place to be, but it is much better than being on the outside of the tornado.
In conclusion, the “calm before the storm” certainly does exist. Because it usually only occurs before a small storm, it should probably not be seen as a threatening situation (unless you’re terrified of getting wet. In which case, go inside, the barbeque can wait.) “The calm before the natural disaster” would be a much more terrifying metaphor, because it always means danger.
*all of the links (the ones above and the superscripts) open in new tabs. So feel free to explore!