A Metropolis Stilled: Lessons From A Storm : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture In New York City, astrophysicist Adam Frank came face to face with the forces humans have been inadvertently unbalancing for the last 100 years. It got him thinking about how we view the balance of power between humans and Mother Nature.
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A Metropolis Stilled: Lessons From A Storm

A woman walks through the snow in the early morning hours in Manhattan's East Village. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

A woman walks through the snow in the early morning hours in Manhattan's East Village.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

And lo! I saw the great city brought unto its knees.

Yesterday my friend and I went into the belly of the beast. We rode Amtrak's Maple Leaf Express from Rochester into the heart of New York City just as the blizzard of 2010 had passed. Emerging from the bowels of Penn Station we found the metropolitan giant stilled under a heavy blanket of snow. All the usual chaos, the boundless energy, the frenetic activity had been brought to an eerie halt in the wake of the storm's great beauty and greater power.

The lesson was immediate and obvious.

It's rare in the "modern" world that we can feel forces greater than ourselves.  When we think of grand powers unbound, we call to mind images of nuclear weapons — mushroom clouds rising high on nuclear energies released at our bidding. In this age of petroleum-fueled miracles we seem, most of the time, to have vaulted past natural limitations. Most of the time, our airplanes can lift off even as thunderheads fill the skies. Most of the time, our ships can punch through waves even when they form canyons of storm-driven ocean.  Most of the time, the intricate systems we depend upon for commerce, for travel, for food and for energy manage to function. And they do so in spite of churnings of the planet's own internal systems of atmosphere, hydrosphere and exosphere.

And then, out of the blue, the planet's hidden powers are revealed.  We see the scale of its forces and its energies.  There is a particular lesson in that vision for our particular moment in history.

It would be easy to look at the blizzard and think, "Just a storm, let's clean it up and move on."  But this is not 1922, 1947 or 1983.  Our understanding of planetary systems and their movement has matured so much in the last few decades, it is akin to the difference between medicine before and after penicillin.

We understand the planets circulatory currents of air, water, energy and chemistry with enough acuity now to understand how much it has changed in the deep past and how much it might change again in the near future. We have seen the dynamic Earth's interlocking networks to be both enormously sensitive and enormously potent.  Climate can swing from periods of wet and warmth over to epochs of arid, bitter cold and it can make those swings in relatively short order.

In achieving that understanding, we have also come to see the the power of our planet as a thing in-and-of-it-self. It is a whole, a web entire, a natural system, a fantastically complicated, interwoven set of parts that moves to its own unconscious devices and channels and redistributes enormous energies. Energies we redirect at our own peril.

So we can see this storm and its effect on our great cities as just a spike in the ups and downs of weather.  That would be both fine and true.  But living as we do at the edge of an age sure to be marked by some form of climate change, we can also look again with our new understanding.  We can see the forces we have been inadvertently unbalancing for the last 100 years up close. We can understand that once unbalanced those genies will not easily be put back in the bottle.  We can understand that we have seen — for a few hours at least — what is possible.

We cannot say with certainty what climate change will mean — that is how mild or how fierce it will be.  We can, however, say with some degree of certainty that climate will change. Given that reality, a new honesty about where we stand in the order of powers might be a good thing.