Tuesday, March 18, 2008

WOW, Part 2, Ch. 7

A Signal from the South

The tall, silver-haired man ran down the canyon following the creek to the coast, to the beach, to the place where the land came to an end. He stopped at the very edge of the continent, a step from the sea. Turning to the mountains of Montecito behind him, he spread his arms to span the ridgeline, gazing at the heights where the hawks flew wild. He closed his eyes, and prepared to take his leave from the land.
Bowing his head in profound submission, Ray Seranen entered the ocean in the Chumash way, showing his respect by stepping slowly backwards until he disappeared beneath the waters of Fernald’s Cove, a place of quiet never touched by the storms he knew were raging on the other side of the world.
He surfaced, moving through the still water seemingly without effort. He kept his body in graceful trim, gliding with the momentum from the rhythmic dolphin-kick of his legs. The V of his wake was broken only when he would raise his head now and again to breathe. Through the golden sheen of the cove at dawn he swam through waters protected as if this was the very birthplace of life itself, the place from whence we came.
Emerging from the sea, Seranen stood erect as the first rays of sunlight darkened his shadow across the wet sand. He lifted his shoulders up and back and pulled the morning air deep into his lungs. He began a sequence of liquid movements, weaving his arms, legs, spine and mind through a dance of one, turning and stretching, focusing inward, his closed eyes gazing at distant horizons. The world became a hemisphere of energy all around him, the step of his feet his contact with mother earth, the sea behind him a mirror of blue in the sharp, clear light of a new day.
He came to a final, still inner moment before opening his eyes, his daily morning ritual now complete. The Greek ideal was real to Ray Seranen. The health of his intellect depended on his being sound in body. He was now ready to face the daunting task of guiding men and women through the wilderness of the Southern Ocean.
He ran back along the edge of the sea and then turned up the creek without breaking stride. He passed through a tunnel under the highway and continued for almost a mile, stepping lightly around the rocks and boulders with the agility of a man a third his age, before leaving the creekbed and jumping up to the landing of a stairway hidden in the sage. High-stepping up the redwood treads, he emerged into the sunlight on a deck with a view from the Santa Ynez Mountains to the Channel Islands.
He stepped into the open shower and stripped in the warm wind that often blew from the land to sea on summer mornings. The cold water sprayed a rainbow in the bright light coming through the trees. He saw a red-tailed hawk circling high over a mountain peak, and he took the opportunity to imagine himself in the center of the continent, as far from the sea as one could get, with no knowledge of or connection to the oceans of planet Earth. It was a moment of consciously distancing himself from the world of work he was about to enter as chief meteorologist for the Order of Southern Ocean Mariners on this Monday morning.
Nine thousand miles to the southeast a fleet of six Alba_Swords was poised, on station and standing by, off the coast of Tierra Del Fuego. On Ray’s signal, they would begin a non-stop voyage around the world. Under his guidance, they would play cat-and-mouse with the vast powers of the Roaring Forties, remembering all the while that the safe passages of the past were no cause for confidence. He and the commanders in the Roaring Forties Regatta would measure their risks accurately and listen to their instincts religiously, knowing the fate of the mouse that, in letting its guard down, does so for the last time.
Ray Seranen opened a thick oak door, brass fittings bright in the morning sun. He entered a room without windows, yet warmly lit by a system of louvres in the ceiling that moved with the sun to provide consistent lighting throughout the day. Soon he would lose all sense of local time while concentrating for hours on end to determine the fleet’s precise launch zone off the coast of South Africa.
He closed the door, not to see the ocean again until dawn on the morrow.

* * *

For millions of people around the world, global warming was little more than hotter summers and increased electricity bills. Melting ice caps, the desertification of Central Africa, rising sea levels, and other anecdotal natural phenomena were all blamed on the "‘greenhouse’ effect", and there was a general perception of man affecting the weather for the worse.
Some meteorologists and oceanographers, however, saw these apparent symptoms as part of long-term cycles rather than man's comparatively short-term influence. They felt using hotter summers as conclusive evidence of global warming was little more than sound-bite science. They maintained the connection between man's excesses and climate change was much more complicated. Veteran meteorologist Ray Seranen was one of them.
He believed that as man's industrial development became a factor in global weather systems, there was one place where the effects would be extremely pronounced. Seranen held that Antarctica was the world's air conditioner, and that if forced to work harder to dissipate increased heat generated globally, the end result would be more activity in the storms tracks around Antarctica. Massive volumes of heated air circling towards the South Pole would create an imbalance that Nature would abhor with a vengeance. That fury would intensify the storms and winds across the ten million square miles of the Southern Ocean.
Seranen began to do research on Antarctic weather systems, the oceanic storms circling the frozen continent, and the resultant wave fields. He worked for two years mining massive data sets from hundreds of years of ships logs, Antarctic meteorological stations, and a variety of remote sensing satellites. He began to program computer models using formulas similar to those originally used to navigate spacecraft to the outer planets, and more recently to predict stock market fluctuations and trends. As his models began to correlate anomalies in Southern Ocean sea-states with temperature and gaseous emissions trends of industrialized countries, Seranen saw a bigger picture beginning to form connecting increased wave heights in the Southern Ocean with unstable weather around the globe.
However, there were gaps in his data. To guarantee the integrity of his models and projections, he needed real-time observations from Antarctica and the Roaring Forties, a vast network of data acquisition nodes throughout the most remote areas of the Southern Hemisphere to calibrate against the planet’s most powerful winds and waves of the Southern Ocean.
Frank Bucher needed the same thing.
Bucher’s theories about voyaging through the Southern Ocean could not be put to the test using weather data from commercial sources and space agencies. To venture through the Roaring Forties in winter, and ride safely ahead of the most powerful wave generating storms on the planet, he knew he needed something better by orders of magnitude. A conversation with Rick Vogel, the man whose research into swordfish led to the design of Bucher’s voyaging craft, led the founder of the Order of Southern Ocean Mariners to Ray Seranen.
Ten minutes after they met in person, Bucher knew he had found the man for the job of OSOM’s chief meteorologist.
“The only way this will work is if I have everything I need to do the job right,” he said.
“What do you need, Ray?”
“A hell of a lot.”
“Like what?”
“Like something that doesn’t exist.”
“Such as?”
Seranen scribbled a list on the back of an envelope. He read it over, made a few changes, and handed it to Frank Bucher.
“Let me know when you’re ready to start on this.”
Bucher began read the list aloud.
“Sixty four automated weather stations at sites arrayed strategically on the Antarctic continent. two hundred and fifty six data buoys all around the Southern Ocean. Data relay stations to feed information in real time to California. Computers with twice the capabilities of the National Weather Service. Anything else?”
“And all the people I need to do the job right,” said Ray.
“Okay, you’re on,” said Bucher, and they shook hands.

But within a month they hit their first big snag. They submitted their project design to the National Science Foundation, the U.S. agency that controlled almost all the research in Antarctica. The response was something along the lines of “Great idea, guys – we’ll process your app and with a little bit of luck you should be on the ice in about five years. First off, though, we’ll need your entire project budget placed in escrow to get you a place in line.”
Frank Bucher and Ray Seranen thought about it for all of a minute. Their response was predictable.
“To hell with that. We’ll just do it on our own!”
The Antarctic protocol signed in 2002 by all the countries with scientific interests in Antarctica allowed private organizations unrestricted access to the frozen continent. Most of the time that provision was used by tourist companies. Now it was going to be used by the Order of Southern Ocean Mariners. To get their weather network up and running, Bucher and Seranen turned to men and women who had worked on The Ice for decades.
Seranen was familiar with the genealogy of the Ice Pirates, the nickname for the VXE-6 squadron of the U.S. Navy that, beginning in 1956, flew hundreds of missions ferrying scientists, equipment, and supplies to the South Pole and research stations all around Antarctica. He knew that in 1999 the squadron had been decommissioned for cost-cutting reasons, and although many of the Pirates were scattered to new assignments or retired, a good number were still living around the base that VXE-6 had called home, the Naval Air Station at Pt. Mugu, only a few miles south of OSOM’s headquarters in Ventura.
Seranen and Bucher arranged a meeting with a group of retired Ice Pirates. To go back to Antarctica was no romantic dream for them by any means, but the mission was intriguing, the money was on the table, and there was no doubt that Bucher and Seranen were men of their word.
Within eighteen months, OSOM’s Antarctic Meteorological Network was being tested, and a year later Seranen’s research began in earnest with Bucher’s first voyage around the Southern Ocean. And now, five years later, a lot of their success was due to the courage, judgment, brains, and determination of the resurrected Ice Pirates.
Eight years later, the envelope and the handshake had changed the world for both of them.
Ray got the information vital to his understanding of the world’s climatic fluctuations, and he was able make all the weather-related decisions in support of Bucher’s voyages around the world. Bucher pioneered a new frontier of adventure on planet Earth. Furthermore, Seranen's research on heat transfer and pressure gradients in the southern hemisphere drew immediate interest in the scientific community. He was able to quantify the connection between the waves of the Southern Ocean and changing weather patterns around the world. This was priceless information.
Seranen began to get calls from commodities brokers offering him six figure salaries to work them, but his research was not for sale to commercial interests. Instead, OSOM arranged for grants through the U.N. to underwrite a portion of the costs of OSOM’s weather network in exchange for information that began to minimize crops losses while quantifying the effects of global warming.
Yet, for all its sophistication at gathering massive amounts of precise data from around the Southern Hemisphere, OSOM’s data acquisition system was sometimes compromised by a force outside of Seranen’s control that had its origins ninety-three million miles away.

* * *

Damon Waiya watched the satellite data display in OSOM’s weather center on the ice in Antarctica. The Antarctic Meteorological Network system operator could feel his patience beginning to wear thin. Instead of real time weather telemetry from a satellite situated directly over the South Pole, he was getting nothing but garbage without the necessary data integrity necessary for the projection models waiting in Ray Seranen’s computers. All OSOM had to show for a very expensive subscription to the INT-AT satellite data system was a scrolling message, “Due to meteorological conditions, all data links in your service area are currently inoperable. Our apologies for any inconvenience resulting from this temporary anomaly. See your user agreement for liability issues.”
Damon took a deep breath, leaned back in his chair, and let his impatience drain away. He looked up through the skylight, watching the aurora australis shimmer in the darkness as the magnetosphere did a St. Vitas dance. Thanks to a massive storm on the surface of the sun, extremely dense solar winds were blowing through the atmosphere and nearspace over the southern polar region. Despite redundant systems designed to overkill specs, OSOM’s data streams had become sputtering spews of ones and zeroes. From the Roaring Forties to the South Pole, it was as if there was a cloud of steel wool between the satellite and the ground.
This was a worst-case scenario come to life for the Order of Southern Ocean Mariners. Timing an encounter between the fleet of Alba_Swords and the waves of a powerful storm was not a decision easily made with a compromised data acquisition system. Unless the satellite datalink was re-established, it would be almost impossible for Ray Seranen to direct the fleet to an optimum take-off zone. A miss was as good as a thousand miles when it came to inserting the fleet into an orbit of the planet, and it was Damon Waiya’s job to solve the problem.
So far, he had been able to come up with a jury rig. Waiya had re-configured OSOM’s entire ANTMET network to funnel weather data to him at one hour intervals instead of instantaneously to the satellite. He then pushed the data packets up to Seranen using an undersea cable to the southernmost city of South America, Ushuaia, and then through the local telcom system to the old NASA telemetry station outside Santiago, Chile. From there they had a secure link directly to OSOM HQ in Ventura, and then to Ray’s office up the coast in Montecito. This work-around might be good enough to get the fleet to a general take-off zone, but once there they would have to wait for the real-time data needed to execute a launch sequence. However, solar storms could last for weeks, and expecting the elements to cooperate was wishful thinking at best. In any event, the go/scrub decision would be Ray Seranen’s call, not his, and that time had not yet arrived.
Waiya turned to a big flat panel displaying a 3-D map of the Southern Hemisphere. A pattern of green icons was arrayed over the Southern Ocean and Antarctica showing the location of each node of OSOM’s automated weather station network. It was steady as she goes - for the moment – on the first day of the coldest and most violent month in the Great South. Though June 21 was technically the dead of winter, old hands knew August to be the time of “bad ju-ju” due to a lag in the weather extremes that did not coincide with the calendar. August was the month for the worst storms ever recorded on the Antarctic continent and, as a result, the best time for holding the Roaring Forties Regatta. Nevertheless, for the past three days it had been all quiet on the southern front.
This only heightened Waiya’s anxiety. There would be no standing down for him, or Seranen, or the mariners aboard the Alba_Swords. They were at first stage alert, ready to react the moment an extreme storm event began its life somewhere near the center of Antarctica.
He walked to the display as all the icons continued to glow green. He looked closely at the AWS nodes on and around Dome Argus, a massive, bulging plateau of glacial ice fourteen thousand feet high near the center of the frozen continent. Dome Argus was the spawning grounds of the world’s most powerful wind, the katabatic, a torrent of air that often reached speeds of over two hundred miles an hour blowing down and out to the Antarctic coast. Dome Argus was ground zero for the energy that, when injected into a low pressure cell over the Southern Ocean, would double or even triple the power of the passing storm, resulting in the huge swells sought after by the Alba_Sword fleet. For the moment, however, the data transmitted to Waiya’s system center told him not a breath of wind was stirring on Dome Argus.

If you were standing on the Dome near the AWS this first day of August, you would no doubt marvel at the clarity of the view, the dramatic lighting of an Antarctic sunrise and the pristine perfection of the place. Except for the machine that looks like a NASA satellite sitting in the middle of nowhere, Nature untouched extends to all the horizons. In the atmosphere high above you, however, it is a different story.
Nature is reeling from man’s excesses. Through the hole in the ozone layer, a massive swath of abnormal heat from the North is spinning down into the supercold Antarctic atmosphere. The two forces clash and spiral against each other into an accelerating cyclone drilling down out of the sky. It slams into the ice, and a monstrous wind is born.
But this is no ordinary katabatic.
The sound of a hundred freight trains shatters your silent reverie. Turning around, your eyes go wide with terror as a wall of wind comes out of nowhere at two hundred miles per hour. The katabatic smashes you to the ground, and you can’t hear your own last words, “No! No! This isn’t happening!” as the wind accelerates and literally blows you away.

Damon Waiya stood back from the display so he could see the entire automated weather station network, all its icons glowing bright green. Then one turned yellow - on Dome Argus. The AWS began to report meteorological activity sufficiently rigorous to trigger real-time data transfer. He stepped up to the display and touched the Dome Argus icon. A second panel on the wall lit up, showing the graphs of the instruments as they recorded what was going on in the middle of the nastiest place on earth. He stepped back so he could watch both panels at the same time while focusing primarily on the sensor indicators. Wind speed, direction, barometric pressure, and air density were all in flux, indicating a moment of accelerating phenomena. Then each gauge redlined. Barometric pressure fell to absolute minimum, wind speed went maximum. A red frame began to blink around each display, indicating the integrity of the sensors was being degraded. Then each gauge locked up, and the red border turned to an unblinking black.
Node failures sometimes happened for a variety of technical reasons, but Damon’s instincts told him the AWS was dead not because of any transmission or network errors. He knew that the unit high on Dome Argus had been utterly destroyed.
Waiya spoke quickly into his headset mic.
“VXE-6 OPS, this is OSOM SYSOP. Reporting apparent catastrophic failure AWS-81.77. Repeat. Ice Pirates, this is Damon Waiya. Dome Argus node is dead. Stand-by.”
Waiya went to the control console and sat down slowly. A few quick keystrokes, and the last thirty seconds of the data streams from Dome Argus were displayed on a third panel. He watched the sequence go from green to red to black. For a node to go down like that, something mighty must have happened. He ran the sequence again, but there was no denying that a truly awesome force had destroyed the AWS.
The sound of a Marconi wireless jarred him back to reality. Damon recognized the hand from the cadence of the dots and dashes. It was Ray Seranen, checking in over OSOM’s secure frequency using Morse Code, the simplest communication system ever devised that forced OSOM members and support staff to think straight so that minimum signals contained maximum information.
Damon listened to the dot-and-dash sounds and continued to watch the array of green icons across the interior of Antarctica. With the exception of the small black spot that marked the death of the AWS on Dome Argus, all the other icons were still glowing green. His jury rig was holding, so far. He tapped a message on the brass apparatus next to the trackball on the console.

AWS 81.77 failure Anomaly unknown origin STOP
Event data transfer HQ initiated STOP Await instructions STOP

Eight thousand miles to the north Ray Seranen listened to the squawk box and jotted down the AWS locator code after the transmission ended. He read it a second time, then took a deep breath. His eyelids fluttered for a second, and then his pupils became like lasers.
Seranen turned away from the 'Sparks' station and went to the oversize globe in the center of the room. He walked around it, touching OSOM weather station icons in China, India, Brazil, and other global warming indicator sites. They comprised a distant early sensing system for massive atmospheric heat exchange events. Rows of data from the past forty-eight hours began to roll down a wall display, but he did not bother to read them too closely. He rotated the globe ninety degrees to put the South Pole at eye level. He stepped back to see the entire Southern Hemisphere while the data packet from Dome Argus arrived at the computer near his desk. Ray pushed the file icon across the screen to the input window of his global warming simulation scenario. Thirty minutes later, the printer rolled a sheet out into the tray, face up, with his worst fears staring back at him.
He sat down in front of his roll-top desk and read the printout a second time, the paper trembling slightly in his hands. His global warming models predicted a convulsive release of energy when the atmosphere, having been force-fed the poison of man’s industrial excesses, would eventually have to disgorge the imbalance of energy into a river of supercharged winds. The onslaught of this monumental force would be heralded by a signal from the south in the form of an early warning from the coldest place on earth.
That harbinger of nature unleashed was, Seranen knew without a doubt, precisely what had just obliterated OSOM’s weather station on Dome Argus.

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