‘Everything is so quiet. It’s weirdly eerie.’ ‘Well, obviously there’s a storm coming.’ ‘How can you be so sure?’ ‘Don’t you know? There’s always a calm right before the storm.’
You must have heard this sailor’s adage more often than not, especially when you’re in the company of an “I-take-everything-seriously” philosopher type of friend. Is it one of those phrases that actually have no basis in reality, or is there some truth tangled up in this old adage?
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Is There Always a Calm?
Yes and no. Sometimes, there can be a eerie stillness preceding a storm, but at other times, the storm can simply decide to skip this formality and announce its arrival by displaying some seriously ominous signs in the sky (like when clouds start accumulating and rumbling at the same time).
This uncanny phenomenon also changes its form and severity depending on the type of storm that is approaching. So, for a light thunderstorm, there would be a little wind and an accumulation of dark clouds, whereas for a tornado, there can be an unusual rustling of leaves and branches of trees (which can be very scary, by the way) and abrupt and tumultuous downpours. This rather mysterious phenomenon has piqued the attention of humans for centuries, and now it’s time to unravel it.
Science of a Storm
In order to propagate, storms need warm and moist air. In order to achieve this, they pull this type of air from their surroundings. This kind of air is drawn randomly from all directions of the storm, including the direction in which the storm is moving.
The moist air is pulled inside a storm and travels up through the storm to fuel it. As this air is drawn inside the storm system, it leaves behind a low-pressure vacuum in its wake. The updraft of the storm takes the moist air all the way to the top of the storm, where it’s spit out and sent into the rolling arms of hurricanes or tornadoes, or the head of the thunderclouds. This air then begins to descend after completing its journey through the clouds and becomes warmer and drier.
Dry and warm air is more stable and therefore fully envelops a region (the region from where it had first drawn air, which can be the direction in which the storm is going). This is why there is often a feeling of calmness just before a storm begins.
Different Storms, Different Conditions
This theory basically explains why we feel that sense of calm just before a storm; however, it cannot be said with certainty that there will always be this type of calm before a storm. For instance, there may be cases when the weather becomes unusually erratic just before a storm; this is because there may not be one, but actually a host of storm systems at play that interact in different ways to eliminate any chance of “calmness”.
Your best bet is to keep yourself updated with weather forecast reports for any predictions regarding an impending storm in your area. That’s the most reliable and sensible way to predict the next display of nature’s temper. However, when you feel the air go still around you and the wind dies down, after the sky has turned a strange shade of green or blue, it may be time to run for cover – a storm is probably coming!
The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future – Updated Edition (Princeton Science Library, 31)