Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thunder and Corn, Earthquakes and Wine

Thunder and Corn, Earthquakes and Wine
Charles Jordan

Powerful lightning discharges electrify the neighborhood.  Rolling thunder's delay signals how close.Two megavolts discharges through ionizing vertical winds and menacing clouds up to 50,000 feet high.  The vertical winds sometimes wrap around themselves and form a tornadic vortex of dangerous energy, a possibility which forced the city’s fathers to install a warning siren, tested every Tuesday at 10 AM.  Despite this threatening power, this is just an ordinary Midwestern thunderstorm, one of half a dozen or so that may roll through Champaign, IL in a typical summer week. The pulsating illumination and loud crashes of close strikes that sound like huge tree limbs cracking, or perhaps exploding, are altogether quite intimidating as forces of impious nature, bringing to mind feelings of insecurity engendered by earthquakes in California where I live for most of the year, and they are much more common.

A thunderstorm’s towering clouds are a natural Van de Graaf accelerator with a 200-mph vertical wind as the charging belt—the wind ripping electrons off air molecules close to the ground and driving them to the top of the column of water vapor. As the charge reaching the top increases, the voltage compared to the ground  and the energy gets bigger and bigger.    Finally the air in between can't hold it back any longer, and the energy discharges with a current of around 50,000 amperes.  These events are driven by dramatic temperature differentials between heated moist air from the Gulf of Mexico (100+°F) rotating clockwise around a high pressure/high temperature center in the South—Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, etc.), and cooler air from Canada and the Rockies rotating around a low pressure center in the High Plains. This interface generates a line of thunderstorms that flows inexorably from Oklahoma  through St. Louis toward Chicago and Lake Michigan right over the general area of Champaign. The line of thunderstorms drifts slowly eastward as well as the low pressure bowl in the high plains pushes the high pressure before it. The cooler low pressure air brings an additional feeling of relief in the summer after the violence of the storms.

Meteorological details determine whether individual thunderstorms travel exactly over Champaign Illinois, the site of our wing in our daughter’s house near the University of Illinois campus, where she and our son-in-law are professors of music. Since the thunderstorm trajectory is rather consistent through the summer, a number of severe thunderstorms pass over, dumping electrons and water at sound levels equal to the operatic music frequently resounding in the music room.

The river of thunderstorms is rather narrow and they generally move fast, appearing and disappearing at a moment's notice (30 to 55 mph)  They rarely drop significant rainfall on our house, but when the center of a thunderstorm passes directly overhead, blinding precipitation can overwhelm downspouts and drainpipes, gutters, storm drains, and city streets in minutes, despite three well-engineered, large-scale municipal stormwater retention complexes. A few times a year, situations are such that the river of storm continues to flow over Champaign, and the lightning discharges continue for up to 30 minutes.

An earthquake is also an exciting, frightening thing. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (magnitude 6.9), a young man was sleeping when his house and the bed he was in slid a few hundred feet down the hill. Luckily, he was not harmed, though I doubt he will forget that event.  And many lives were lost on a double decker freeway in Oakland when the top roadway collapsed on the lower roadway. But earthquakes are over in a few minutes, and since 1989 there hadn’t been any earthquake as strong as the Loma Prieta earthquake. 

In 2014, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake occurred on August 25 in the Napa Valley wine country, not far from our West Coast home base on Highway 1 near Half Moon Bay. The national news networks widely and sympathetically reported from various wineries, where whole racks of expensive aged wine had crashed to the ground, and casks of un-bottled vintage wine, stacked to the rafters in storage sheds, some in Napa-Sonoma hill caves, tumbled to the floor as support racks failed with the shaking of the quake.

In the Midwest, repeated heavy storms can lead to localized or widespread flooding, many times with as much loss of life as that resulting from the earthquakes in California, and with great economic impact on Midwest agriculture and its most notable item, corn..  Perhaps the loss of corn isn’t as glamorous as the loss of wine and doesn’t lead to the same gnashing of teeth and feelings of personal tragedy among the general populace.  But consider that the corn market was $63.9B planted on 84 million acres in 2011, whereas the wine market was $34.6B planted on 878 thousand acres. The actual growing of grapes isn’t affected by an earthquake, only the wine, and by recent estimates, even the latest earthquake in Napa is not expected to have a large impact on the wine business. Yet the vintners in California had their psyches shattered as thoroughly as any corn farmer’s in a flood, because earthquakes don’t happen that often, and normally not in wine country. Locked storerooms leaking large volumes of magnificent vintage on the ground to be absorbed by the dust are not usual. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…vintage irrigation! Oy vey!

Economics aside, in terms of excitement, the drama of watching megavolt/megaamp lightning discharges stokes the psyche as well or better than the response of the senses to a well-modulated, delicious, alcohol-rich glass of Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel grape juice.

In the heat of the end of summer, as school starts, my grandchildren and other students at the non air-conditioned Central High School in Champaign, Illinois will be sent home at noon. Thoughts of the loss of wine due to an earthquake in California will probably not be on their minds, but they are likely to hope for a friendly thunderstorm to cool the air.  Many of their parents will root for that same rain to keep their gardens and the projected record corn crop on track.

The vintners of Napa will be scratching their heads trying to decide whether such an earthquake will happen again in their lifetime and what they can or should do about it. The rest of the nation might be reading their papers or iPhone news about something like ISIS in Syria with a glass of Chardonnay, and some snacks sweetened with corn syrup.