Now that the dust, er, sand has settled a little, I got to thinking about recent Novembers. Actually, to be specific, about recent November storms. Some of these have names, like the Thanksgiving Storm (2006) or Hurricane Noel (2007). Some don’t, but I remember them anyway, like the late November storm two years ago, that followed Noel and sent its own big waves crashing shoreward nearly three weeks later. Of course, all this remembering led to some wondering, some comparing. Comparing is one of those skills we humans utilize to help us find our way, literally and emotionally. This is a lot like that, and here’s what we did (or didn’t do) then. As northeasters go, this mid-November storm packed enough of a wallop to merit its own name (Veteran’s Day Storm since it began on the 11th, even though the highest tides occurred on the 12th and 13th). In many spots, like the infamous Rodanthe S curves, this storm seems worse than the Thanksgiving storm; for our tiny part of Nags Head, along the beach road at mp 11, this storm produced less flooding in our precise location than the Thanksgiving storm did.
Sometimes I find the most dramatic images after a storm, when the wind shifts around to the west, spraying the tops of still-huge waves seaward, and the sun comes back out. In the midst of the blow, individual waves are hard to discern, as the ocean surges toward the dunes in a great, frothy, foamy boil. It’s the “before” and “after” that surfers like, when the waves are clean and curling, not the “during” when the Atlantic looks like a commercial for Scrubbing Bubbles. After the Thanksgiving Storm in 2006, I walked the beach at Kitty Hawk near the Black Pelican. What was left of the dune line looked like Bryce Canyon hoodoo rocks on a smaller scale. I was busy exploring the world at my feet. The storm had deposited huge mounds of broken reeds and grass in undulating lines, with plenty of skate and whelk egg cases for interest. The weather had turned cold; I was bundled from the wind and grateful for a clear day despite the chill. High cirrus clouds swirled overhead; the sun was about an hour and fifteen minutes before setting. I had an impulse that came as a fully formed thought, as if beginning a conversation. I’ve come to listen for that voice in my quiet times but was not listening now as much as looking. The impulse said, look up! I continued to look down. The impulse said, look up, a little more insistent, as if someone had turned the volume up a notch. I looked up. There, directly above my upturned face was an upside-down rainbow. On autopilot, I swung my camera up to meet my eyes and focused on the phenomenon through my lens. Click, click, click, click, click. I looked back down at my feet, the world I know. I looked back up—the sky was clear, just that fast. I checked my memory card to assure myself I had not imagined the whole thing. What was that? Comparing with what I had experienced before gave me no reference point. Viva la internet. Google told me I had witnessed a circumzenithal arc. The arc requires a specific set of conditions: it appears only when the sun is low in the sky. It requires cold conditions with cirrus clouds whose ice crystals refract the setting sun’s light. It is only seen overhead (that’s the zenith part) and always appears to be upside down. Now that I have seen one, I spend a great part of my winter early mornings and late afternoons with my head thrown back, looking for cirrus clouds and sudden sky smiles. Maybe something in the post-storm atmosphere helped create the exact conditions needed, as a traditional rainbow appears when the light breaks through after the rain.
Those who are busy trying to dry out and assess damage and rebuild dreams or dunes or decks will do their own comparing, of course, in terms economic and specific and personal to them, as they should. Meteorologists and weather-wise folk and all the rest of us will do that too, to greater or lesser degree. However you rank the Veteran’s Day Storm of 2009, I thought you might be interested in some of these other November northeasters—for comparison purposes.