The President’s House is in a beautiful situation in front of which is the Potomac with a view of Alexandria. The country around is romantic but wild, a wilderness at present.
- Abigail Adams, November 21, 1800
The Washington Heat Dome
Things fall apart.
- W.B. Yeats
Harrison wrote the forecast himself, something he had not done in decades. It was rarely done anymore, for the weather predictions were spit out by computer, the whirring models of NWSNet endlessly crunching variables and producing predictions for every point in the country, including detailed maps that Harrison had once produced by hand, at the beginning of his career, thirty years ago.
Now, he was a manager, hidden away in an office, supervising a team of meteorologists working out of a bunker thirty miles from Washington, DC. His duties were managerial – formulating budgets, dealing with personnel issues and fending off the increasingly onerous dictates of the National Weather Service. Some days, he never left the square hole of his office and there were men on his staff that he barely recognized when he encountered them in the bathroom. Standing together at the urinals, it was hard to make small talk when you were struggling to remember a name.
So, it was a surprise to everyone when Harrison appeared in the forecast office on Christmas Eve. Meteorologists sat upright at their data displays and put away their iPhones as the Chief entered the bunker, bundled up in his ancient parka. The man disappeared into his office just long enough to throw his jacket down on a chair.
When he emerged, Harrison went right to the NWSNet terminal, their connection to the massive Cray supercomputer that developed weather forecasts and broadcast them to the nation. Everyone tried to look busy, though there was nothing on their scopes, just clear sky from the Chesapeake to the Appalachians. The Chief in the office? This was the most exciting thing that had happened for months and, for a moment, the meteorologists forget the hardship of being away from home on Christmas Eve. Though, in truth, few of them had families, weather being as much an obsession as a vocation and one that they would abandon only under duress. Harrison required his mets leave the office when their shifts ended. Otherwise, they would hang around their terminals for days at a time and the collective stink in the bunker became overwhelming. This was the problem of managing weathermen and it was all men, female forecasters being something rumored but rarely seen.
Harrison sat at the terminal, his inexperience with modern technology catching up to him. The man had grown up drawing up isobars with grease pencils on the midnight shift in Anchorage. While her certainly knew how NWSNet absorbed data from satellites and ground sensors to produce one-day, three-day and seven-day forecasts, the practice of actually sitting at the terminal and getting The Beast (which is what they called the building-sized supercomputer) to spit out a forecast was temporarily beyond him. The Chief stared at the log-in screen.
“You need help, Chief?” someone asked, logging in the man.
“We need to run a Winter Weather Warning,” the boss instructed.
“Yea? It’s cold but we got nothing on radar.”
“I have my reasons.”
And then everyone stopped, even the people pretending to work. They didn’t run Warnings for cold, a term that was reserved for imminent danger, like with a tornado or derecho. Cold wasn’t imminent. Everyone knew it was frigid – it had been that way for days, a blast of Canadian air dipping down over the Atlantic.
“Winter Weather Warning,” the Chief insisted and then someone brought up the graphical forecast map, selecting the set of Washington, DC, and surrounding counties.
“It’s all yours.”
They watched as the Chief pecked away with two fingers a brief message:
WINTER WEATHER WARNING. RAPIDLY DROPPING TEMPS. HYPOTHERMIA LIKELY WITH LOSS OF FINGERS AND TOES. DEATH WITHIN MINUTES. STAY INDOORS.
With their help, the Chief sent the message, the warning sent instantly to TV channels, radio stations, web sites, social media and millions of subscribers.
While the Chief disappeared into the back, where they kept outdated equipment like sagging weather balloons, the men wondered if this was a change in NWS policy. They hadn’t received a circular but this wasn’t the first time that the bosses in Silver Spring had made some arbitrary change in warning criteria and not informed the forecasters. Could they issue Warnings based upon severe cold like the Chief had just done? Not that they cold was that severe and the Chief’s language about loss of fingers and toes was extreme. Sure, theoretically possible, but highly unlikely to anyone with a smidgen of common sense.
The mets debated frostbite, air temperature and wind speeds as applied to an average, sober man outside in light clothes. How long would it take before he lost his digits? As they did this, the Chief emerged from the back holding a radiosonde and a roll of duct tape. The boss said nothing to them. Just picked up his ratty parka and left.
It was the strangest night they had ever experienced in the forecast office.
A year before, Harrison had predicted a snowstorm for Washington. The computer models on NWSNet were in agreement, every run on the Cray indicating six inches or more of snow at the height of the morning rush hour. In another city, a non-story. But this was Washington, which barely functioned on a good day. A half-foot of snow would paralyze roads, send school buses sliding into dark rivers and shut down the fire-prone subway system.
Harrison called the President, warning him of the imminent disaster. Based upon his forecast, the federal government closed for the day, and nearly every other business in the city followed suit. The city brought in snowplows from as far away as Pennsylvania. The airlines sent their planes south ahead of the approaching storm. Panic buying hit grocery stores, as millions discovered a pressing need for milk and toilet paper.
And then it didn’t snow, at least not in DC. Snowed everywhere but the city, a warm donut hole on the radar screens. Inches of the white stuff piled up outside the bunker in Ashburn but in front of the dome of the Capitol, nothing but rain, as Jim Cantore raged on the Weather Channel.
Harrison and his mets watched their displays, waiting for the moment that the temperature would dip below 32 and damp rain would turn to beautiful, paralyzing snow. But it never happened.
Snow was in the atmosphere. Harrison could see it on Doppler, cascading from moisture-rich clouds. Snow at two-thousand feet, one-thousand feet, five-hundred and then inexplicably turning to rain just a few hundred feet from the pavement. The city was protected by a layer of hot air, one that made a mockery of his forecast, turning his supercomputer into a ton of useless silicon.
“The National Weather Service blew it. Al Harrison blew it. Told the President to close the government for this non-event. He needs to do a lot better,” Cantore announced to millions, as rain trickled down his golf umbrella.
After the “bum forecast” the neighbors mocked him. “Thanks for the day off!” one of them shouted across the cul-de-sac as Harrison arrived home that day. His so-called Facebook friends filled his feed with weatherman jokes.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me 92,748 times, you are a weatherman.
Lacking the right data, the models couldn’t resolve the forecast. The heat dome, generated by buildings and streets, was too high for ground-based sensors and too low for radar. Harrison needed to get an instrument package into the layer a few hundred feet above the city. Measure it. Determine its strength. And then feed the data into the model to produce a more accurate forecast. Send Cantore back to the weight room. Shut up the neighbors. Kill off the weatherman jokes.
If he was going to do it officially, as Chief, he’d float a weather balloon over the city, loaded down with a radiosonde. But the skies over DC were a no-fly zone. A no-drone zone. Breach the sensitive space around the Capitol and he’d go to jail. Maybe even get fired.
The drive in was easy, I-66 winding through suburbs until it emerged at the dark Potomac, the bright spire of the Washington Monument sharp against cloudless skies. Harrison heard his warning repeated on talk radio:
The National Weather Service warns of dangerous cold tonight. Loss of fingers and toes if you go outside! Stay inside, people!
He idled down the long rectangle of the National Mall, passing the red brick of the Smithsonian Castle. His car was the only one out. The footpaths were empty. Even the homeless people who clustered near the Metro had found shelter indoors. His warning had worked.
Harrison pulled into a spot under a bare tree and waited, as cold air seeped into the minivan. Certain he was alone, Harrison emerged from his vehicle, zipping his parka up to his chin.
Stars twinkled in the cold darkness along the National Mall. Outside his car, Harrison turned in a circle, searching the dark night for movement. He heard nothing, saw nothing. Then, at the edge of the blackness, a blinking light, growing stronger, a little spot of red approaching down the long line of the sidewalk. He had picked this night and this spot carefully, and only after several scouting missions. There were just a few ornamental lamps along the street, most of which were shielded by trees. The light didn’t reach the grassy Mall, which was a long rectangle of blackness in the center of Washington, enough for a person to hide in. Enough for him to hide in.
But, now, a blinking red light, a warning out of the gloom. Was it the Park Police? They had jurisdiction here, but there weren’t many of them, unlike the more numerous Metropolitan Police Department. Harrison had observed on previous occasions that the Park Police preferred to cluster near the bright columns of the Lincoln Memorial, a popular spot for romantic tours of Washington. And on cold nights, they never left their cars.
He decided to stand his ground. He was legally parked. Not doing anything wrong. Harrison removed the Nikon from his backpack, rehearsing his story. He was an amateur photographer, down here to get night shots of the monuments. Despite the cold – that’s when you got the best shots, right? Harrison pretended to fiddle with his camera.
After a moment, the blinking light resolved itself into the silhouette of jogger. Harrison stood by his minivan, as the man huffed and puffed in a slow amble, his breath in great white clouds enveloping his face. Unexpected. But then he was gone, disappearing into the night.
Harrison put the Nikon away and strode into the dark and grassy center of the Mall. To his right, the bright dome of the Capitol, sharp against a cloudless night sky. To his left, the spire of the Washington Monument, the moon over its shoulder. He was alone. Finally.
Harrison unzipped the backpack. Carefully, he removed the drone. It was a Falcon-28, small, portable and with four rotors to send it into the atmosphere. Taking out the duct tape, Harrison affixed the radiosonde to the bottom of the craft. Not much bigger than a pack of cards, the device would send back temperature readings to the laptop he had in his backpack. With the Falcon and the radiosonde, he would solve the problem of the Washington heat dome, determining its height and variance. The dataset would be fed into NWSNet – he’d call it the Cantore Correction, a final forecast adjustment to include the effect of the hot air above the city.
With a flick on the controller, he sent the drone airborne, four rotors ascending into the darkness. Harrison let it hover for a moment while he removed the laptop. He was receiving data from the radiosonde: temperature, wind speed and altitude scrolled across the screen in a slow crawl. Harrison pushed the drone skyward in a gentle arc above his head, the craft rising above the brightly-lit dome of the National Gallery of Art. His gloved hands sent the drone east, to the spot near the Capitol where Cantore did his snowless standup from a year earlier.
Harrison sat down next to the brightly lit square of the laptop, absorbed by the readings on the screen. The drone was at fifty feet, just above the trees. Temperature was 22 degrees, the same as the ground. He sent the drone up to a hundred. Still 22 degrees. With a flick on the controller, he bid the Falcon fly, beyond 100 feet. And then the temps dropped, falling like a stone into the single digits.
100 feet! The heat dome lay over the city at 100 feet. Above that, temperatures were nearly the same as in the suburbs. The differential was approximately ten degrees.
That was enough information. He had successfully measured the height and impact of the heat dome using a jerry-rigged toy. Ten degrees. The difference between a foot of snow and an inch of rain. Feed this dataset into the supercomputer. No more busted forecasts. No more weatherman jokes.
He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the victory as cold air lapped against his parka.
Glory is fleeting. The radiosonde had stopped transmitting, the numbers frozen on the screen. Harrison hit the space bar with his gloved hands but nothing happened.
He stood and searched the dark skies for his drone. It had tiny red light on the bottom but one that his middle-aged eyes couldn’t see. Harrison worked the controller, pulling the drone back to him, as his gaze scanned the tree line.
Harrison hit the panic button, which would force the drone to earth. The night was empty and still. The Falcon couldn’t hear the falconer.
The drone was gone.