“Read this!” Erick Brenstrum thrusts a page into my hand just as my bum hits the sofa. It’s an account of a storm in 17th century England. Wild weather turned a coastal dune into a sand storm, a whirling blanket that smothered a landowner’s estate, burying 18 homes, ending the livelihood of its tenants and reducing the lord of the manor to penury.
I’m tempted to say that Erick Brenstrum loves storms, but he doesn’t. Rather, he is fascinated by weather and climate, in all its extremes. He likes history too, and the two are often more closely intertwined than the official histories admit; a point that has had him on the brink of fisticuffs with a noted historian who wouldn’t have an isobar of it.
Weather: he thinks about it, reads about it, writes about it (refer page 24) and loves to talk about it, to demystify it for anyone prepared to listen. That started years ago when a flatmate asked him to explain a piece of local weather over breakfast. The table became a weather map. A teapot became a depression. Salt and pepper shakers were complex troughs and the spoons stood in for an advancing pressure system.
Breakfast turned into an open lecture and no one told him to stop.
That was an important moment.
And I’m fascinated by his fascination. Weather is described by non-linear mathematics, the too-messy basket of physics. You crunch numbers only to obtain an approximation. How infuriating is that? NASA scientists don’t even have to consult Einstein—they can apply Newtonian concepts to programme a remote craft to fly through a gap in the rings of Saturn six years from now. They deal with certainty. Even quantum physicists, who delve into the through-the-looking-glass world of subatomic ephemera, can make reliable predictions and construct working machines based on those predictions. I put it to Erick that it must be galling for him, a senior meteorologist with MetService, to issue a storm warning and get fine weather? And it must be frustrating when members of the public lose faith and turn to amateurs and soothsayers for their forecasts? I mean, no one scoffed at NASA when they predicted Shoemaker-Levy 9 would collide with Jupiter, did they? It’s frustrating, Erick, isn’t it?
Well it is. But it’s also not that simple. And he has no hesitation explaining why it isn’t so simple with an anecdote. One of his colleagues received a call from someone wanting to know if she could hang out the washing. “Where do you live? … Suburb? …Which street? …What number? …Front lawn or back lawn? …Yeah, fine!”
That meteorologist was being mischievous, but also touched on a truth. Perhaps it didn’t rain on Rakino, close to Auckland, when MetService predicted rain for Auckland, but the point is, it rained in Auckland. Forecasts are general and weather is specific. No one looks at yesterday’s weather radar to see how well the two really matched. Brenstrum might issue a weather warning to boaties who spend a good day on the golf course, wonder what the fuss is about and curse MetService. But no one died on rough seas that actually happened and weren’t sailed on.
Are we being melodramatic? “I’ve wept reading about lives lost in weather we predicted. That’s so unnecessary.”
He’s right, of course.
“I’m flying to Auckland on Sunday morning,” I say, seizing an opportunity for a private consultation, “will the flight be cancelled?”
“You’ll be alright,” Erick assures me. “The storm we’re tracking is a doozy, but the last analysis I saw has it clipping Northland and tracking through to the East Cape. We hope that happens or that it misses altogether. A much worse scenario is that it passes through the central North Island. That could cause havoc. It’s an intense system and these things move pretty quickly.”
My flight wasn’t cancelled and Erick’s storm followed the course his long-range analysis predicted—hammering Northland with 174km/h
winds, the fringes causing problems in Auckland and eastern Waikato. Two fishermen lost their lives when their boat ran aground. The death toll could have been far worse had it not been
predicted so accurately, and so far in advance. We can joke about meteorologists when the little dome of sky overhead bears scant resemblance to a regional forecast, but some of us would not be here today were it not for Erick, his brethren and his breakfast table.