Atmospheric carnage: why I love the thrill of summer storms

Their destructive power forces you to recall the vulnerabilities of your human frame.

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Driving on the M25 one summer evening many years ago, I found myself headed straight for a wide column of storm-lit rainbow above Heathrow. The sky was congested and bruised, and even though I was travelling at 70 miles an hour, the pull of wind towards the storm tugged at the car, rushing across the elevated motorway section to fill the vacancy left by air pulled up thousands of feet to the cloud’s blossoming apex.

I couldn’t see its white top being stroked windward, but I could see the small crosses that were transatlantic jets steering their courses around the storm’s perimeter. Half-feared for them. There were clips of lightning through this atmospheric carnage, and small turquoise pools of clear sky. And across one of these I saw a flock of parakeets flying straight and fast, with clipped wingbeats and streaming tails straight out behind them. It was a moment cut from a few seconds of moving history that will hang bright in my mind forever.

Most summer weather seems to me simply a backdrop to half-remembered scenes: a sun-baked lawn, misty mornings by the sea, city streets in the rain. All my clearest summer memories are of storms.

That afternoon in the early 1980s when I heard my first nightingale singing into charged grey air, accompanied by distant thunder that swung closer and seemed a voice answering the bird. Or that hot week in Gloucestershire in the 1990s when thunderstorms came every evening so the air turned sepia at six; and before the first drops of storm rain sent pollen dust up in puffs from the skylight I’d open the windows and wait for thunder while little owls called through the thick air, and in the morning tiny white dots of storm-blown blossom covered the house with wet French lace.

It’s taken me years to realise that I’ve measured all my summers by their storms.

There are people in America who climb into cars to chase thunderclouds across the Great Plains. But part of the thrill of British summer storms is not that one seeks them out, but that when the conditions are right, they come to you. For all the anxiety that spreads within you as you hear the crackling static of lightning breaking through voices on the radio, or smell the petrichor of newly soaked ground borne in on a rising wind, the predictability of the life cycle of a thunderstorm is strangely reassuring.

Stand far enough away and you can watch a summer cumulus, a thing of sun-warmed air and water, grow into an entity the size of a mountain, unleash hail and brilliant hell, then disappear. A thundercloud takes perhaps an hour or so to cycle through its life, first stretching and pushing upwards until its top hits the troposphere and is pushed sideways and brushed into ice.

As water droplets are pulled up into the cloud they freeze, eventually growing too heavy to ascend further, and so they fall, bumping into smaller fragments on their way up. Each collision transfers electrons so that the lower parts of the cloud collect a negative charge while the upper parts collect a positive charge. Eventually lightning leaps across these differentials between the cloud’s top, its base, and the ground, casting out shock waves of superheated air that make the sound of thunder.

The destructive power of storms forces you to recall the vulnerabilities of your human frame, and all the limits, safeties and certainties of your everyday world. Unplug your television. Get out of the bath. Do not shower. Stand away from windows.

But storms are made of more than stuff. They’re also things of metaphors and memory. Storms distressed my grandmother; to her, thunder recalled the terror of the Blitz. But to me thunder still carries the charge of that glowing moment as my father explained to small me how storms are born from sunlight and hot earth, moving air and water, and how you can count the seconds it takes between lightning and thunder – one Mississippi, two Mississippi – to work out how far away the storm is.

Five seconds is a mile. You can calculate its progress towards you. And even now when I count those seconds, I feel a slow wonder that is as much connected to the passage of years as it is to that of a cloud over rain-soaked ground.

Summer storms conjure distance and time but conjure, too, all the things that come towards us over which we have no control. Such storms have their place in literature; the heavy air and mood of suppressed emotion as the storm brews so often stand for an inevitable catastrophe. A murder, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or Leo’s revelation in L P Hartley’s The Go-Between.

No weather so perfectly conjures a sense of foreboding, of anticipation and waiting, as the eerie stillness that often occurs before the first fat drops of rain, when storm-light makes luminous all roofs and fields and strands black silhouettes of trees on the horizon. This is the storm as expectation. As solution about to be offered. Or all hell about to break loose.

And as the weeks of this summer draw on, I can’t help but think that this is the weather we are all now made of. All of us waiting. Waiting for news. Waiting for Brexit to hit us. Waiting for the next revelation about the Trump administration. Waiting for hope, stranded in that strange light that stills our hearts. 

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H is for Hawk” (Vintage)

This article appears in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue