Hurricane Flashback

September 1st, 2008 by Benj Edwards

Hurricane Bertha - 12 Jul 1996

With hurricane Gustav bearing down upon the Gulf coast of America, our minds inevitably turn to the powerful storms and the havoc they rain down upon those living within their reach. Growing up in North Carolina, I’ve experienced a few hurricanes in my short lifespan, even though I don’t live on the coast. The worst for me personally, by far, was Fran, which flew far inland and leveled a hundred trees in my family’s back yard. Hurricanes are ominous and frightening reminders that despite all of mankind’s advances, we have yet to control weather’s powerful and chaotic flow.

But our hands aren’t fully tied: we can watch the weather and try to understand it. And the more we understand something, the less scary it seems. Imagine a hurricane hitting in a time before satellites or weather radar — with no more warning than the changing wind and a darkened sky.

And imagine a hurricane hitting in a time before the Internet, when you couldn’t track its progress live, on demand. Seems silly, right? But we take it for granted.

Hurricane Bertha - 12 Jul 1996

In the mid-1990s, CompuServe (the dial-up computer service) began providing live downloadable satellite and radar images from The Weather Channel. It’s hard to believe now, but this was an absolutely amazing capability at the time. When I saved the images you see here — of hurricane Bertha on July 12th, 1996 — I felt incredibly empowered by the information they conveyed. I also felt privy to knowledge that was seemingly only available to the few at the time, although admittedly you could find similar images on TV.

These low resolution stills are presented actual size; they filled up the whole computer screen when I viewed them in CIM (CompuServe Information Manager) for MS-DOS. I saved them because they were stunning at the time. And I share them now because they remind me of how far we’ve come — not just since 1996, but since civilization began.

Hurricane Bertha - 12 Jul 1996

By comparison, here’s what we have today (I just grabbed this shot from — it was in motion):

Hurricane Gustav - 1 Sept 2008

Thanks to the Internet, viewing on-demand satellite and radar images of hurricanes is now commonplace. But even with twelve years of progress between then and now, we’re still powerless to stop the mighty storms from blowing how they like and going where they please. All we can do is sit and watch as they pass by, crossing our fingers. But it’s better than being completely in the dark.

5 Responses to “Hurricane Flashback”

  1. Teebo Says:

    Indeed we have come far. Do you remember the defunct cable tv channel “AP News Plus”? It was a bunch of news on computer-rendered screens. Every 6 months the weather maps would go wonky, with the vectors going everywhere.

  2. Kitsunexus Says:

    These were usually generated on Amiga, because no other computer could match the sheer awesomeness and power of a hurricane.

  3. Daniel Says:

    Technology advances in weather observation are truly amazing.

    I don’t know how old you are, but I remember the days when the weatherman stood near a wall which had a map of the US, onto which he placed magnetic (or some other sort of sticky) paper/felt cutouts showing where the fronts, highs, and lows were.

    Now we have dual-doppler radar with Navteq street map integration, with zoom.

    It’s really amazing.

  4. Kitsunexus Says:

    Don’t forget that new 3-D polygonal weather display system.

  5. Layne Says:

    I lived in New Orleans (Kenner, actually) from 1994 to 1999. I’ve watched The Weather Channel “24-hours straight” watching hurricane updates. I’ve been on the Internet (ISDN line — woo hoo) and watched the updates. In fact, while I lived there, they still pulled out the guy with the chalk board weather map because he knew hurricanes better than “those silly Weather Channel guys”:

    But, I’ve been amazed by the growth and spread of knowledge because of the Internet (I’ve been net-aware since 1991 in college: WAIS, Gopher, FTP, Telnet, NNTP, SMTP; I speak them all — even that new fangled HTTP). It truely is one of the greatest achievements in my lifetime.


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