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Sep 21, 2012

Science :: Fighting a Windy Giant

The ice-blue, 50-story office tower looming over my low-slung Queens neighborhood seems to have a weather system all its own. On a still, sultry August afternoon, a pleasant breeze snakes through its courtyard, rustling the leaves of the birch trees planted there and lofting drops of water from the fountain across the street. At other times, the mood around my behemoth is not so benign. An ordinary summer rain can be transformed into something rageful; walking through the puddles afterward, you see trash cans stuffed to overflowing with disarticulated umbrellas. And when a real storm blows through, the building whips up vortices intense enough to smash birds lethally into the windows.

Every time I walk into these freakish, localized gales, springing up while a block away there was nary a breeze, it seems like more than physics is at work. The wind feels purposeful, mysterious, even personal. It kind of creeps me out.

In a sense there truly is a grand conspiracy going on. Every storm and every gentle eddy of air traces its energy back to the solar rays—173 petawatts of energy beating down on our planet, relentlessly heating the air and stirring the atmosphere. (A petawatt is a billion megawatts. We’re in literally astronomical territory here.) That’s what I’m up against. That’s what I want to understand...

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