Friday, April 29, 2005

The Storm Of The Century

Weather is a funny thing these days. The September National Geographic had a large section on climate change that was frightening to read, but it's another thing, entirely, to experience it for yourself and see your environment changing.

Cape Town has been experiencing a drought, which eventually resulted in water restrictions being implemented in October, and then worse ones being implemented in February. Our administration waited until it was too late, instead of implementing a plan years ago. Due to the restrictions we've watched helplessly as gardens have fallen apart and beautiful plants have died, one by one, and we've learnt to save grey water in the oddest places and redirect runoff from all over to try and save our precious gardens and keep our swimming pools filled (about the only places we can go to to escape the heat). It feels as if we're in the middle of a desert, rather than a coastal city with a Mediterranean climate.

A couple of weeks ago, something miraculous happened. I had been feeling it in the air for a while (and logically it was inevitable), but it still always catches you by surprise. We had a thunderstorm. For many places that may not be particularly exciting, but Cape Town rarely has thunderstorms. If we do, they're usually short and not particularly dramatic, and most often will happen in October.

It was a Sunday afternoon. The morning has been unseasonably warm for April, but later I began to feel a chill in the air. It got colder and colder, and eventually darker and darker, too, as grey clouds suddenly amassed in the air.

At 15:00 it started raining big, sporadic drops; some of the biggest drops that I have ever seen.

By 15:05 it was raining hard. Really hard.

By 15:10 it was raining so hard that the gutters, unable to cope, began to overflow and water began to rush down some of our outside walls (thankfully it didn't get inside). It was one of the weirdest things I'd ever seen.

By 15:15 the ground was covered with hail. In my area the stones were quite small, but in other areas some were as large as matchboxes.

By 15:20 the swimming pool had turned from a sparkling blue to a sickly green colour, as rain and muck ran into it.

After about an hour the storm had calmed to more normal soft, soaking rain, but it continued, with only the briefest of breaks here and there, for the next day. It felt like typical August winter weather. In other areas of Cape Town, towards the evening, the storm strengthened again and the houses of a number of people I know were flooded.

Meanwhile, the thunderstorm went on and on. When I went to bed just after midnight it was still going on – brilliant flashes of lightning with thunder that just rolled and rolled, sometimes nearby, sometimes far away. I think the storm eventually calmed in the early hours of the Monday morning. The entire length of the thunderstorm was probably equal to the total number of thunderstorms that we'd experienced in the last ten years here.

About a week later I noticed that plants all over were suddenly springing back to life, with new growth beginning to sprout all over from branches that I thought were long dead. There is a small outdoor food kiosk that I pass every evening as I walk to the car, and it has a little area next to it, marked out with planters than contain lavender plants, where people can sit and eat their lunches. I thought that the poor plants had long since died - they slowly lost all their leaves and then turned brown and began to shrivel – but about a week after the rain some of them suddenly sprung back to life, which was an amazing thing to see.

However, late last week I was reminded that we are still in a drought. I had the opportunity to travel inland (slightly) through a number of farming communities, and while some farms struggle on, a number have just disappeared – there is nothing left but dry, brown earth and the faint marks of tractors and other vehicles. Of the farms that are still going, many have dams that are on the verge of drying up. You can see where the water level usually reaches and it's nowhere near where the water level now is. It seems impossible that the dams could ever have been as full as the original water lines suggest.

Winter is approaching, which will bring wet weather with it, but I suspect that this drought is just the beginning of a permanent shift in our weather. It's quite scary as the population of the city and surrounding areas keeps increasing, but the water is disappearing even though we are right on the coast and many of us see the sea every day as we drive to work, or look through our office windows. But all this water, which is slowly rising due to global warming, is currently useless to us.

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