The Coriolis Effect can be small. On our spinning orb of a home the equator moves fastest and speed drops as you move towards the poles. Stare at a record turntable for a few minutes (if you can find one) and you’ll understand. This difference in speed has an influence on motion in the water and atmosphere. Air masses and water currents are dragged along at these different rates as they move across the planet. Because of this we once liked to say that our toilet bowls and showers drained clockwise in the Northern hemisphere, anticlockwise in the South. An old Simpsons episode had a gag about expensive toilets in the US embassy in Australia that reverse the flow for the psychological comfort of American citizens down under.
The truth is that the alignment of your faucet or the imperceptible imperfections in your porcelain will have far more influence on the way the water swirls. On such a small scale, the width of a sink, the Coriolis Effect is swamped by other local forces. Is this a truth that matters? Is our urban legend about drains worth the fantasy? When was the last time you paid attention to the spinning in your sink drain?
One a bigger scale this effect is meaningful. It is one of many factors that influence our largest storms. In fact they would likely not build into spinning masses without it. The chaos and destruction, the regeneration and dynamism of our biosphere is dependent on the rotation of our planet and the entire surface of Earth would be unrecognizable without it. Over wide ocean spaces and with continuous input of energy, a smidge of extra warmth that to a swimmer would go unnoticed, a swirling mass is created that can cover a whole sea or engulf a large portion of a continent. It will spin a perfectly reliable anticlockwise in our Northern hemisphere or clockwise in the Southern. Cyclones are a powerful realization of innumerable tiny actions persistently combined into a common force. On this scale facts matter. Observations and measurements, work by untold thousands of researchers working over the recent centuries have given us the ability to know these storms well enough that people have some chance at preparation and there is plenty still left to learn.
Perhaps there is no such thing as bad weather, there is just better or worse adaptation. We should be asking if building homes on sandy barrier islands or draining wetlands and estuaries or filling flood basins with tract homes is wise for long term dwelling. While in Louisiana, we witnessed properties rebuilt along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Many were simple structures to accommodate a trailer or fifth wheel, something that could be quickly evacuated. Others were status quo homes, raised a bit, but still built right up to the a sandy beach waiting to bear the brunt of the next storm surge. I don’t live in the most water resistant home so I know which approach I’d take.
Here in California we might have been careful what we asked for. After years of deepening drought we have been deluged by record rains causing widespread issues with landslides and localized flooding, undercutting roads and bridges or covering them in debris. Sinkholes have swallowed cars and the water storage infrastructure is strained, such as the the nation’s tallest dam at Oroville. The snowpack does not reach down to particularly low elevations but it is thick and moisture ladened in the high country hitting record depths in the Lake Tahoe Basin as I write. Those swirling winds driven by the Coriolis like a bicycle chain cranking these rivers of warm moisture right into the West Coast. California’s wet winters and dry summers created a rich diversity of ecosystems and allowed for one one the most fertile agricultural regions the world has ever seen. These are reliant on a particular climate, one that created an irreplaceable frozen reservoir in the High Sierra that releases abundant water when the the dry lands below need it most. This is most likely changing to a significantly different mode, one that we’ll need all hands on deck to prepare for.
It is hard to be prepared for something if you don’t want to see it coming. A social climate of deliberate obfuscation, denial of facts, a glorification of ignorance as a virtue will leave us naked and underprepared. This dystopian phenomenon is the center of gravity that I’ve found nearly all my recent conversations circling towards, like so much waste crowding toward the sewer, like a hard black stone in the pit of my stomach. Maybe this is part of the process of exorcism, releasing the bile, clearing space to fill with healthier fare. I can hope for an effective flushing process. I may now be paying closer attention the swirls in my drains. I’m definitely interested the sea changes on the streets and in our hearts. I sense a flourishing of inputs collecting and new directions of movement. Something far more substantial than an uninterrupted stream of asthmatic and vitriolic, bluster. Enough voices coming together that when those in its path choose put their heads in the sand they’ll eventually look up to see their beachhead washed away.