Koren Shadmi

​Hypercane

Forget hurricanes. The future is hypercanes—and a world of corporate greed that's been rigged to prevent them.

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Sep 7 2017, 6:00pm

Koren Shadmi

In 2015, on the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy's landfall in New York, Eric Holthaus, one of the top voices working the intersection of meteorology, climate, and media, wrote a story about the dire future of more powerful hurricanes—rather, hypercanes, as he termed them. Two years later, in the year of Harvey and Irma, the story has proved so prescient and powerful that we're running it again. It's increasingly safe to say that the age of the Hypercane is upon us.

The original intro to the post, which offers additional context from its original time of publication, has been appended to the end of the post. -the ed.


"…to Montauk, Long Island, effective until 8 pm Sunday. Repeating, the National Weather Service has issued a hypercane warning from Ocean City, Maryland to Montauk, Long Island, effective until 8 pm Sunday."

The radio crackled to life in the cab of the big Ford super-duty EV, and then it was silent. Just as well.

Mariana preferred to ride in quiet as the self-driving truck did its thing, and though she'd long been fascinated with the weather, she felt herself tuning out as the automated warning was broadcast through the sound system. At first, in the early 2030s, the new 'hypercane' designation for super-strong category 5 hurricanes riddled her with fear each time one approached the coast. This time, the hype surrounding the storm was just annoying. She had work to do.

And, of course, she was headed inland anyway. The state police had reversed the direction of the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70, like they always do for these sorts of storms, and she was joined on the highway by a convoy of vehicles of all shapes and sizes: mostly families from the Baltimore suburbs, all headed toward the foothills of the Appalachians in western Maryland, where the fast-growing cities of Frederick and Hagerstown welcomed them with open arms. Every time a hurricane like this hit, fewer and fewer of the storm-weary coasties decided to make the return trip.

Mariana glanced to the left, and then pressed her forehead against the Ford's side window. She could barely make out the grimy, hulking frame of the coal plant, the R. Paul Smith Power Station. The eerie and distinctive pale crimson glow of the plant's carbon scrubbers surrounded the complex in a mile-wide orb. She suddenly felt sick to her stomach, knowing that the next several hours could define the rest of her career.

She'd heard from a colleague who was tracking a plant in Maine that, during a recent power failure, that something may be up with those scrubbers—designed and manufactured by EnviroCorp to suck planet-cooking carbon out of the sky, and now found outside of just about any major pollution source in the country. He told her he'd noticed some strange readings that may indicate a significant amount of carbon dioxide was actually escaping through EnviroCorp's carbon scrubbers. Strangely, she hadn't heard from him since.

When the forecast for a rapidly intensifying hurricane first hit the newswires on Tuesday, she'd enlisted a few dozen of her friends and co-workers—anyone she could trust, really—to see if they could help her find out more on the off chance any of the scrubbers lost power during the storm. Tonight, all across the northeast, there'd be data collected near EnviroCorp scrubbers to see what, exactly, they were hiding.

She didn't plan on this week's storm reaching hypercane status, but, really, she wasn't that surprised. That makes, what, three years in a row now?

She hadn't brought much with her, just her tablet, a spectrographic camera, a data logger, and a few other pieces of equipment. She could make do living out of a suitcase for a little while. The bigger question was whether or not the university, which was much closer to sea level than her apartment building, would be there when she got back. They'd already begun relocating some of academic programs to Hagerstown last year.

***

Inside the power plant, EnviroCorp officials were finishing up a weather briefing before finalizing their emergency shutdown procedures. The carbon scrubbers were the tricky part: The electrostatic field generators at the core of the capture devices were especially sensitive to wind speeds above 150 MPH, the plant operators had learned, so this storm would be a good test.

They were running with a skeleton crew this evening, as most of the plant's functions were automated. The assistant plant manager, Lucas Boyd, was in charge for the time being. He'd been the one to suggest beefed-up security during the storm, owing to the uncertainties with the scrubbers, and his supervisors had been wise enough to agree.

Out the window, he could see a team of two armed guards making their rounds along the plant's perimeter, their silhouettes outlined in crimson. The glow from the scrubbers made it difficult for his detail to move around in the open without being easily seen, but not being seen wasn't really the point if your job was to hold a military-grade laser rifle.

Boyd was a student of history. If illegal intruders forced his hand, again, a little show of force wouldn't hurt, especially with so many coasties in town. The coastal districts were a big source of political support for EnviroCorp, after all, and the big climate mitigation funding renewal currently under consideration in Congress was still under debate. Even in the dark times of the storm, our commitment to fighting climate change must persist, he'd said in the press release earlier that day, that's why we can't allow any disturbance, any slack in the system, even now.

In hindsight, he thought, the landmark, bipartisan carbon tax swap deal in 2024 helped make this sort of thing possible. After the US eliminated all corporate taxes and launched its "Greening America" initiative—which essentially turned every smokestack and tailpipe in the country into a profit opportunity—EnviroCorp quickly grew from a niche company to a bedrock of political power. Coal plants shuttered decades ago, like Boyd's, were restarted with a promise that they'd be emissions-free. Even better: The scrubbers EnviroCorp sold would be carbon-negative—literally sucking CO2 out of the air. It was a win-win.

As a result, official data showed America's net carbon emissions were in a freefall, even all these years later. According to the data.

For every ton of carbon dioxide EnviroCorp kept out of the sky, it made approximately a hundred dollars. That may not sound like much, but it added up, and fast. They'd learned their lesson from the Volkswagen case long ago: With EnviroCorp proprietary software tracking scrubbers at every plant, every factory, every highway in the US—that's a lot of carbon credits. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth each year.

Boyd looked out the window with just a hint of anxiety. He also knew what every EnviroCorps executive knew: they'd been gaming the system for decades now, buying political influence along the way until their reign over the American economy was virtually unquestioned. Sure, global carbon emissions hadn't yet peaked, but EnviroCorp was ON IT. He called security and told them to be extra-vigilant. Just for good measure.

"…winds in excess of 200 miles per hour. All window shields and domestic surge barriers should be activated at this time. Repeating, an evacuation order is in effect for Zones A and B, including the cities of Philadelphia and New York City. Those choosing to stay should be prepared for…"

That damn thing again.

As night fell, Mariana directed her Ford toward an old forest road at the edge of the coal plant's property. As the truck crossed a triple set of train tracks, she could see the freight train cars lined up, loaded with Appalachian coal, ready to be tossed into the power station's inferno. Though this particular plant was now nearly a century old, occasional retrofits had kept it operating, with a brief pause in the mid-2010s during that period of uncertainty before the United States decided to become a "world leader" on climate change.

She scoffed, thinking about how the political rhetoric had changed since then. Everyone was so much more cynical now that it was clear humanity wasn't going to get through the century without some serious planetary shit going down. That blip of joyous optimism was long gone. Now, EnviroCorp got paid to tell us everything was going to be all right.

This is the place. And tonight's the night.

"Headlights off," she said. She'd have to go this final stretch in near darkness, though her eyes were already adjusting to the crimson world around her. Those damn scrubbers.

She remembered how cold and scared she felt after she and her father—and just she and her father—swam to safety when Hurricane Margaret flooded her childhood home in Jersey City back in 2026, and shuddered. She hoped this weekend's storm wouldn't spawn similar nightmares for other kids, but she knew better. She told herself, for the thousandth time, to block that night from her memory.

Anyway, if one of the plant's scrubbers went down, even for a minute, it could prove once and for all that the core of the country's corporate carbon-sucking program was a scam. This was a chance to set the record straight. As the scrubber was shutting down, if she was close enough, she'd be able to get through the coal plant's carbon firewall and extrapolate their effectiveness to thousands of others like this across the country. A hypercane provided the perfect opportunity.

The Ford came to a halt. She'd have to get a line-of-sight view of the entire complex, and the scrubber core as well. The trees would provide some cover, but as long as the scrubbers were running, everything around her was bathed in a pale red glow. She put on a thermal suit to block her heat signature, and to keep off the rain.

She heard footsteps, and swung around to see a family of deer. She loved being in the woods, but goddamn it, not tonight.

As she walked through the forest, her breathing echoed in her ears, dulled only slightly at this close range by the suit's sound-canceling feature. It took only a few minutes to come to the top of a small hill, where she could see the entire plant below. She hit record on the camera, and switched on the data logger.

Overhead, lightning began to crackle, and the wind began to pick up. And then, suddenly, the entire world went black.

***

Rrrrrrrreeeeeee Rrrrrrrreeeeeee Rrrrrrrreeeeeee

"Somebody turn that damn noise off now!"

Klaxon sirens blared throughout the power station's small cluster of offices, and Boyd knew he was in trouble. There'd been an anomalous heat signature detected near the perimeter of the campus, and while Boyd was on the phone to dispatch a security team to investigate, the lightning had apparently set up a harmonic interference with the scrubber system and the main core had overloaded. In an instant, practically all the readouts in the plant's control room were pegged into the "critical" zone.

Boyd was furious, but at this point, whatever happened was probably out of his control. Normally, the scrubber's AI would have been able to contain the power surge, but these hypercanes were more electrically charged than your everyday thunderstorm.

There was no way to get a tech crew here tonight to put the system back online, so the rest of the plants functions had gone into emergency shutdown mode. What Boyd didn't notice was that there'd also been a breach in the carbon dioxide containment facility—which, officially, didn't exist. EnviroCorp installed them around the country decades ago, during their initial round of scrubber retrofits, to buy time until they perfected the technology behind the "negative" part of the carbon-negative scrubbers. That time had never come.

But hey, at least he was right about beefing up security. In just a few seconds, the security team had confirmed an intruder.

"Whoever it is, get 'em."

***

Mariana's heart raced. Apparently, they were shutting the scrubbers down—or—

She stared at her camera's spectrographic readout. The bar indicating carbon dioxide was going through the roof. The plant was still running, and something had happened that was allowing carbon dioxide to escape, and in huge amounts. It was almost as if years worth of stored carbon from this plant was—it couldn't be.

Her fascination with the data turned almost instantly to anger. My God, if this was happening everywhere—

She switched the data logger into "broadcast" mode. It quickly acquired one, then two, then five satellites—enough for the data to instantly be archived on the web, with no encryption. Someone else besides her would see this, and hopefully be able to figure out what it meant.

In her excitement, she noticed a tear in the suit's sleeve. Almost as suddenly, a bright spotlight shone down on her. It didn't matter. Whatever they'd say or do to her was already public knowledge. It was the happiest moment of her life.


[Original intro] Today is the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, and many impacted communities are still recovering. Since then, hurricanes have only grown stronger and more fearsome—last week saw the most powerful hurricane ever recorded develop off the coast of Mexico—and climate change will continue the trend. So, today, we bring you a speculation about the future of hurricanes, or, rather, hypercanes, as one MIT study says some of these storms should soon be termed, from one of the internet's top meteorologists and climate writers, Eric Holthaus. Here, we find a world where corporations have harnessed technology to profit off the belated drive to reduce carbon emissions—yet one enterprising professor may hold the key to exposing the fraud amidst the storm. -the Eds