June 25, 2023

Conspiracy theories are security blankets for scared adults, and they’re suffocating us

Disasters force us to confront our own mortality, serving as reminders that any one of us could also succumb to the bad fortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Every calamity plucks at our core fears of losing our lives, our loved ones, our homes, and our memories to forces that are largely beyond our control. The very fact that these disasters are just that—beyond our control—is what makes them so horrifying.

Society can prepare for storms and mitigate the effects of most catastrophes, but in the end, we can’t stop a tornado in its tracks. No amount of human ingenuity can halt the earth from quaking.

We’re wired to develop coping mechanisms to get on with our lives in the face of those tiny odds of falling victim to misfortune.

Many folks find peace and salvation in their religious beliefs. Others seek out academic knowledge to assuage their concerns—there’s got to be someone out there genuinely comforted by plane crash statistics—or they lose themselves in distractions to hopefully forget the anxiety of everyday existence. (You should see my island in Animal Crossing.)

Comfort isn’t always healthy. But those indulgences can venture beyond alcohol or drugs or cookies and burrow deep into the darkest shadows of our minds, numbing those fears by crafting elaborate tales of intrigue, murder, and manipulation.

Conspiracy theories run rampant after every notable event, and the growing weight of these fabulous lies is smothering us like an avalanche that buries any trace of who we were before the collapse.

A person who thinks they have insider knowledge is a person high on a powerful rush. And what better inside track is there than to finally understand—before anybody else—the root cause of the scariest forces in the world?

Conspiracy theories are tales that attribute certain events to people secretly working to advance an agenda. Conspiracy theorists exist for just about every phenomenon you can imagine, ranging from those who insist the Moon landings were faked to folks who earnestly believe the Earth is flat.

Every conspiracy theory begins in its own weird little way. Sometimes it starts with a document, quote, or image taken out of context, while other theories seem rooted in pure imagination or even an ironic joke taking on a life of its own.

Weather control conspiracy theories flourished in the 1990s with the rise of talk radio and rapidly grew alongside the internet. Dial-up modems screeched the sound of freedom. Every conspiracy-minded person in the world suddenly gained access to each other’s thoughts on demand, and they took advantage of it better than just about anyone else.

Search out any major weather event and you’re sure to run across some official-looking page that touts HAARP, chemtrails, radar pulses, or whatever silly stuff they’ve come up with to ascribe direct human control to terrifying calamities.

I’ve written about the weather for more than a decade now, a career during which I’ve devoted plenty of energy to covering and debunking weather control conspiracy theories.

My inbox is filled with ancient hate mail covering the spectrum from attempts to show me the light to threats to show me the end of a gun.

Consider yourself lucky if you’ve never directly encountered these folks. They’re out there, and there are more of them than you’d ever feel comfortable knowing about. You’ve heard the stories they’ve concocted even if you don’t know their names or where they publish their bilge. 

The common thread is that they believe they possess unique knowledge about how the world really works, and everybody else is in the dark or actively lying about these stunning revelations.

“That tornado outbreak wasn’t the result of wind shear, it’s the weather radar itself,” they’ll insist at 150 decibels. “The government pointed beams of radar energy at the storms to make them strengthen and rotate, targeting particular neighborhoods for destruction.”

Yes, that’s a real conspiracy theory, and I’ve been harassed for refuting that obvious nonsense.

The latest one you’ve probably seen floating around—or heard in person, if you live in certain areas—is that the Canadian wildfires that poured historic amounts of smoke south of the border in early June were intentionally started with the direct purpose of ‘attacking’ the United States with that smoke.

You see, it all makes sense. Shadowy forces with a slick agenda looked at the weather models and saw winds blowing from northern Canada down the highly populated U.S. East Coast and used the opportunity to pounce.

This unknown cabal waited for the perfect conditions for explosive fire growth, then fanned out across the Quebec wilderness to set hundreds of concurrent blazes. Fires quickly grew until they shrouded the eastern U.S. in unprecedented levels of smoke that brought the region some of its worst air quality since the Clean Air Act scrubbed the smog out of our skies six decades ago. The smoke was then used for its intended purpose: to push partisan climate and health agendas on the American people.

Such an elaborate yarn is easier to believe, of course, than the actual cause: thunderstorms bubbled up across interior Quebec after a long spell of dry heat, with lightning sparking up hundreds of blazes that chugged copious amounts of smoke in whichever direction the wind happened to blow.

Things get even more ridiculous by the day.

The previous president’s eldest son questioned on Twitter the disappearance of a submersible that went missing on its way to tour the Titanic’s wreckage in June 2023, implying that foul play may have been involved.

Replies to the tweet were predictable, with hundreds of individuals coming up with conspiracy theories to explain its disappearance. The junior U.S. senator from Tennessee went even further, questioning if the whole ordeal may have been a coordinated distraction to deflect from other news stories. (The senator’s ‘just asking questions’ approach is a common method folks use to spread false information while maintaining deniability that they’re spreading false information.)

Nobody involved in the exchanges seemed to pay any mind to the fact the submersible had known flaws and lax safety systems, both of which made it prone to imploding on the sea floor under pressure more than 370 times greater than it felt on the ocean’s surface.

But that’s where we are now. 

Before the skies can clear and the rubble has a chance to settle, a convoluted novel pops up to rationalize the deeper, hidden meanings behind every disaster. Tornadoes spawned by the military. Planes full of chemicals spraying our skies to make us sick and seed a natural catastrophe. Shootings and attacks staged by politicians and actors in order to clamp down on your rights and keep you distracted.

Anyone who raises an eyebrow to this bizarre nonsense is instantly branded as an ignoramus for buying the ‘official line’ or, better yet, a paid shill who’s secretly working with the groups controlling the world. Because if there’s one thing that millions of people are really good at, it’s keeping state secrets, scalding gossip, and huge paydays to themselves.

It’s no coincidence that this all sounds a bit like a bargain bin thriller novel. These conspiracy theories flourish because the truth is too scary for many folks to accept.

It strikes at our psychological core to know that a tornado could blow away our homes while we sleep.

That a man with a gun can slip into a crowd and murder dozens of people simply because he had a grievance to air and easy access to a weapon of mass destruction. 

That a hurricane can push 30 feet of water into a town, pinning moms and dads and neighbors and friends to the ceilings of their once-safe homes.

That the same forces that make Earth a vibrant oasis in the cold vacuum of space can snuff out our lives without skipping a beat. 

 California wildfire smoke at midday in September 2020, photo by Cody Robertson

It’s almost unacceptable to entertain the idea that random and tragic events occur with some frequency, and sometimes there’s nothing we can do to stop it or mitigate the damage. It’s natural to want to look for an evil force that can be stopped instead of coming to grips with that simple fact of existence.

This truth is so hard to bear that a large and growing number of folks are more willing to believe that reality more closely resembles a cinematic universe than it does reality.

It gives personal significance to the choking orange pall of a smoke-filled sky to choose to accept a stranger’s rambling claim that a group of political extremists set the forests of Quebec on fire hoping it would spite us red-blooded Carbon-Americans.

Panicked leaders like to preach about the terrible influence video games and music lyrics may have on children. The real reckoning we need as a society is that too many full-grown adults are unable to separate the real world from the fiction they watch in movies, scroll through on social media, and read in novels.

We’re collectively losing touch with reality. Our critical thinking skills have atrophied to the point that vast swaths of the country just can't tell what’s real and what’s not, and it’s a crisis that’s only getting worse.

How did we get here?

It’s impossible to point to a single string that connects past events to our current problems. Talk radio and early internet forums played a formative role in helping these conspiracy theorists find one another. They’ve always been out there, though—just look back to the folks who believe the moon landings were faked.

The rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit fused our lives together faster than any message board could’ve hoped to achieve. The daily barrage of political anger and puppy videos flashing across our screens fundamentally changed how we receive and perceive information.

But it’s not just how we get information that’s changed—we’ve experienced a shift that made it socially acceptable to say whatever popped into your head, facts or consequences be damned.

The novelization of reality seeped into mainstream politics, taking these conspiracies off the fringes of society and putting them in charge of the country.

Source: Twitter/@WhiteHouse

Voters in northern Georgia chose as their representative a person who openly wondered if a group of Jewish men used space lasers to spark wildfires in California.

Half of her colleagues have spent the entire pandemic pushing conspiracies about COVID-19’s very existence, its origin, its vaccines, its treatments, and even its death toll—a group effort that led to a measurable partisan impact on a national death toll that’s climbed to more than 1.1 million souls in the past three years.

And, of course, there’s the previous president, a man who’s so deeply steeped in conspiracy theories that his seething lies incited more than 800 of his supporters to attempt to hunt down and assassinate his own vice president and try halting the constitutional transfer of power by committing the first violent breach of the U.S. Capitol by an armed mob since British troops stormed the place in 1814. He’s continued pursuing this hobby since leaving office, apparently planning to lean on his conspiracies as a defense at his looming criminal trials.

It wasn’t gradual, either, the shift from a generally agreed upon reality to a world where anything goes if you believe hard enough.

Just twenty years ago, the 9/11 truther movement—folks who believe the U.S. government either committed the terrorist attacks, or intentionally allowed them to happen—was a noisy sideshow instead of the main act.

The fringes started to close in and things seemed to irretrievably flip once Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. Decades of widening political divisions suddenly veered into deeply weird, deeply racist territory.

Conspiracy theories about Obama took off during the campaign and exploded after his election. Mainstream opponents began openly embracing and espousing easily disprovable lies about the junior senator from Illinois who ascended to the nation’s highest office. He was secretly a Muslim extremist, they said, and he was really born in Kenya instead of Hawaii.

Many of the folks who pushed those baseless conspiracies swept into Congress during a wave election in 2010.

A celebrity who rode that conspiratorial anger onto the modern political stage in 2011 by demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate secured his party’s nomination and won the presidency five years later.

Some of these political conspiracists are true believers, of course, but many of them are playing a part to follow their base. The same goes for the people who run social media pages or blather on podcasts about whatever thought nuggets popped into their heads.

A large portion of these disinformation peddlers know better but choose to spread malicious lies for profit, votes, and clout. That says nothing of folks who are so determined to arrive at a conclusion that they’ll create and spread conspiracy theories to manifest their wishful thinking into existence. (It’s the cable news model, after all.)

Those who spread lies on purpose and those who spread lies out of ignorance are spreading lies just the same, and those lies are compounding every day to cause real damage.

The proliferation of a fictionalized view of reality isn’t entirely the fault of the political realm, but it sure pushed this ‘anything goes’ mentality into the mainstream.

No longer confined to the weird parts of YouTube or the FW:FW:FW:FW: folder in your inbox, millions of Americans suddenly found the freedom to believe that the president took revenge on counties that didn’t vote for him by sending a hailstorm their way, that mass shootings were staged and childrens’ deaths faked to confiscate your guns, and that fires were intentionally set in another country in order to relieve you of your gas-guzzler and make you ride the bus.

Whatever you hope is true is now true. Live large and dream big to build a custom reality constrained only by the size of your imagination.

We’re living in a post-reality world where a horrifying number of grown adults seem unable to tell the difference between a made-up story designed to pluck at their fears and the universe in which the rest of us live. A significant and widespread disconnection from reality is a dangerous pit for a society to find itself plunged into without hitting rock bottom.

The only way to get over it is to trudge through it. We have to directly combat disinformation when we see it on our social media feeds, when a family member prattles on about it at the dinner table, or when someone casually brings up some sort of nonsense in vapid small talk.

Conspiracy theories represent a fundamental disconnect from reality. Over the past decade, we’ve seen people act violently based on conspiracy theories they read or heard about. We’re fooling ourselves if we believe we’re not in danger because of the inventive lies spun by bad actors. 

This stuff festers when we try to sweep it under the rug. “Just ignore it” isn’t an option anymore. Folks who truly believe in the conspiracies they spread may very well keep on living in the work of fiction someone convinced them was real. But we need to call out and disprove disinformation when it bubbles up.

It may feel futile now, but shoveling conspiracy theories back to the fringes of society is our only hope of not suffocating under the weight of the collapse they’ve triggered. 

[Satellite Image: NOAA/NASA]

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June 20, 2023

Tropical Storm Bret aims for the Caribbean with another system on its heels

It's the middle of June and the tropics are acting like it's August.

Tropical Storm Bret formed deep in the tropical Atlantic Ocean on Monday, becoming one of just a tiny handful of storms on record to form east of the Lesser Antilles this early in hurricane season.

Bret is a classic storm...for the middle of hurricane season. The storm formed from a tropical wave that rolled off the western coast of Africa. Faced with warmer-than-usual sea surface temperatures and favorable moisture and wind shear, the disturbance grew into our second named storm of the year.

Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center (NHC) expect Bret to hit the Lesser Antilles as a high-end tropical storm on Thursday. Tropical storm watches are in effect for Barbados and Dominica ahead of the the storm's arrival, where high winds and heavy rains could cause some flooding and power outages.

Bret's on borrowed time, fortunately, as increasing wind shear over the eastern Caribbean should tear the storm to shreds by the end of the week.

Hot on its heels, though, is a similar disturbance that forecasters give an 80 percent chance of developing over the next couple of days. This system, dubbed Invest 93L for tracking purposes, will probably follow a track a little farther north than the one Bret is on, and it should suffer a similar fate by the weekend, falling apart in the face of disruptive wind shear. If that system becomes a tropical storm, it would earn the name Cindy.

What on earth is going on?

It's extremely unusual for storms to develop this far out in the Atlantic Ocean this early in the year. Hurricane activity tends to follow a predictable trend as the season progresses. Systems that form in June tend to develop close to the U.S. and Mexico, sprouting from seeds like stalled cold fronts and decaying clusters of thunderstorms that roll offshore.

SOURCE: National Hurricane Center

Usually it's not until July and August that we start to see tropical activity pull farther out into the Atlantic basin, with conditions over the Atlantic becoming more hospitable to the tropical waves that roll off the western coast of Africa during the sub-Saharan summer monsoon.

Things happened to line up just right this year, defying the odds to give us at least one—possibly two—named storms far outside where they're supposed to form in June.


Sea surface temperatures across the entire Atlantic Ocean are exceptionally toasty, with much of the basin coming in 1-2°C warmer than normal for the middle of June. This kind of abnormal warmth across the Atlantic is unprecedented in its intensity and coverage.

We're also entering a formidable El Niño in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This pattern of warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures off the west coast of South America tends to generate destructive wind shear that disrupts the Atlantic hurricane season.

However, given just how toasty the Atlantic is this year, it's hard to tell how much El Niño will actually affect hurricane activity this year. If the Atlantic's warm spell keeps up, we could have a busy season on our hands despite the historical odds against it.

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June 17, 2023

Dangerous heat, dangerous storms continue as bizarre pattern persists

Dangerous weather will continue rolling through the weekend and into next week as a freaky pattern for the middle of June stubbornly holds out over the southern United States.

Additional rounds of powerful storms will persist over the next couple of days, alongside an unseasonable slug of unbearable heat parked over Texas.

Day after day of severe thunderstorms have put tremendous stress on the southern states this past week. We've had deadly tornadoes, tremendous amounts of destructive hail, flash flood emergencies, and widespread wind damage as one wave of destructive storms after another swept from the southern Plains to the northern Gulf Coast.

SOURCE: Twister Data

All of the hubbub is the result of a subtropical jet stream locked over the region, the result of a very strong upper-level ridge of high pressure standing tall over Mexico.

Beneath the ridge, extremely hot and humid temperatures have bathed much of Mexico and Texas in recent days, with daytime highs easily exceeding 100°F and heat indices climbing to 110-115+ during the day.

This heat will continue into next week, with highs in the 100s a common sight across much of southern and southeastern Texas into the middle of next week. It's not bad enough that the days are so incredibly hot—it's that the extreme humidity is preventing nights from providing any relief at all. 

Dew points in the upper 70s are preventing nighttime lows from dipping much below 77-80°F.

Heat waves like this are compounding disasters. Folks without access to air conditioning rely on nights for some relief from the unbearable heat.

One or two days is survivable, but when you get into 5+ days of stifling days and putrid nights, it will start to take a significant physical toll on vulnerable individuals. 

The outer edge of that heat dome parked over Texas is serving as the focus for all of those rowdy thunderstorms we've seen all week. We typically don't see such a dynamic setup in the south this late in the year. The combination of summertime temperatures with a springtime severe weather setup has resulted in violent thunderstorms, an adjective that seems like it's an understatement.

Extreme instability has fueled raucous thunderstorms that are able to organize and intensify thanks to that unusual wind shear present over the region.

During more normal times, these storms would just be those typical summertime drenchers that pop up during the day and fizzle out around sunset. That wind shear has allowed these storms to structure themselves into hail-churning wind machines, with golfball size hail and 70+ mph wind gusts a common sight.

The Storm Prediction Center highlights additional risks for severe weather on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, covering the exact same areas battered by relentless storms since early this past week.

We'll finally start to catch a break on all fronts by the middle of the week, thankfully, as the pattern breaks and allows that ridge to weaken. This long-deserved progression in the upper levels of the atmosphere will allow the heat to subside to a more seasonable muck over Texas, while defusing the turbocharged environment that's allowed terrible storms to flourish.

[Top Image: A water vapor image of the U.S. on June 17, 2023, highlighting the ridge over the south responsible for all the nonsense of late, via NOAA.]

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June 15, 2023

Baseball size hail and 80+ mph winds likely on the southern Plains Thursday

An unusually intense mid-June severe weather outbreak looms for the southern Plains on Thursday. Storms will sweep across much of Oklahoma through Thursday evening before pushing into Texas and heading toward the Mississippi River after dark.

Widespread significant wind gusts of 80+ mph are possible, along with the risk for hail the size of baseballs or larger. This is a dangerous setup that could lead to lots of damage by sunrise on Friday. Keep an eye out for warnings in your area and get ready to seek adequate shelter if storms approach.

It's unusual to have such a robust multi-day severe weather outbreak in the southern half of the United States at this time of year. Severe weather in the U.S. tends to migrate north as spring fades to summer and robust low-pressure systems follow the polar jet stream toward Canada.

Source: Tropical Tidbits

However, a robust ridge of high pressure parked over Mexico pushed a strong sub-tropical jet stream over the southern half of the country. A very strong temperature gradient between the lower levels and the upper levels, combined with the potent wind shear aloft, set this uncharacteristic mid-June severe weather outbreak into motion.

We saw multiple high-end supercell thunderstorms roll through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida on Wednesday, complete with several large tornadoes and reports of huge hail and widespread wind damage.

The bulk of Thursday's threat shifts back west of the Mississippi. The Storm Prediction Center issued a moderate risk for severe weather for a widespread chunk of Oklahoma, including the Oklahoma City metro area, as well as a chunk of northern Texas that includes Wichita Falls. An enhanced risk stretches down to include the entire DFW area.

Very strong instability and wind shear will allow storms to organize in a hurry. The greatest tornado risk will fall across western Oklahoma as storms fire up on Thursday afternoon. These individual cells have the best opportunity to turn into supercells that can fully engage with the environment and possibly put down some tornadoes, hopefully keep that nonsense in unpopulated areas.

As the storms pick up in coverage, they'll likely merge into one or more clusters that begin marching east and southeast into the evening hours. These clusters will carry a significant risk for destructive wind gusts of 80+ mph and hail possibly reaching the size of baseballs or larger.

Winds that strong alone can cause widespread damage to trees, power lines, and structures. Add very large hail into the mix and it'll increase the risk for damage.

It's likely we'll see some cases of wind-blown hail totaling vehicles, shattering windows, and possibly even punching through walls and roofs. It's no joke. "Stay in an interior room away from windows" appears in severe thunderstorm warnings for a reason.

If you're in the region, check your phone's settings to make sure wireless emergency alerts are activated and ready to receive the most urgent severe weather alerts for your location. Lots of folks shut these off after one ill-timed interruption, but they're proven lifesavers that are cited time and again in post-storm surveys as directly saving the lives of families who survived horrible storms.

These storms will move quickly and much of the threat for severe weather, especially east of I-35, will occur after dark. Make sure you've got a way to receive severe weather alerts once you've settled in for the night and after you've gone to bed.

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June 2, 2023

A cute li'l tropical storm in the Gulf kicks off the 2023 hurricane season

The first named storm of the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season formed on Friday afternoon. 

Tropical Storm Arlene is a disheveled little thing spinning about a hundred miles off the western coast of Florida. It's not long for this world, thankfully, and it should dissipate near the tip of Cuba this weekend without much fanfare.

Arlene developed in the way most early-season storms do—a cold front stalled out over the northern Gulf of Mexico, giving rise to a low-pressure system that slowly gathered tropical characteristics.

An aircraft investigating the disturbance on Thursday discovered the system had organized into a tropical depression just about 18 hours into the first day of hurricane season. Another aircraft found it had strengthened just enough to warrant tropical storm status by Friday afternoon.

This is...not a healthy system. It's lopsided as a result of wind shear and dry air, essentially a cluster of persistent thunderstorms feeding off a tight, exposed swirl drifting over the open waters. It's a cute li'l thing to be sure, and it's exactly what you'd expect to see this early in the season.

The National Hurricane Center expects Arlene to steadily weaken into this weekend before dissipating off the tip of Cuba by Sunday.

Despite earning the first name on this hurricane season's list, this actually isn't the first storm of the year. That dubious distinction goes to an unnamed system that formed in the middle of January, believe it or not, about halfway between Bermuda and Nova Scotia.

While this system was a full-blown subtropical storm in the dead of winter, but the National Hurricane Center opted not to name it or issue any advisories at the time. Forecasters declared it a subtropical storm in hindsight in May, making it the year's first storm and one that'll forever live in the records as "Unnamed." (I wrote more about this unnamed storm for The Weather Network last month.)

That mid-January storm made this the eighth hurricane season in the past nine years to start before the 'official' kickoff of hurricane season on June 1st. Last year, the NHC began issuing its twice-daily outlooks on May 15 in response to this widening window. 

[top satellite image via NOAA]

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