As Hurricane Isaac churned through the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters debated whether to believe a model that predicted Isaac would come ashore in Texas or a different model that indicated landfall in Florida. Maybe the answer was neither. Over the next several days, Isaac continued to defy both models and crawled ashore across the southeastern coast of Louisiana late on the evening of August 28, 2012, bringing with it an uncharacteristically damaging storm surge for a hurricane with only 80 mile per hour winds. In some places around New Orleans, the storm surge associated with Isaac reached 12 feet, rivaling that of Hurricane Katrina.
Although final counts have yet to be completed, Isaac has caused at least seven deaths in the United States, twenty-nine more in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and potentially up to $1.5 billion in damage. As people enjoy pointing out, meteorologists have a notoriously difficult time making accurate forecasts of hurricanes. Forecasting and modeling the weather is difficult because of the overwhelming complexity of the atmosphere and its sensitivity to small changes. Being aware of this complexity challenges us to stand in greater awe of the Creator. With Isaac fresh in our memories, we would be remiss to not take this opportunity to reflect on hurricanes and weather modeling and seek to learn about our God. At its root, being aware of our inability to understand, predict, and forecast the weather moves us to greater amazement of the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Uncertainty & The Meteorologist
Before we can begin to perceive how the uncertainties of forecasting and modeling point us to God, we have to understand a little bit about the atmosphere and the way it works. To help give concrete expression to an invisible atmosphere, it might help to picture it as a supremely thin liquid that cannot be felt. It is made up of predominantly nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (20%) and many other trace elements. These particles interact in much the same way water molecules interact with one another in a bathtub, a river, or the ocean, forming eddies, currents, and waves.
If we want to accurately predict how all of these different atmospheric molecules are going to interact – forming the eddies, currents, and waves that we know as high and low pressure, cold fronts, warm fronts, and storms – then we have to first understand that the interaction of these particles is mind-bogglingly complex. Most people are familiar with the idea of the butterfly effect – that a butterfly flapping its wings in China will have profound effects on weather around the world.
Although it would be grandstanding to say that a butterfly flapping its wings affected whether Isaac ended up in Texas, Louisiana, or Florida, it does turn out that even imperceptibly small differences in the state of the atmosphere at one time will have significant effects on weather later on. This in turn means that even imperceptibly small errors in observations and data that we feed into models can create vastly different outcomes. In addition, processes that we do not yet understand play a large role in the intensification of hurricanes. Because of this, meteorologists attempt to analyze and forecast using imperfect data and imperfect models, making imperfect forecasts, and getting made fun of by people around the world.
This doesn’t mean that meteorologists haven’t made huge strides in improving forecasts. In 1922, Lewis Fry Richardson made the first attempt at making a 6-hour forecast for two cities in Germany using mathematical methods developed 15 years prior. Unfortunately, his 6-hour forecast took him over six weeks to calculate by hand and even then it was magnificently wrong. This basically put to rest the concept of making mathematical predictions of the weather until computers came along.
Carl Rossby, using early computers, made the first useful numerical weather forecast in 1954. By the 1960s, several countries were running their own models to make predictions, and by 1974, the first model to cover the entire globe was in use. With ever-increasing computer power, increased ability to collect observations of the atmosphere through satellite and other means, and algorithms developed to more accurately incorporate the data into computer models, forecasts of all types of weather from many weather agencies improved exponentially between 1970 and today. The National Hurricane Center is no exception to this improvement. In 1970, the average error of a 3-day position forecast for a hurricane was 455 miles. Today, it is 105 miles. Although this is over a 75% improvement, even a 105 mile error in a forecast can cause major problems for evacuation decisions and for coastal residents.
God’s Complex Creation
We will continue to make improvements in our predictions of hurricanes, but we will always be limited by the sheer complexity and chaotic nature of the atmosphere. So when faced with bad forecasts, devastation, and uncertainty, how can we begin to glean eternal truths about our God instead of criticizing our favorite weatherman?
Difficulty in forecasting weather should serve to remind us that our God is all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-creative. Remember that forecasting is difficult because the atmosphere is a complex, vast thing. Yet our God is the Creator of this unimaginably complex atmosphere. More than that, he created the entire universe without even breaking a sweat.
The psalmist says that “by the word of the LORD the heavens were made and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6). Even more, Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” How much more should we stand in awe of the Creator of the universe when we struggle to even understand the atmosphere that he made and sustains so effortlessly?
We are created to experience emotional reactions to and have our affections stirred by the beauty and power of nature exhibited in hurricanes, tornadoes, sunsets, and numerous other destructive and non-destructive natural phenomena. However, to let our awe and wonder rest on the phenomena itself is short-sighted and a distortion of reality. It is like sitting down to listen to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven’s 5th symphony, but forgetting to appreciate Beethoven’s skill as a composer. Letting your affections, awe and wonder rest on the power and majesty of a hurricane is like admiring the flight of a 500-foot home run without being awed by the person who hit the ball.
Appreciating the power, majesty, and unpredictability of a hurricane without standing in complete awe of the God who created the hurricane, the whole earth, and universe surrounding it simply by the Word of his mouth is myopic. Be reminded that the beauty, majesty, and power we see is but a shadow and foretaste of the beauty, majesty, and power of God.
Certainty & God
In addition to an all-powerful God, we can know that we rest in the arms of a sovereign God, even when hurricanes and other natural disasters seem capricious and random. It often seems that certain areas receive a disproportionately large share of major hurricanes and natural disasters. Some of it is geography, some of it is random, some of it is associated with typical large scale atmospheric patterns. Behind all of it, though, is a God who is sovereign. God “will accomplish all [his] purpose[s]” (Isaiah 46:10).
There is nothing capricious, malicious, or unplanned about the working of God in our world and our life. The war has already been won on the cross and we can rest in knowing that God’s desire to show us mercy and saving grace cannot be frustrated or thwarted.
As you watch meteorologists struggle with forecasting a hurricane, be reminded that weather is quickly changing and chaotic. God, however, has revealed himself as unchangeable and faithful to his promises. In Scripture, we are told time and time again that “there is no variation or shadow due to change” in the character of God (James 1:17). This contrast between the changing and the unchanging separates created from Creator. Remember the unchanging character of God. He is the Rock of Ages, and Christ is our cornerstone.
We grieve because of the destructive power of hurricanes. We mourn with those who mourn the loss of family and friends. Hurricanes, despite their beauty, ultimately cause death and destruction. By contrast, our God is grace filled and life giving. Jesus tells us to “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Paul tells us that Christ, through his death, burial, and resurrection “became a life-giving Spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). When we are faced with death, be reminded to run to the life-giving water that Jesus offers.
So how do we begin to work through a natural disaster like Hurricane Isaac with our community of believers, our neighbors, and our coworkers? Start by recognizing that the unsearchable riches of Christ are far more vast, far more beautiful, and far more worthy of worship and awe than the complexity, beauty, and majesty of a hurricane.
Do not be satisfied to simply stand in awe of the storm. Instead have your affections raised for the Creator of that storm. Know that unlike a hurricane, God is sovereign and unchanging. We are fully secure in his hands. Let us mourn with those who mourn, but let us set our sights on our Savior, the Rock of Ages. His purposes are higher than our purposes, his ways are higher than our ways, so take comfort that nothing happens apart from the Word of his mouth nor does anything happen over which he is not sovereign. In the midst of a tragedy that seems unpredictable, unknowable, and destructive, run to the unchanging, grace-filled, and life-giving arms of the Savior.
Matt Rigney is husband to Kari and father to Eva. He is a former research meteorologist for NASA and physicist for the United States Army specializing in modeling and simulation. Currently, he is completing a church planting residency at Austin City Life in Austin, Texas.
For more resources on proclaiming the truths of God over all creation, check out Tony Merida’s Proclaiming Jesus.
For more free articles on how God challenges our assumptions, read: When is the Gospel not Good News? by Stuart McCormack, Spiritual Strength Training by David Murray, and The Unqualified Disciple by Lindsay Fooshee.