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JUNE 2005
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Weather @ National Geographic Magazine
By Tim Brooks
Photographs by Jay Dickman
Advances in forecasting are giving meteorology its day in the sun.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

One Saturday afternoon last summer, Carrie and Jason Guyette were married on an island on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. The forecast had been good—partly cloudy, a west wind of 5 to 10 mph (9 to 19 kph)—but the weather was even better. The sky was cloudless, the light falling across  the lake in rays of silver and blue. "It was the perfect day for a wedding," recalls Suzanne LaBombard, the mother of the bride.

After the newlyweds kissed, the weather began to change. "The wind shifted round to the north and began to pick up," says Jason, "but it wasn't really anything to worry about." The bride and groom climbed into an open carriage for a tour of the island, but after a while the wind was strong enough for the bride to start worrying about her veil, and the driver about her horses. They turned back. "I could see the distinct edge of the front—it looked about two miles south," says Jason.

They returned to the tent, where most of the 200 guests had gathered for the reception. The flaps were whipping, and one or two small pegs were uprooted, but even so, there seemed no reason to worry. The tent, 60 feet by 120 feet (20 meters by 40 meters) in size, was anchored by stakes driven four feet (one meter) into the ground. "This thing's not going anywhere," the DJ told Jason.

The groom turned, took four paces, and heard a ferocious whoosh behind him. A single devastating gust ripped the tent out of the ground and lifted it over his head. Six-foot (two-meter) stakes flew through the air like javelins. China and glass shattered. A 30-foot (nine-meter) main pole swept across the lawn as the family and guests ducked or flung themselves to the ground.

The gust, which lasted just seconds, had the freakish capriciousness of a tornado. It slammed the tent back down so hard that stakes were driven into the earth again. "It was so fast it was uncanny," Jason says. Seven people were hurt by flying stakes and glass. The groom's step-grandmother was rushed to a hospital in Burlington, where she died of her injuries.

Weather moves on a grand scale, in fronts and storms that can span half a continent. But it is also intensely personal and extremely local. The brilliant weather at the wedding, the terrifying storm at the reception—this is weather on the scale that matters to us. So we demand of meteorologists the near impossible: Understand the drama of the entire planet's atmosphere, and tell us what to expect here. Today. At 4:30 p.m.

Thanks mainly to keener instruments and more powerful computers, forecasters are extending their reach into the uncertain future.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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