As the summer of 2001 ended, Steve traveled with Altaf for a holiday in Kashmir. They went by Jeep over winding Himalayan passes, skirting snow-peaked mountains, rows of apricots drying in warm valleys, and freshly harvested fields of saffron. India and Pakistan had been at war over Muslim-majority Kashmir two years previously, with ongoing deployments and troop buildups in the time since. This meant navigating countless army convoys and checkpoints manned by Indian soldiers.
Altaf, like many Kashmiri merchants, had contacts in the rug trade, and on his recommendation, Steve shopped for locally hand-knotted rugs in Srinagar. There were hundreds to choose from, scattered like jewels across the factory’s dusty showroom floor. He chose wool—more influenced by its Australian origin, he claimed, than by a cheaper price tag. And wool was hardy. If these rugs ever needed cleaning, Altaf explained, they could be taken outside, squirted with baby shampoo, and hosed down. Steve bought a traditional oriental paisley for himself and a pale blue rug with a beautiful tree-of-life pattern for me.
Even without an apocalypse, there are days when the world’s narrative takes a sharp turn. Steve bought the rugs on September 10, 2001, and they were rolled together, sewn into calico, and posted to Australia. The next day, of course, everything changed. There were more Indian soldiers and machine guns, and fewer Kashmiris, on Srinagar’s streets; no one would meet Steve’s eye. Only back in Dharamsala did he hear what had happened halfway around the world.
The carpets arrived in Australia, and I fell in love with mine. Its blues were warm like perfect-day sky. Its reds merged from pinks to deep maroons, and it had pools of inky darkness like indigo tending to black. I disappeared into its patterns—flowers and leaves, twists and curls—imagining whole worlds beyond. It was like a pond sunk into the floor of a grand home, scattered with bouquets and life. The archetypal magic carpet, I believed: one day, it would fly. I have early photos of my son—just weeks old, his arms stretched like a bird’s wings—lying against the soft pile of its wool.
There’s an idea in Kashmir that a rug is the soul that draws every home into a perfect and unified whole. When we moved to Brisbane, I placed the rug in the entryway to our house, where it settled: a palette of welcome.
There’s a park at the back of our place, and I was partway along its avenue of Moreton Bay fig trees when my phone beeped, and I stopped, clicking through to read its message. It was a weather warning—severe thunderstorms, heavy rain and damaging winds. There was a risk of flash flooding; there was a risk of hail damage—all this “in the warning area,” which included Brisbane, “over the next several hours.”
Above me, the sky was clear and blue. I looked back to my house, its orifices gaping. I looked south toward my son’s school. I looked at the Bureau of Meteorology’s radar site on my phone, that clever portal of so much available information, and saw a storm—well south of the city and moving quite slowly, it seemed. There was a mile between home and school; we’d be back, I thought, before any water came.
But as I crested the school’s hill, maybe a quarter-hour later, it was as if someone had put a lid on the world. The sky began to burnish and bruise, roiling through a strange palette of blacks, purples, greens. I passed the deputy principal, and we nodded at the sky.
“It’s coming fast,” she said, and only later did I realize she was moving faster than usual, too.
I found my boy, his hat, his water bottle, his bag—the daily restitution of objects—and we headed for the street. A bus covers that mile between here and there, but it only comes every half hour. We were exactly between services. I looked at the sky; I looked at the radar. I said we’d walk. And we did, setting off fast, with the sky pulsing behind us.
We were halfway home when the world stopped. Suddenly, there was no sound, no movement, and the weight and shape of the air changed completely. So we stopped, too, stopped completely on the path. A friend’s place sat back a hundred yards or so, but there was a bus stop a little closer, like a little soccer goal: three partial sides, a tin roof. It was on the other side of the road, the right side for the bus to pick us up.
“Sweetheart,” I said, “I don’t think we’ll beat the rain. So we’ll cross the road and wait for the bus while it’s wet.”
He put on his raincoat. He held my hand to cross. And we settled in a shelter that faced southeast—the direction from which the storm was coming. These afternoon storms, they’re like taps, I told myself: on, then off. Either way, there we were, safe and dry.
My father and his mother-in-law held back the flames and saved the building—damping spot fires, watering the roof, scaling walls higher than themselves to extinguish embers. The foundation story of my family home is this fiery tale, rich with impossible physical feats and miracles. In photos of the aftermath, the house sits, pure and white, against a surreal landscape of charred and blackened trees. More than fifty homes had been destroyed, and one man suffered a heart attack. Our cat fell into an ash-pit and took days to lick herself clean. In the wake of that inferno, Sydney’s state of New South Wales got its first Commissioner of Fire & Rescue, its first state bushfire control center, and its first locally appointed, full-time and professional fire control officers.
I grew up anticipating such disasters. It was an adjunct to every hot, dry summer and the fun of a bushy backyard, straddling suburbia and reserve. Several times, blazes threatened, and we had our plans down pat: pack a bag that could be evacuated and place precious items (papers, jewelry, a teddy bear) in the refrigerator for safekeeping. In the solipsistic way of childhood, I thought this was part of everyone’s summer, but I now see it was a thought experiment; I never had to take the last step of experiencing fire itself. It was training for transience—practicing the idea that your house and all its things might exist one day, but not the next. And it was training for the idea that out of the blue, weather could spring something of potentially monstrous proportions.
Then, after many years of living in various fiery landscapes, I moved comprehensively north—to Queensland, to its subtropical capital, Brisbane, where the weather has an altogether different shape.
In Brisbane, in wet years, you can almost set your watch by the short, sharp afternoon downpours. In February, the humidity is so high it feels possible to wring jugs of water from the sky. By late April, mornings are crisp enough for appropriately autumnal jumpers and socks, but give way to glorious summer-frock days. It may not rain—at all—between autumn and spring.
In Brisbane, the danger is not fire, but flood. We were barely a year in our new place when the river submerged its long-forgotten floodplains, turning houses into islands—some knee-deep like ladies with their skirts up; others diminished to a triangle of roof. We knew our house sat on a floodplain; like many houses in our neighborhood, it sat high on stilts. Perhaps we’d expected the water to remain as hypothetical as the fire. But the rain kept falling, and our city’s story changed. There was our house, teetering above a calm brown lake some eight feet deep, its floor balanced inches clear of disaster. The experience only served to reinforce my certainty that weather was bigger than I was and that it could pull apart my world.
Being married to a biologist, I’ve had a lot of conversations about our planet and its systems, about adaptation and change. I’ve kept a weather eye (so to speak) on opinion polls that pit so-called “warmists” against so-called “skeptics,” registering shifts in the numbers of people who are concerned about climate change or who refuse to acknowledge a changing climate at all. What turning point, I’ve wondered, would make it impossible for anyone to dismiss or to deny? Would it be a report or a research finding? Would it be a species’ extinction or a problem with our food supply? Would it be something to do with the weather—a disaster? Or a storm?
When would we all—no matter who we were, or where we lived—turn and say, Things really are different around here?
I was thinking about this, of all things, as I sat stranded in a bus stop by a storm of ninety-mile-per-hour winds and hailstones, some the size of baseballs. This storm wasn’t a literary device or a report from the past. This storm had come early. It was my here and now.
It was complete. It was vast. It was saturating. It was loud and fierce and unspeakably brutal. I got my boy on my lap, his head buried in my chest, and my back to the worst of the weather. The rain came at us sideways, so hard and fast that it stung. And the hail hit with poundings and pummels, thrown down from the sky and bouncing up from the ground. I looked, and the road had flooded. I looked, and lightning struck nearby. I looked, and trees were bent to the pavement. I looked, and branches flew by as easily as tissue.
It came on and on, and my boy held onto me and shouted over and over: when would it end and when would someone come.
“It will end,” I kept saying. “It will end. I know it’s awful. But it will end.”
The vortex of untaken alternatives: if we had run back to my friend’s house, if we had stayed at school, if I had turned back to shut up my own house—probably drowned now and shattering—and been somewhere on my own, trying to push through to my son.
My husband has dinner-party shorthand for explaining extreme weather in the context of a changing climate. Higher amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere mean that more heat energy is trapped, he says—and the planet has always balanced itself by releasing heat. If there’s more energy in a system, he says, there’ll be more extremes in the ways that energy behaves. Weather “events” may not happen more often, but when they do, they’ll happen to greater extremes. Hotter hots, colder colds, drier dries, wetter wets.
We once saw photographs of Earth’s storms taken from the International Space Station—charges of lightning flaring around the globe. “It’s the planet equalizing itself,” my husband said, pointing to those bursts of static. Until I was sitting in this storm, I’d never thought about what that equalizing might feel like. Of course, the world’s weather has always been busy with cataclysms—floods, fires, cyclones, blizzards. But it’s something to be in the middle of one; it tips your sense of safety on its head. This weather was no backdrop to a story; this weather was calling the shots. It was against us, and it hurt.
My boy wedged his fingers in his ears and yelled, as if being louder than the storm might somehow quell its tempest.
“Why don’t you ring someone?” he cried at last—and my phone did ring then. It was my husband’s nephew, up the road, ringing to see if we were all right but unable to do anything—probably unable even to hear when I shouted, no, we weren’t all right at all.
The sound was like bucketloads of stones hitting a tin roof, mixed with the unearthly roar of high wind. The rain was so thick any landscape—any line of sight—disappeared. The hail stung. The air sliced cold. I’ve never felt myself in such danger. Worse, I’d brought my son to this unprotected place, too. I couldn’t see where we could go next—what with the power lines, the gales, and the lightning. I couldn’t see how to get to any place of any greater safety. The wind roared. The rain drove. The hail bashed our bodies. And I thought, We are in trouble.
Winds gusted with the ferocity of Category-2 tropical cyclones; windows smashed; roads flooded; roofs were destroyed; cars were trashed—damages totalling a billion dollars in half an hour. “It looked like a classic severe thunderstorm scenario,” says Kato, “and it was one of those things that can happen really quickly. One minute, a storm’s a normal, garden-variety thunderstorm; the next minute, it explodes.”
To be honest, I couldn’t have said if it took five minutes, half an hour, or more—but the storm did ease. And in the first moments of the wind dropping, the hail stopping, the rain thinning out, a bus—as if by magic—did appear. The driver opened the door, his face so pale that his beard looked like pure darkness. He hunched over the huge circle of his steering wheel, his grip tight.
“Get on,” he said. “Don’t worry about the fare.” And he told us about the four trees that had hit his bus on the road by the river alone and the mayhem he’d passed beyond that. “I just kept driving,” he said, “because I thought someone might be at a bus stop.”
And we were.
We got out at our stop, that scant mile on, as a friend drove by. He picked us up and took us to our house, past the uprooted avenue of Moreton Bay figs. We looked at our pockmarked roof, at our smashed windows—bedroom and kitchen—and at the inch of water that had gone through the open front door to make a pond in the living room. The rug, a wet deadweight, had blown across the room and was huddled, bunched up and covered in garden debris, against the bookshelves.
And so we kept going, to a neighbor’s house where there was glass in almost all the windows and dry carpet on the floors.
Later, we heard stories from elsewhere in that sturm und drang. About the woman who stopped her car in the middle of a street and sat there, screaming one long, continuous scream, while it was cold-cocked by hail. About the woman who saw a man knocked unconscious by the hail and dragged him to shelter, shielding him with her body. About the friend who managed to limp home on her bike to find herself covered with bruises from the hail. “You should put some ice on those,” her housemate said, deadpan.
In the next day’s papers, the state’s premier called the storm “catastrophic” and “ferocious”—the worst in thirty years—and mobilized the army. One of our federal Greens senators commented that “extreme weather events will become more frequent and damaging as climate change worsens.”
Passing the failed refuge of our bus stop a day or so later, we saw on its outside wall the ad behind which we’d been sheltering.
“Are you prepared for bushfire season?” the poster read.
In 2012 came publication of an American study exploring intersections between personal experience and perceptions of global warming. Did people learn from experiencing the impacts of a changing climate? And, if so, were those lessons colored by whatever the respondents had believed about climate change in the first place? The study found not only that both these things were true but also that “experiential learning occurs primarily among people who are less engaged in the issue.” In other words, people who paid less attention to climate change tended to learn more from their experiences with its effects—a “particularly important” finding, the study commented, given that “approximately 75 percent of American adults currently have low levels of engagement.”
Just recently, Australia’s Climate Council—a citizen-funded initiative established when the federal government disbanded its Climate Commission—released “Five Photos That Show You What Climate Change Looks Like Around the World.” Most striking was an image of a Kiribati boy swimming through his flooded village: he was swimming amongst the tops of trees.
There was no way to avoid his story. The boy was swimming where his people used to walk, and live, and be.
According to the forecast, that torrential rain should have still been falling the next day, but the dawn was so dazzlingly bright it was hard to believe it had ever been otherwise, despite the cleanup underway.
Connecting the dots between single weather events and climatic change is a complicated business. Still, details of such cause-and-effect are starting to be teased out. A Swiss study published in 2015 showed that even if the planet’s rising temperatures are kept within a 2˚C limit, any location on Earth will endure, on average, 60 percent more extreme rain events and twenty-seven extremely hot days in a thousand. Currently, it’s four or five days. A 3˚C rise, and those numbers climb even higher—to sixty-two extremely hot days. Nor is this increase linear: “the probability of hot extremes at 2˚C, for example, is double that at 1.5˚C global warming.”
More recently, a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society specifically examined “Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective.” While it contained several studies indicating that “human-caused climate change greatly increased the likelihood and intensity for extreme heat waves in 2014 over various regions,” in the context of “other types of extreme events, such as droughts, heavy rains, and winter storms, a climate change influence was found in some instances and not in others.”
As I watched that blue sky shine, the air thick with birdsong, what I wanted, I knew, was for one event—one storm, one something—to change the way everyone saw what was outside their windows. In a novel, it would be the climax, the sharp turn in the narrative arc after which everything changes. I wanted that one thing, but the science isn’t about one thing—it’s innumerable events all over the globe, every day. It’s an accretion of thousands of things in thousands of places over thousands of moments, and they all point to the same conclusion.
My husband sipped his tea. “You can say these events are consistent with the climate models’ projections,” he said.
When our insurance company’s assessors came to survey the damage caused to our home by the bus-stop-of-doom storm, I’d forgotten Altaf’s advice about the baby shampoo and hose. They took my rug away to be laundered.
“Just bring it back if you can’t clean it,” I told them. “I really can’t replace it.”
Days, weeks, months passed with no mention of when the rug might come home. Then, an e-mail.
“The rug was disposed of by the restorer due to the glass,” our insurer said—although it had been in the one south-facing room where no windows were smashed.
“Transience and impermanence,” said my friend Steve. Let it go. And, of course, the soul of our home is still intact—it will be wherever we are, as long as my husband, my boy, and I are together, safe and dry.
We’re adapting to the uncovered floorboards inside the front door, and now, months later, we still find the occasional shard of glass in the strangest place, even in parts of the house otherwise untouched by the storm.
The rains teem or the winds swirl or the sun blazes—hot even in the last days of autumn. We sit behind the sureness of our strong new windows, looking out at the weather of our world.
I check the forecast every time I leave home.