Snow began falling on the Southeast on Tuesday afternoon. Scorn began falling by dusk.
Winter Storm Leon and his two-inch snowfall caused traffic jams on the major highways that lasted through the night and into the next two days. Schoolchildren spent the night on their buses. Shoppers slept in the aisles of a CVS pharmacy and in other retail establishments. Jackknifed semis blocked all lanes of some interstates. Many cars were abandoned by drivers who sought nearby shelter. Georgia’s governor Nathan Deal deployed the National Guard to help with the strandees. At least 13 people have died in the region from storm-related mishaps and traffic accidents. (I live next door to Atlanta in Decatur, Georgia, by the way, and we’re all fine here.)
All over the nation, but especially in parts that see several feet of snow each winter, like New England and Chicago, people thought all this misery was hilarious. I won’t provide links to corroborate this; you can verify it in the comments section of any online news story about the storm. Or by watching Wednesday’s The Daily Show.
I’ll remember all this mirth the next time the Fahrenheit scale tops 100 in Chicago and people start dropping dead of heat stroke, or a small (to Atlantans) rainstorm sweeps cars off the roads in Las Vegas. There are good reasons why Southern cities aren’t equipped to deal with this kind of weather; mainly it’s because it wouldn’t be cost-effective to maintain the infrastructure needed to deal with it. It’s cheaper to just shut down the region and take a day or two off than to maintain the reserves of salt and sand and plows. Also, snow doesn’t remain snow in Georgia; it turns almost immediately into ice. I’d surmise even most Northerners wouldn’t cope well with skating rinks on hillsides, no matter how many drive wheels are under their cars or how many of those wheels are shod in snow tires.
There are more specific reasons why this week’s misadventure was even worse than usual. The blame battle is well underway, and it’s probably too soon to start heating up the tar and feathers, except maybe to provide added traction on remaining slick roads.
I wouldn’t have thought there’d be a skeptic’s angle to this story, which shows how naïve I am. First, on the there’s-hope-for-humanity front, within hours after the trouble began a Facebook group was established, SnowedOutAtlanta, with the mission of connecting stranded people with their loved ones or finding shelter, or helping rescuers find and help the stranded. Soon there were several spinoff groups, as well: SnowedOutSouthAtlanta, SnowedOutEastCobb, SnowedOutAtlantaPets, etc. I haven’t presented most of those as links because I think they’re going to be shut down soon, since they’re no longer needed. As the story evolved over the days, people used them less for emergencies and more to find out which roads had been cleared and whence their cars had been towed. Similar information could be found on Twitter via the hashtag #SnowedOutAtlanta. I imagine there are similar groups available for other cities affected by Leon.
Bravo to everyone involved in those groups! But almost as soon as they were founded, people began posting to them asking for money. Some were truly in storm-created need, but others were scam artists taking advantage of a new opportunity. To the credit of the members of these Facebook groups, the scammers found little success. Phony accounts were identified and deleted. Attempts to con people were deleted.
There are also stories of heroism and scoundreldom, which will be verified or debunked over time. I think it’s too soon to pronounce on most of them. We’re still sorting everything out.
It wouldn’t have been a national story if conspiracy nuts hadn’t come out to play, as they did after the Boston Marathon bombing. This time they’re claiming that our storm was made of “chemical snow” or “plastic snow,” and that it won’t melt. Here’s a typical example, from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina:
And here’s one more local to me:
The common element is that the snow turns black and produces a “chemical smell” like plastic. Also, butane lighters were used in the demonstrations.
In the notes below that second YouTube video, the experimenters wrote “Can we say harp…. manmade…. artificial snow… they playing with us/you….” That’s probably a reference to the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), which is an innocuous government ionospheric research program, but conspiracy theorists believe is a malicious government weather control system. Suspicion of this program is often linked to concern over chemtrails. Here’s another video that explicitly links the two:
I’m not certain that man is in the South, but otherwise his video is similar to the others I’ve seen. I give him props for using an ice cube from his freezer as a control against the chunk of snow (or as he calls it, “snow”) from outdoors. Not for any of his conclusions, though.
I tried to duplicate this phenomenon last night and failed. But I had matches, not a lighter, and the ambient temperature was above freezing by the time I tried. And I used ice from a drain spout, because I couldn’t gather any unpacked snow into a ball that wasn’t contaminated with debris. It’s reasonable that all these variables make a difference.
The website Metabunk has the best takedown I’ve seen of this nutty hypothesis. In a nutshell:
1. The snow isn’t burning. Butane produces prodigious soot when it burns, and this coats the snow, blackening it.
2. The “chemical” or “plastic” smell is the butane itself.
3. The snow is melting, but the water is soaked up by the snow surrounding it, so there isn’t much drip. And in some cases it’s simply subliming—passing directly from a solid to a gas without an intermediate liquid state.
Even if it were possible to secretly create this artificial, chemical snow, I can’t think why the government would want to. The conspiracy theorists make vague claims about martial law, and government takeover, but really, any government capable of doing this would already have as much control over the populace as it could want, right? This isn’t an Occam’s Razor situation; it’s Occam’s Chainsaw.
It’s Saturday, and for a couple of days now the mercury has been going above freezing for several hours at a time. Now that the snow is actually melting like it’s supposed to, I’ve been back to these YouTube channels and websites to see if they have new explanations or are admitting they were wrong. So far? No.
I’m not embarrassed that the South didn’t deal with the winter weather as well as other parts of the nation would have. I’m a little embarrassed by this foolishness.