Trained eyes see imperfect storm


SEATTLE - The film "The Perfect Storm" is about six men who die at sea, but despite the tragic outcome, Cliff Mass could not stop chuckling.

Realistic as the film is supposed to be, the University of Washington meteorologist found it downright laughable.

He laughed at its spectacular satellite image of a hurricane, stretched across the cinema screen.

He laughed at the movie's depiction of the massive rogue wave that smashed into the fishing boat Andrea Gail in October 1991 in the North Atlantic, leaving its crew dazed and bleeding.

Then there was the killer line gushed by a television weatherman plotting the movie's namesake storm: "You can be a meteorologist all your life and never see anything like this. It would be a disaster of epic proportions. It would be ... the perfect storm."

To Mass, the claim of perfection is a blow to Northwest regional pride.

"If you go look for the perfect storm, we have more experience than anybody because the Columbus Day storm of 1962 made this thing look like a piker," Mass said. "The Columbus Day storm is considered to be the most damaging mid-latitude cyclone that has hit the United States probably in the last 100 years."

The October blast raked the coast from northern California to British Columbia in Canada, killing 46 people. It blew down 15 billion board-feet of timber and caused $235 million in property damage - $1.3 billion in today's dollars.

"If you were going to have a 'perfect storm' in terms of intensity of damage and destruction, that would be it," he said. "We're talking about gusts in Portland of over 100 mph. This [North Atlantic] storm wasn't even in that class."

The movie takes other liberties, Mass said: The massive hurricane image that he found so laughable was supposed to represent Hurricane Grace. But, Mass said, the image on the screen is far greater than Grace, which was barely more powerful than a tropical storm. A satellite image allegedly depicting the North Atlantic storm shows just a garden-variety low-pressure system.

The lightning also is over the top.

"You can have a little lightning occasionally in one of these North Atlantic storms," Mass said, "but not a lot."

The movie's waves were too big, too steep and way too visible.

"When you look out the window in a 75-knot wind or a 90-knot wind, you don't see anything," said Charles Eriksen, a University of Washington oceanographer who has sailed through a Pacific cyclone. "There is no background, baby. You just see foam."

Of course, it is not uncommon to hear a movie has somehow departed from the truth.

But publicity for the Wolfgang Petersen film has boasted of realistic special effects and the "real life" experiences of cast members, who spent time sailing at the edge of a real hurricane.

"Perfect Storm" author Sebastian Junger met a good standard for nonfiction storytelling, cranking out 225 pages on the technical minutiae of storms, steel boats, fishing and what it's like to drown. Millions read the book and liked it.

Junger did make a few mistakes, Mass said, but unlike the movie, the book still qualifies as nonfiction.

"What's most worrisome is the technology in making these movies is getting better and better," Mass said. "They're able to make it look more and more real, yet they're deviating substantially from the facts and they're making their fancies more and more believable. So information that is incorrect is getting more and more believable."

In an interview, Junger said there are four different ways to measure storms - damage, barometric pressure, wind speed and wave height.

"I'm pretty clear in the book," the New York-based journalist said. "I didn't claim it was the worst storm ever."

Junger's tale centers on how the collision of weather fronts produced more than 100-foot waves that sank the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail. The waves were the largest he could find recorded, Junger said.

"In my storm, it was the wave heights that were so extraordinary and obviously most devastating for boats at sea," he said.

The special-effects-filled movie was released June 30 and made $41.7 million over its first weekend. Junger said he wasn't involved with the project and refused to discuss it.

People associated with the movie have a wide range of reactions to Mass' criticism.

A National Weather Service meteorologist who advised the filmmakers contends they "did an excellent job of depicting reality on screen."

"It was so crucial to get this right," said Tim McClung, who works in the weather service's Oxnard, Calif., office. "And the producers were serious about not kidding around with the public."

But a software engineer on the project acknowledged that one of the movie's most prominent stars - the giant wave featured on the film's posters - is more than twice the size of any wave recorded during the 1991 storm.

"This is something where our director wanted it to be that way," said Vishwa Ranjan of Industrial Light & Magic, the special-effects company of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas.

"Sometimes you don't have to be realistic. They were adamant about having a wave that big."

It turns out that waves during the storm featured in the film were the biggest ever recorded anywhere in the world, said Val Swail, research meteorologist for Environment Canada.

The biggest had an average height of 57 feet, but statistically the absolute biggest could have topped 100 feet, Swail said.

The movie's biggest wave is more like 160 feet tall, said Industrial Light & Magic's Ranjan.

But he makes no apologies. "It's basically storytelling," he said. "You don't have to be realistic all the time."

Even the notion of a perfect storm is suspect.

The book describes Bob Case, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), looking at satellite imagery. He is watching a Canadian high-pressure system, a major low-pressure system in the North Atlantic and Hurricane Grace to the south.

"Meteorologists see perfection in strange things," Junger writes, "and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm."

Case, now retired, said from his Pennsylvania home that he meant to say a perfect set of circumstances had aligned to make the mid-Atlantic storm intense and long-lasting.

The hurricane provided moisture to the low to the north, but the systems didn't mesh, he said.

"Now, unfortunately, the combination of the book and especially the movie have made it the greatest storm, and that's not the case," said Case, who otherwise liked the book.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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