Why, after twelve years, I still write about hurricanes and tropical cyclones on Wikipedia

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Photo by NOAA/Satellite and Information Service, public domain.

In April 2002, I was listening to Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” while on a car ride. Up until that point, my 13-year-old mind was convinced that I was going to be a meteorologist one day. This obsession could stem back to August 1992, when I would have heard the name Hurricane Andrew a lot on the news. It was also around age four when I started playing piano.
The earliest storm I remember was Hurricane Erin in July 1995, part of the busy 1995 Atlantic hurricane season. In the path of Erin was where my grandparents and cousins lived, so I followed the storm closely, just like all 297 named storms since then. But during that fateful car ride, my Dad and I listened to Billy Joel’s Millennium Concert. I was enthralled by the complexity of “Scenes,” and for the first time in my life, I considered a career as a musician. Today in 2017, most of what I do is related to music. Still, as my burgeoning piano interest continued, so did my passion for hurricanes.
I came to find that I needed a balance of artistic expression and the cathartic power of nature.
In the days before I knew about Wikipedia, I grew annoyed at the primitive World Wide Web. There were websites on practically everything, but no way to organize the information. I poured through what sources I could find, reading the National Hurricane Center‘s tropical cyclone reports for leisure. I noticed that there were a lot of older storms that I couldn’t find almost any information on. The Atlantic hurricane best track went back to 1851, but the tropical cyclone reports only went back to 1997. I eventually discovered Wikipedia in December 2004 in one of my hurricane research projects. I was surprised the website had coverage on hurricanes back to 1950, but I knew of storms before the start of the naming era. As an anonymous user, I started creating articles on hurricane articles and seasons. In August 2005, I formally joined Wikipedia due to my increasing edits to that year’s record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season. Within a few months, I worked with other Wikipedians to extend Wikipedia’s coverage on Atlantic hurricanes as far back as records went, and we later extended our efforts worldwide as Wikipedia:WikiProject Tropical cyclones (the WPTC). It was that community of fellow editors that hooked me from the beginning—users who I could talk about storms with and who supported my work. Even today, I talk almost daily with fellow users on Facebook or IRC, a more regular relationship than I have with some of my offline friends.
I’ve had several close calls with hurricanes in real life. The first was in September 2003, when Hurricane Isabel had an outside chance of affecting us as a hurricane. For perspective, New Jersey hadn’t been hit by a hurricane since September 1903, so there was a little whysteria (a portmanteau of weather+hysteria, coined by my brother). We had another close call with Hurricane Irene. I evacuated to my brother’s house, and worried of the potential destruction after we lost power, but it ended up affecting us little. We weren’t so lucky when Hurricane Sandy came ashore in October 2012. I again evacuated to my brother’s house, but we didn’t lose power, so we watched in real time as lower New York flooded, wondering what was happening at home. With $30 billion in damage to my state, I’m still reminded of the destructive power of nature at a local level. It would do no good to lament about the destruction, and instead it inspires me to keep writing.


All that said, it was Isabel that consumed my online attention during my first college winter break in December 2006. Five months later, I’d written four featured articles and four good articles—both being markers of high quality—on the hurricane and its effects. This allowed me to successfully nominate Hurricane Isabel as a featured topic. Working on a collection of articles, rather than researching randomly, meant that I would find sources that could be used for multiple articles, and it was quicker to edit because I knew the time period/area better. In fact, I know a lot about the culture, politics, and to an extent even language about a lot of areas around the world.
Tropical cyclones can form in most of the major bodies of water on Planet Earth, as long as the waters are warm enough, including the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, the waters around Oceania (and Australia), and most of the Pacific Ocean. Curiously, this excludes the waters west of South America; perhaps the lack of tropical cyclones gave the Inca Empire a leg up to become the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. As I’ve studied and written on Wikipedia more, I learned about how tropical cyclones have altered our history. In 1970, a cyclone killed 500,000 people when it struck the province of East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. The government’s poor response fueled the country’s independence movement. A near repeat occurred in 1991, when 138,000 people died in Bangladesh. I was alive in 1991, and in the days of satellite and warning, that many people should not die because of a natural disaster that is moving at 28 mph (slightly slower than Usain Bolt‘s record speed in 2009). With proper planning and evacuations, a similar cyclone in 1994 had a death toll just 0.17% of the 1991 storm. Sadly, though, 1970 was not the last time that such a death toll would be seen. At least 138,000 people died in May 2008 when neighboring Myanmar/Burma was hit by Cyclone Nargis. I created the English Wikipedia article on that tropical cyclone, but my edits largely stopped once I realized how big of a disaster it was. At a certain point, other editors came in and filled the article, which allowed me to disengage and recover from the tales of human suffering.
As an example why I still edit, a 10 kilobyte chunk of data was removed from the Nargis article in 2010 and wasn’t restored for three years. Unfortunately, these things happen, but that’s what impresses about the WPTC editors. They are global in their writing, and several of them write for other meteorology WikiProjects, such as tornadoes and non-tropical cyclones. I am immensely proud of the other WPTC editors for their dedication into researching these storms of nature’s fury. Several of them are studying meteorology in college or are even experts in their field. I felt this dedication strongly in 2011, when I participated in and won the annual WikiCup. The experience pit me against many other Wikipedians, several of which were members in WPTC. I was surprised just how many Wikipedians felt passionate about improving articles.
Over the years, I have added to my featured and good article count, but looking back now at my earliest work, I find myself disappointed. There are far too many projects I need to go back and improve, whether that’s due to having access to newer sources or simple things like wording differently. But I have plenty of time and I don’t intend to retire soon.
During my college years, I learned how Wikipedia provided a balance for me, an escape to the stressful studies of being a musician at University of the Arts. A few times, I walked away from Wikipedia, but my breaks would inevitably come to an end as I rediscovered that yearning for learning. I do wonder if my work on Wikipedia might help researchers now or one day. At minimum, I hope the random free time I’ve spent on this website will help someone else looking up the topic.
Oh, and to few people’s surprise, I’ve written a song called “Hurricane,” and I’m writing a musical that features a hurricane in the plot. Thank you, Jimmy Wales, for starting this experimental website way back in 2001. As the digital world spreads across the globe, we need free access to information to empower all 7.5 billion or so people on this one beautiful planet.
Andrew Hink (User:Hurricanehink), Wikipedia editor

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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