When I was a kid, we enjoyed watching and playing “regular” sports – street hockey, baseball, tennis, football – and life for us was pleasant and fulfilling. However, during the space of only one generation, I’ve noticed a significant rise in popularity of what the media calls “extreme” sports: BASE jumping, rock climbing, ice climbing, bodyboarding, BMX biking, kite surfing, whitewater canoeing, cliff jumping etc. The danger to the participant is extremely high, and personally, I don’t see the fascination; I have no interest in participating or even watching these new sports.
As I do with many of the uninspiring things that surround me, I blame this recent development on reality television. It seems that danger and shock value matters more to us than a well-designed game. Sports that require teamwork, co-ordination, co-operation and strategy have given way to more solitary pursuits that are easily dramatized for the camera.
As televised sports become more and more “extreme”, it becomes increasingly difficult to impress viewers. While I was watching the recent overblown media coverage of Hurricane Irene earlier this year, I thought of a new extreme sport. This new pastime will take skydiving to the next level. I decided to call it Eyediving – skydiving though the eye of a hurricane.
My newly-invented sport would redefine “extreme” and raise the bar to new, unimagined heights. While normal skydiving takes place during nice weather, Eyediving brings the participants right into the middle of some of the most severe weather on the planet. It combines an already risky sport with the classic Man vs. Nature conflict. Do you have what it takes to outsmart and outmanoeuvre Mother Nature?
I was convinced that my new sport would take the world by storm, but first, I needed to do a little research. Just how dangerous is Eyediving? What are the risks involved? Since I had no intention of actually trying this foolish venture myself, I asked a friend of mine who happened to be a meteorologist. He listened patiently as I presented my idea will all of the enthusiasm of a TV infomercial. Then he gave me a very well-reasoned response which highlighted a few of the idea’s shortcomings:
The first thing to consider is the altitude. How high would an airplane have to be in order to fly over this storm system (pictured above) in order to drop you into the eye? Hurricanes are typically 35,000 – 45,000 feet high, so an airplane would have to reach an altitude of at least 40,000 feet before you could jump. Since commercial airplanes can reach a cruising speed of 42,000 feet, it is possible to fly over a hurricane.
Having said that, there is a huge difference between being in a pressurized cabin at 40,000 feet and being exposed to the elements. The environment at this altitude is decidedly inhospitable. Flying at 40,000 feet puts you in the middle of the jet stream. The typical wind speeds at that altitude are 125 – 160 mph (200 – 257 kph). Next next challenge is the temperature, which as you know, drops with increasing altitude. The typical air temperature at 35,000 feet is -67C (-88F). I don’t have a number for 40,000 feet because all of the online temperature calculators I could find don’t work reliably below -50C.
Which brings us to the wind chill. The online wind chill calculators work only up to a wind speed of 50mph. The estimated wind chill value with a temperature of -88F and a wind speed of 50mph is -195F. I can only guess what the wind chill equivalent would be at a wind speed of 125-160 miles per hour. I think it’s safe to say that any exposed skin would freeze instantly.
The next challenge is oxygen. Our atmosphere is made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, and small amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases. There is also less oxygen at higher altitudes. Actually, the percentage of oxygen remains steady at 21%, but since air pressure is inversely proportional to altitude, there are fewer oxygen molecules at high altitudes. For comparison purposes, Mount Everest is 29,035 feet high, and those who do reach the summit require oxygen tanks to breathe, and at least two weeks for their bodies to become acclimatized to the altitude. Therefore, supplemental oxygen would be required for anyone who wants to attempt Eyediving.
Atmospheric pressure (or more specifically, the lack of it) is also something to consider at this altitude. At sea level, the air pressure is 101 kilopascals (kPa) or 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi). As you know, atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude. At 35,000 feet, the air pressure is 23.8 kPa (3.46 psi); at 40,000 feet the air pressure is 18.7 kPa (2.71 psi ), and at 45,000 feet the measurement is 14.5 kPa (2.1 psi). While I don’t know enough about physics or biology to say what will happen to the human body at this pressure, I think it’s safe to assume that a pressurized suit will be required.
The next thing to consider is the location – my meteorologist friend strongly recommends that you do not jump while the hurricane is over water. While the weather in the eye of the hurricane may appear calm, the ocean inside the eye is still very rough. You can expect 12-20-foot sea swells, which will put you at the mercy of the waves and prevent small boats from rescuing you. Of course, there is also the matter of convincing someone to take their boat into the eye of a hurricane in order to pluck you out of the sea.
You will need to wait until the hurricane passes over land, which is also a challenge because hurricanes don’t last very long once they are over land – perhaps a few hours before they start to lose their structure. During this time, you’ll have to find suitable (preferably flat) terrain for your landing.
Now for a little good news: since the eye of a hurricane is typically 20-40 miles (35-70 km) across, there is plenty of maneuvering room as you make your descent. However, the speed and direction of a hurricane is difficult to predict, which increases the difficulty level. The strongest winds in a hurricane are in the eyewall – the portion that surrounds the eye. Therefore, as you descend, it is essential that you do not drift into this part of the hurricane. There is often lightning in the eyewall storm, but that is the least of your worries. Eyewalls may also contain softball-sized hail, which will rip your parachute apart, causing you to plummet to your death.
Assuming that you’ve made it safely to the ground, your next challenge awaits. While the sky will be clear, you are still surrounded by the eyewall. The typical forward speed of a hurricane is 11-17 mph (17.7 – 27.3 kmh) so you will have only a short time to pack up your parachute and either get out of the area and remain within the eye as it travels across the land, or find a shelter sturdy enough to withstand both ferocious winds, and the 6-12 inches (15-30 cm) of rainfall. Eyewall wind speeds are typically 130-170 mph (209-273 kph) so the shelter must also be able to withstand being struck by flying debris at these speeds.
Since hurricanes can be 150-300 miles across, it will take at least 9-10 hours for the storm to pass, and likely much longer.
Those are the risks of Eyediving. Now that I understand what is involved, I realize that I may have been a bit like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun only to have his wings melt from the heat. While I may have thought that this was the ultimate extreme sport, I now realize that the risks far exceed any rewards, and that in this Man vs. Nature battle, Nature is clearly the victor.
It’s now time to lay to rest, the nascent sport of Eyediving, and let it wink out of existence. In the meantime, as a gesture of my rediscovered humility, I shall continue to ignore all sports that place us in a battle against Nature.