Future Tense

Speculative Squalls

A wiki, largely run by an international cohort of teens, collects fanfic about future hurricanes.

Illustration of a pencil-drawn hurricane with a heart as the eye.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

When Hurricane Rene hits Florida, the Caribbean, and the Yucatán Peninsula, the Category 5 storm will set new records. It will be the strongest Atlantic hurricane in history, taking the lives of at least 107 people and racking up a staggering $27.1 billion in damage. Hitting just 10 days after the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the winner will buckle under pressure to speak on the issue of climate change. The hurricane’s impact on Florida will be so harrowing, the World Meteorological Congress will retire the name, and Rene will join Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Michael in a dubious hall of fame.

Of course, meteorologists can’t predict hurricanes with such specificity so far in advance. Hurricane Rene isn’t based on complex weather simulations or data-driven reports. It’s a complete fabrication, and just one of more than 8,600 entries on the Hypothetical Hurricane Wiki, the home of an online community that writes elaborate hurricane disaster fiction just for fun.

Since beginning in 2010, the wiki community has grown to more than 1,500 members—a majority of them apparently teenagers—and tallies hundreds of edits each week. Any user can create a page for an invented storm season, with subsections for each storm and links, Wikipedia-style, to particularly interesting storms’ individual pages. As in real life, these hurricane, cyclone, and typhoon seasons feature a combination of named storms—typically pulled from the World Meteorological Organization’s database of projected hurricane names, if they’ve already been determined—and dozens of smaller tropical depressions. A team of moderators keeps the wiki in check, making sure users aren’t violating rules like cursing, spamming, or going out of their way to include other writers in their hurricanes’ death tolls.

Writing detailed, sometimes ghastly, hurricane narratives demands the same level of emotional distance that lets you make memes out of tragic events. But just as 9/11 memes might become a critique of war, hypothetical hurricanes are a way to process our impending environmental disaster, and they’re dreamt up by young people who might be affected hardest in the future. Most of the contributors I spoke to were too young to remember landmark catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina that ushered in the new age of hurricane destruction under climate change. Most had never experienced a hurricane, and many live in geographic regions where storms rarely make landfall, like Columbus, Ohio, and London.

But some HHW writers have felt the power of real storms. RestartingE, a 13-year-old boy in Mexico, told me that Hurricane Rosa caused flooding in his hometown. Sixteen-year-old FMcube was in Hurricane Wilma’s eyewall, and a teenager residing in the Deep South, WeatherWill, lived through Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, but says he was too young for them to emotionally affect him.

HHW writers insist that what they’re writing isn’t callous, but rather a grounded understanding of a world we cannot control. “Hurricanes are a meteorological anomaly and we just have to accept their existence imo,” restartingE wrote to me on the HHW Discord server. “9/11 was preventable. No one causes hurricanes,” he added (setting aside that humans exacerbate the severity of climate change).

Imagining fictional hurricanes can also be a scientific pursuit. Rollback, a teenage hurricane enthusiast based in Lithuania, wrote to me via email to describe his storm-crafting approach: “I aspire to make my articles as realistic as possible with a little unique flair, maybe a higher number of storms hitting Europe as an example.” Like many writers on the wiki, Rollback spends a lot of time researching storms and teaching himself meteorology and physics. He studies emerging and historical hurricanes and cyclones, runs his own analyses of actual Atlantic storms, and looks up satellite imagery to get a feel for their patterns and scale.

While Rollback goes for realism, another user, Hypercane, a 22-year-old from Ohio who joined HHW when he was 16, prefers to write outlandish scenarios. He created the 2020–21 South Atlantic Hurricane Season, storms that will brew between South America and the southern tip of Africa. As Hypercane’s entry states, this would be the first official hurricane season for the South Atlantic Ocean in recorded history; hurricanes are rare in this region. But Hypercane keeps his fiction reined in—only three of the six tropical storms he describes will morph into full-fledged hurricanes, most forming off the coast of Brazil and traveling eastward to the shores of Angola and South Africa.

Though the entries can read as quite earnest and dry, the conversations on the HHW Discord server show writers processing their subject without the emotional weight that follows tragedy. Instead, users playfully roast each other’s storms (“Damian flopped kinda hard,” one user says about another’s zig-zagging tropical storm) and help one another workshop in-progress entries. (Another user suggests the severity of a possible storm, “considering much of the city’s buildings were destroyed, you could argue a high-end [Category] 4 or maybe even [Category] 5.”).

Whether the wiki entries are outlandish like Hypercane’s, or more believable—for untrained meteorologists—like Hurricane Rene, there are signs that something’s amiss for any visitor to the pages of the HHW. Though the website mirrors Wikipedia’s recognizable, clunky structure, it’s colorful instead of black and white, and it is hosted on Fandom, the same site that attracts dedicated Game of Thrones or BTS aficionados who channel their passion and knowledge into stand-alone encyclopedic repositories. More obviously, every page of the HHW begins with a warning written in bold red letters: “Disclaimer: The Content on this wiki is fictional and is NOT a resource for real tropical cyclones. NONE of the content on this wiki should be believed to be a real forecast of inclement weather.”

Nevertheless, at times contributors still manage to fool unsuspecting readers with their entries, and some readers have criticized HHW for spreading disinformation. Last September, meteorologist Ryan Maue tweeted about the wiki, calling it “Fake News” and outraged that it was coming up at the top of his Bing search engine results. Members of the community chimed in to say that the word “hypothetical” was clearly visible in the website’s URL and header, and that Maue ignored the disclaimer in bad faith. But in one of Maue’s screenshots, the warning isn’t there. Since then, the moderators enforce that the disclaimer appears on every single page, and a writer can be banned for deleting it.

The community is adamant that it writes fiction, not hoaxes. Users never link to fake news sources, such as social media feeds that doctored photos of hurricane destruction, to fool unsuspecting readers. Moderators also make sure writers don’t name public figures in their entries, which cuts down on the possibility that their hypothetical storms are accidentally picked up by the media.

However, after a real-world hurricane season concludes, the community doesn’t delete its pages, and eventually the future becomes the past. A 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season created by CycloneRyne94 follows the common practice of using real-life storm names and has remained unchanged since it was completed in 2015. It says Hurricane Kirk was a Category 5, but the real Kirk only brewed into a mild tropical storm.

More confusingly, multiple HHW contributors, who all want to put their own spin on things, will make their own pages for the same hurricane seasons, making the HHW a messy choose-your-own-adventure of ecological chaos. Diving back into the HHW’s 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season, I find that Hurricane Michael was a weak, subtropical storm that hit Oct. 10, but also a Category 4 storm that developed around Sept. 30. Neither of the fake Michaels reflect that the real Hurricane Michael was even more horrific—it reached Category 5 and made landfall on the Florida Panhandle, killing 74 people and causing $23.1 billion in damage. As a result, the name Michael was retired.

StrawberryMaster, a 15-year-old from Brazil, defended these discrepancies. “The wiki is called ‘Hypothetical Hurricanes Wiki’ for a reason. The articles are obviously fake. If someone took a look around the wiki, or read the main page, they would have seen [the disclaimer] easily. But [Maue] never saw it, and others just blatantly spread that it was fake, thinking it was real or that we were fooling other users.”

I wondered whether hurricane writing could be a cathartic or educational exercise, or if the mere choice to conjure up such deadly events was inherently tone-deaf and insensitive. So I reached out to Ashlie Brown, a trauma therapist based in Houston, to see what she thought of hurricane fiction.

“As a trauma therapist working in this community, my first inclination is that’s something really fucking insensitive,” Brown said on a phone call with me. Then she took a moment to step into a writer’s shoes and rationalized the appeal. “I think there’s a lot of sensationalism or fascination with, a) things we don’t know a lot about and b) things that are scary, twisted, dark. I could see how that might be entertaining to people who haven’t experienced it,” Brown said.

I pointed out that the writers were young and that a few of the teenagers had even lived through hurricanes. This didn’t change Brown’s opinion. “I think the healthy way [to deal] with something traumatic is to be able to talk about it and be real about the fear and the helplessness and the powerlessness felt when someone experiences something life-threatening,” she said. “Maybe writing a fictional story about something like that would give them an outlet to give them to express something they were feeling, but didn’t get to express in therapy.”

As hurricanes continue to build more frequently and intensely, the HHW has growing fodder to write bigger, wilder storms. Brown said that in Houston, there’s no such thing as a safe place anymore: “I think everybody is operating at a higher level of hyper-vigilance. They’re in a more anxious state just about everything. Even people who haven’t flooded, just being in this community, living through that and watching humanity struggle and suffer. … People haven’t been able to completely get away from the trauma even though they’ve healed in other ways.”

As dispassionate or insensitive as their writing might seem, HHW users aren’t disconnected from the implications of hurricanes, though they do tend to see things on a more meteorological than human scale. Because many users closely study meteorology to improve their writing, the HHW user base is largely cognizant of the relationship between climate change and weather, and it understands that hurricanes will continue to plague communities across the globe. They can be quick to hear about tropical storms, or notice troubling weather patterns meteorologists flag, and will share information across their networks to help others in need.

If a beast like Hurricane Rene comes to fruition, its author will face a bittersweet reality: Their research was solid and their writing spot-on, but wasn’t the storm supposed to be a myth, a disaster written all in good fun?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.