SPOILER ALERT: This article contains worldbuilding spoilers for The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Edgedancer, and the currently-released preview chapters for Oathbringer (If you’re skipping the Oathbringer chapters, but have read the rest of The Stormlight Archive, you can safely read everything except the Everstorm section).
In 166 years of recorded weather data, more than one Category 4+ hurricane has never made landfall in the United States in the same year. Until this year. This year, American territory has borne the brunt of three. But it could be a whole lot worse.
In the past several months, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused at least 150 deaths and over 120 billion dollars’ worth of damage between them. Then Maria rolled through, devastating Puerto Rico and several other islands and causing hundreds more deaths and hundreds of billions in damage. Then came Nate, killing at least 45.
In fact, at the time of this writing, Hurricane Ophelia, on a very strange track, has hit Ireland and is continuing across the UK. So most anyone would agree that this year’s hurricane season has been one to remember. To use when devising disaster preparation and response policy.
How much worse would things be if your town were hit by a Category 5 hurricane every two weeks or so? Such is the fate of the planet Roshar, one of the worlds of Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere literary universe, where magical highstorms blast across the lone supercontinent with regularity. What’s up with these storms? Why do they act the way they do, and how is it possible for life to survive, and even thrive, in their presence? Let’s go over what we know and what we don’t regarding Roshar’s weather.
How dangerous is a highstorm? In some ways, worse than a hurricane. And, in some ways, better.
Dude, highstorms blow. I mean, they really blow. A Category 5 hurricane has to have sustained wind speeds of greater than 156 miles per hour. But hurricanes, even the strongest on record, don’t routinely lift and hurl boulders, and highstorms pull that shit all the time. We do have a frame of reference for that sort of power: an EF5 tornado can lift and carry automobiles and train cars up to a mile. EF5s have winds beginning at 200 mph, so a highstorm’s wind speed will likely be somewhere in this range or above.
Here, Rosharans catch a break. Most damaging winds on Earth are cyclonic in nature. The winds from hurricanes and tornadoes can potentially come from any direction. But highstorms travel in straight lines for thousands of miles, blowing from the east to the west. Real weather doesn’t work like that, does it?
Welllll, sometimes it does. Storm systems called derechos produce powerful straight-line winds, but nothing we have on Earth is going to generate 200-mph-plus straight-line winds over thousands and thousands of miles. On Earth, the Coriolis effect leads to winds near the equator blowing westward, and winds in the higher latitudes going east. Literally every wind current we’ve seen on Roshar so far (save one, which we’ll discuss later) has been east-to-west. Where are the rotational currents? Why do towns from Herdaz in the north to Thaylenah in the south all experience the same giant-ass derecho?
Where do you come from? When will you form? Where do you come from, Cotton-Eyed Highstorm?
Myth and legend says highstorms come from the Origin, a point over the eastern horizon in the Sea of Storms. What’s going on out there?
My current theory is that some kind of magical energy builds up over a number of days at the Origin, and at some point is released as a giant atmospheric wave that rolls westward across the planet until it’s spent. And that is a theory. I wouldn’t drop unreleased spoiler info on you out of the blue.
Anyway, these things are devastating when they hit. Only a total badass would ever want to be caught out in one, so Stormwardens use a mix of historical storm data to predict the approximate time when the storms will hit. Plus, the fact that the humans have developed a massive network for instantaneous communication. Those things together mean that, despite the lack of weather satellites, Rosharans can generally be very well-prepared for bad weather.
Doin’ the Magrathea Shuffle: Highstorms and terraforming
Brandon has said that “The geography on Roshar was developed as a natural outgrowth of the highstorm, which was the first concept for Roshar…” Highstorms are literally at the root of everything going on there, and they have three major effects. First, they carry Stormlight, recharging spheres and allowing the Parshendi to change forms. Secondly, the ferocious winds erode exposed landforms. And finally, the crem carried in the storm’s rain carries both nutrients for plants and minerals that can end up actually building up more stone.
A few interesting notes to keep in mind here, which are all Word of Brandon:
- The overall shape of the Rosharan continent was based on a 2-D projection of the Julia Set (a fractal function), which is intended to indicate that it was specifically designed that way.
- Crem wasn’t what shaped the continent that way.
- The continent has no plate tectonic movement, but does drift slightly over large spans of time due to highstorm weathering and crem buildup.
- The Parshendi require highstorms in order to change forms.
- Parshendi have been around on Roshar since before Honor, Cultivation, and Odium arrived in the system.
I take the first three points to mean that, whatever “intelligent design” went on on Roshar, it wasn’t done by Shards. And the weathering process and the way (almost) all of the life on the planet has pretty obviously evolved to endure the highstorm-rich environment means that the highstorms were around before the Shards as well.
So, it seems to me that, while the Stormfather is either forcing Stormlight into the highstorms, or riding along on the storms channeling Stormlight, or whatever, the mechanics of the Origin are not necessarily of Honor, Cultivation, or Odium. This requires further study and discussion.
Riders on the (Ever)storm
On Roshar, damaging winds always blow from east to west. This fact is so ironclad, so predictable, that every area inhabited by humans on the eastern half of the Rosharan continent is built, from the ground up, to deflect the force of those eastern winds. Strong walls are built on the eastern sides of cities as bulwarks. Caravan shelters and the barracks at the Shattered Plains have long, low roofs angled to give the winds no purchase, and to deflect flying debris. This is one reason the Everstorm, summoned by the Parshendi over the Shattered Plains at the end of Words of Radiance, is such a huge problem. As it circles the planet in the opposite direction, its winds hit all the structures built in the lee of shelter walls, destroying many of them even as it returns parshmen to full sentience.
But it seems to be moving more slowly than highstorms. On that fact, the Stormfather and the Stormwardens agree. Why? Is it the fact that it has to fight against the continuous westward flow of the prevailing weather patterns? Or is it just that the Odiumnity of the thing is simply different?
It also doesn’t seem to be losing strength. I mean, it wouldn’t be much of an Everstorm if it did. I get that. But highstorms lose so much strength on their way across the continent that the grass in Shin is all dumb and immobile. In the two laps the Everstorm has already done, it doesn’t seem to have faded the least little bit. How in the world are Our Heroes going to get rid of this thing?
So, what are we hoping to find out in Oathbringer and the remaining volumes of The Stormlight Archive?
- Who or what created Roshar? Adonalsium? Or something else?
- What’s at the Origin?
- What actually generates highstorms? Why do they vary in frequency? What actual force drives them the length of the continent?
- Why does the Everstorm travel more slowly than highstorms? If it’s not fueled by Stormlight, what’s driving it?
What say the Sanderfans? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled theories, yearning to breathe free!
Top image: Composite of The Way of Kings cover art by Michael Whelan, and a source image for the highstorm.
Ross is a software developer by day and a genre fiction writer, reader, and Sanderson beta contributor by night. He is the unofficial president-for-life of the unofficial Lift fan club. He lives in Roswell, GA with his wife and two sons.