Thursday, February 20, 2014
Talking about the weather is almost by definition the height of banality. When you have absolutely nothing else to talk about with someone, well, at least there's the weather. You can chitchat about how nice it is or how horrible or gosh I hear we're going to get some snow tomorrow.
And yet the weather is something that affects us more than nearly any other force. At minimum it affects our day and mood, and at maximum it can destroy our livelihood, homes, and even kill us. It's amazing that people spend so little time thinking about something so important.
For instance, weathermen are a running joke. We marvel at their ineptitude when they predict one inch of rain instead of the two that falls, or if they hype a six inch snowstorm that turns out to be nothing.
Who stops to think about how miraculous it is that we can even vaguely guess the weather a few days in advance? Most people see simplicity where there is endless complexity.
The Science of Prediction
Predicting the weather is not as simple as standing outside, licking a finger and holding it to the air to see which way the wind is blowing. We have hundreds of stations around the globe taking measurements at various levels of the atmosphere. Mounds of data are fed into some of the most powerful computers in existence, which in turn rely on some of the most sophisticated algorithms ever developed.
In order to accurately predict a snowstorm a few days in advance, these computers have to take into account the dynamics at every level of the atmosphere, the shifts in jet streams, the confluence of different storms, and somehow output a reasonable approximation of what will happen in the future.
Maps like this are churned out, which require very advanced knowledge to even interpret. Various weather models are compared against each other in order to come up with a forecast. And yet it's still almost impossible to be completely accurate.
To get a huge snowstorm in New York, you often need a low pressure system tracking up the coast with a lot of moisture and energy that passes near what is called "the benchmark," an arbitrary place in the ocean that is just far enough off the coast to throw snow back at NYC but not so far that it goes out to sea, and a high pressure system in Greenland that acts as an atmospheric dam, slowing down the system so that it deepens and becomes more intense.
Even with all of that needing to come together all at once, a very subtle shift in temperature at the 850mb level of the atmosphere (about 5,000 feet) can mean the difference between snow, sleet, or freezing rain. A few degrees can mean the difference between a raging blizzard and pouring rain. And the intensity of the storm itself affects this temperature. The storm, in effect, creates its own weather dynamic.
This is what you're blaming your weatherman for!! An unexpected shift in winds and intensity that raises or lowers the temperature a few degrees at 5,000 feet in the air.
As I'm sure is now apparent, I've always been somewhat of a weather nerd. I read weather message boards that interpret the latest weather models, have spent years gradually learning the lingo and concepts, and I find it all completely fascinating. The consensus reached on the message boards are far more accurate and up-to-date than anything you see when you type your zip code into weather.com.
Even still, with the information out there, people would often rather trust their own vague intuition. I was stocking up on supplies before Hurricane Sandy and the checkout person scoffed that it was going to be nothing and I was going to have to return everything. I was like, "Um... I think this one is going to be big."
I don't totally blame people. Most people's experience with weather forecasting is limited to oracular weathermen who breezily give a confident forecast without any hint of the complexity at work or their level of confidence in the outcome. Some weather forecasts are a slam dunk because the dynamics are simple, some are highly uncertain because the dynamics are complicated, but they almost never tell you which is which.
Still though. Isn't anyone at least curious?
Weather and Writing
To me, thinking deeply about things like the weather is what it takes to be a writer. I don't mean that all writers are weather nerds (we all have our own weird interests), but in order to be a writer you have to take the parts of life that everyone takes for granted and think about them extremely deeply.
Many people are content to skate on the surface of life and just get through their day. Writers are not like that. We pick apart interactions, we wonder what makes people tick, we don't take the everyday for granted.
Writers can't just see the sun shining outside and let that be the end of their thinking. Much like the weather, it's only when you dig deep and learn everything you can that you can accurately see what is possible.
Art: A Storm on a Mediterranean Coast by Claude-Joseph Vernet