Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, February 20, 2014

On a Love of Weather


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.

Weather Nerddom

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






21 comments:

Jaimie said...

I'm the person that doesn't just get into Facebook arguments. I message the mutual friend and talk about how her friends argue. I'm sure this makes me look super petty, like I'm trying to bash their character on top of their points of view, but I'm just genuinely more interested in the whys.

This is why writing made me go liberal. I learned that people aren't cookie-cutter. <--- OMG politics in a blog comment

Carolyn said...

I can definitely relate to this! Meterology is so fascinating to me. I often wonder if I missed my calling, but math has never been my strong suit. I live in the Deep South where we can have four seasons in one day. As the saying goes here: If you don't like the weather today, wait an hour.

As a writer--and avid reader--weather is so important to the tone and mood of a story--whether it be from a book or a movie. Doesn't it always seem to storm when the killer is chasing someone. And how quickly the mood can change when a winter cabin is nestled in the solace of quiet snow.(of course, there has to be smoke coming from a chimney, where we know someone is sipping something good by the fire--unless its something like "The Shining." )

I think the world would be a very boring place without weather and its extremes! While I hate to see how the wrath of weather can be deadly, I'm thankful for those who push the limits to help improve the safety for us.

abc said...

4 things--
1. So you might like this: this week (in Iowa) we have had freezing, snow (enough to close school), 40 degrees (feels like t-shirt weather!) and just today we've had hail and lightning. Now it's sunny!

2. I have a weird affiliation for stories set in the snow and cold. Movies and books. Especially mysteries. What's up with that?

3. I think I may be married to a weather nerd. My husband is constantly updating me on weather stats. It's a thing! Are you a Virgo too, by chance?

5. How interesting our world is! Yes to loving the details.

Oh, one more. I've been watching True Detective on HBO and love how much the setting plays into the story. You wrote about setting awhile back and of course setting and weather often interweave (south vs. north, desert vs. jungle, etc). The swamp, the vastness, the Louisiana-niss of it all. And talk about a writer's show!

Alright then, moving on.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I love weather in real life. But some of my favorite books where weather (of whatever kind) is significant:

The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Centaur, by John Updike
Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis
Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
Alice Adams, by Booth Tarkington
The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers
Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton
Drinking the Rain, by Alix Kates Shulman
Gorillas in the Mist, by Dian Fossey

and every mountaineering book ever written

Magdalena Munro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Magdalena Munro said...

I don't feel so bad for watching the weather channel during grad school. But look...only four comments. :-)

My son and I watch the morning skies every day. The other day I could smell jasmine in the air and asked him to close his eyes and smell . He says, It's the smell of the pink skies.

Joel Mayer said...

Way way back in the 1970's this book was the point of departure for those interested in the mathematics of weather:
http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Ceaseless_Wind.html?id=3ogL1o5DePIC
The Ceaseless Wind is still a good read.

Bryan Russell said...

Let's all get together and watch Twister.

Sarah said...

Yay for weather nerds! I was one of the few four year olds in Texas who could point out a wall cloud, and it's been downhill ever since. I don't follow the message boards, though ... are there any you specifically recommend?

Loved the post- what a great way to describe how writers approach the world.

Sweet Venom said...

Excellent post. I always love including weather where it is appreciated in the pieces. If you use it correctly you can mirror your characters. If done very subtly it can turn out beautifully.

I enjoy including an aspect of nature to my pieces. It's similar to weather in that the imagery you conjure up will be breathtaking.

Whirlochre said...

All very weird when you consider that beginning a novel with references to the weather is frowned on more often than not.

Shame to blot out the sun in this way.

J. R. McLemore said...

With the increasing climate change, I think our weather patterns are only going to get more severe and less predictable.

I couldn't agree more about writers breaking down the intricacies of certain interactions. My weird hobbies include a deep interest in advanced math and neuroscience. In my youth, I didn't care much for these things. In recent years, however, I find these topics fascinating. I think they help fuel some of the aspects of my writing.

Kastie Pavlik said...

Awesome post. I can't agree more. Plus, weather can influence mood, which influences writing. I like to write in the garden in the summer, or in a candlelit office when it's gloomy and the wind is howling. Autumn and Spring always light my writing fire, while a cold winter nearly puts it out.

My husband and I are becoming trained weather spotters this year. Can't wait!

Jason Bougger said...

It's funny how weather can also bring back memories of certain times in your life that shaped how you view each season. I had a couple of bad summers years ago, but still catch myself feeling down in the summer.

On the other hand I had a couple of good springs right around then and I always feel great in the spring.

Mary Holland said...

"My father was a connoisseur of wine; but times change and we with them, and now I am a connoisseur of weather." One of my favorite first lines, from The Innocents by Margery Sharp.

fangsandclause said...

One of my favorite pieces of weather nerdery: http://blog.xkcd.com/2011/08/29/for-the-small-handful-of-hurricane-geeks-out-there/

M A Clarke Scott said...

Great post Nathan. Fresh and topical, especially at this weird time of year when we are on the cusp of a seasonal change. Just a few days ago I was convinced it was spring, and this weekend we are dealing with snow again, making me want to curl up by the fire and read.

I agree that weather and seasons affect us and our moods so much, in our own lives and in the lives of our fictional characters. I wrote a post in the fall about seasons and energy (http://www.maryannclarkescott.com/2013/10/03/time-every-season/)

Years ago, as part of a geography degree, I studied meteorology, and so can read some of the data on those weather maps, not that I look at them now. Weirdly, I live in a little valley that often has weather systems very different from the surrounding area, and often I'm so distracted by what's in my head (fictional plots, characters and settings!) that I forget to look beyond what I can see out the window. Therefore I very often find myself inappropriately dressed when I venture out beyond my immediate neighborhood!

Denise Covey said...

It's obvious that we are fascinated by the weather. When I was in Europe over Christmas, all Sky News could talk about was the dreadful weather systems and flooding and destruction on a daily basis. I've even posted about Australian heatwaves yesterday in protest!

C.E. Austin said...

Great post!The best ideas come from asking what if or how come about everyday things!

I was recently reading The Farmers Almanac for Flower Gardening Secrets (I would be the plant nerd), and the author was discussing the complexity of gardening. She writes, "And yet, paradoxically, it is all quite simple. Someone once remarked that civilization owes its existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains."

Anonymous said...

Weather reports are like the gospel to me.

When I was a kid in Catholic school we had to go to church on Sunday and on Monday write a paragraph about the Sunday gospel. Each week, on Sunday, I would tell myself to pay attention and listen. But each week the minute the gospel was read I started daydreaming. On Monday, I stared at a blank page.

I'm like that now with the weather. When they start with the upper level easterly flows coming down from Canada, and the effects of lake effect snows due to the southwesterly flow of the jet stream, I blank out. I try. I want to listen to them babble. But I just turn into a zombie.

Hunter Thompson said...

Climate change related to human activity. On my blog I was once wrote about this issue

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