The Restless Air
By Tamia Nelson
Weather happens, right? And we can't do anything about it. Weather just is. So what's the use in worrying? House to car, car to office, office to store, store to house. Full circle. We're under shelter most of the time, and, in any case, we have to go about our business no matter what Mother Nature throws at us. So we jump in the car and cross our fingers, hoping that this won't be the day when we drive off the road in a thick fog or skid off a highway overpass in a lake-effect snowstorm. Weather is what happens on the other side of the windshield. We slide by.
That used to be my view of weather, at any rate. Then I began earning my living as an archaeological geologist. Suddenly, I was spending all day, every day, out of doors, tramping up and down fields and through forests, mapping, digging, and taking photos. That's when I began to take weather seriously.
My life changed. The days when I could grab a few minutes shut-eye in drowsy comfort after the alarm buzzed had ended. Instead, I'd jump out of bed, wrap a blanket around my shoulders, and stumble off into the living room, where I'd click on the television just in time to see the words A.M. Weather on the tube. For the next fifteen minutes I'd hang on every word that Joan, Wayne, or Carl said. I'd study each map and memorize details. I'd even draw sketches to make a record of what I'd seen. When the closing credits rolled, I was ready for whatever weather the day had to offer.
On weekends, however, I got to sleep in, because A.M. Weather aired only during the week. I liked the extra sleep, but there was a downside, too. Come Saturday and Sunday, I was at the mercy of the local National Public Radio affiliate. Weather wasn't one of their priorities. On the rare occasions when a forecast was mistakenly slipped into the mix of underwriters' messages, it was most likely something from the day before. One of the regular announcers was a former cruise-ship entertainer who'd somehow been washed up in the North Country. He developed a comedy routine around the weather forecast, mixing and matching bits from different regions of the state. The joke got stale mighty fast, but the commercial radio stations were even worse, and the surrounding hills blocked all but one television signalfrom the station carrying A.M. Weather. The result? Rather than dreading Monday morning, I looked forward to it with something very much like relief.
Then the axe fell. One Friday in 1995 Maryland Public Television, which had produced A.M. Weather for years, dropped the show without notice, in order to expand their morning business coverage. Joan, Wayne, and Carl got the sack, their places taken by a couple of tailored suits with big teeth and a nice line of chat about market trends and price-to-earnings ratios. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed. I needed a reliable weather forecast, not help managing my non-existent portfolio.
Remember the Joni Mitchell song "Big Yellow Taxi"?
Don't it always seem to go,Well, that's what it was like for me. I'd depended on A.M. Weather for information, sure, but I'd thought that was all. I was wrong. Now that it was gone for good, I realized how much I'd enjoyed it. Without intending to, without even being aware that it was happening, I'd become a weather buff.
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone....
The next few months were hard ones. Each morning when I left for the field, I'd wonder what sort of weather I'd meet up with. It was a busy season. Summer gave way to fall and then fall turned to winter, and I was still working on-site. Weather became a major worry. Then I logged on to something called the Internet for the first time, and a whole new world opened up
Before long, I'd found my way right to the source. I read the daily forecast discussions intended for the pros and studied the graphical output of half a dozen mathematical forecast models. And what I saw on these colorful daily charts of continental and global weather patterns invariably reminded me of rivers. Eddies. Turbulent and laminar flow. Holes and haystacks. They were all there, right on my computer screen. No surprise there. Air is a fluid, after all. Why shouldn't it behave as water does? Masses of air flow over an irregular earth, splitting up around mountains and plunging into valleys. The atmosphere is just a river of air, isn't it? At least that's how I was starting to think of it.
First, though, I had to learn a new language. The forecast discussions were written in no tongue I'd ever seen before. I started with the easy stuff. I figured out what NOAM was, for instance, and I decoded GULFAK. (They're North America and the Gulf of Alaska, by the way.) But then things got harder. Nearly every discussion mentioned LIs, and PWs, and QPF, for example. I scratched my head. I looked for references. And in time I learned not only what they meantLifted Indexes, Precipitable Water, and Quantity of Precipitation Fallenbut how they were related. I was beginning to understand the art and science of forecasting.
I kept on learning. Adiabatic lapse rates, cold and warm air advection, frontogenesis, quasistationary fronts, isentropic potential vorticity, mesoscale convective complexes, shortwaves, closed lows, and the ominous-sounding derechoI kept adding concepts to my working inventory. I hoarded the new words and phrases like a miser hoarding coins.
In no time at all, I was consumed by weather. Clicking through my weather-site bookmarks was the first thing I did in the morning and the last thing I did before I went to bed. I even dreamed of weather systems. I'd wake Farwell in the wee hours, muttering incantations in my sleep. "Time is 09Z," I'd say, "the wind has veered to NW, S/W is passing, P is rising, and RH and T are falling. SC by 21Z." Farwell would listen for a minute or two, and then go back to sleep. He said he didn't mind.
Gradually I began to piece together the big picture. I learned that my atmosphere-as-a-river analogy wasn't quite on the mark. The atmosphere is more like an ocean than a riveran ocean of air, stirred by density-driven currents, with the sun's heat supplying the energy to keep things moving along. Heated air rises. Cool air sinks. The earth spins on its axis. The end result? Weather.
And there's conflict, too. The ocean of air is also a battlefield. In fall and spring, cold polar air struggles daily with warm tropical air, vying for possession of the northern half of the continental United States. High winds and every imaginable form of precipitation are the result. Low pressure systems bubble up at the contact between the contrasting air masses. Lows and their associated fronts generate storms.
Nor is summertime any quieter. The ocean of air is a heat engine, after all. Hurricanes are born of small lows in hot equatorial waters. They feed for a time in their tropical nursery, grow bigger, and then start to move north (in the northern hemisphere, that is). When they reach the cold waters of the North Atlantic, they die. Eventually. But a lot can happen along the way.
In time, I started feeling pretty smug. I knew the language. I could interpret the models. I might not be a meteorologist, I thought, but I could play one at the breakfast table. It was heady stuff, I admit. But I had to come down to earth at some point.
It was a hard landing. Not too long ago, after I'd finished my morning on-line check, Farwell asked, "What's the weather going to be?" I'd been waiting for that. I took the bait immediately, launching into a summary discussion of what I'd just learned. The models disagreed, I said, but the MRF and AVN seemed to have the best handle on the upcoming two days. The LIs and PWs were high, so the QPF would probably be about 0.75-1.0 inch. Winds weren't likely to be a problem, though, because the jet was to the south and down-mixing would be unlikely. The soil values were low, so FFAs weren't being issued.... I went on and on and on.
Then I noticed Farwell. He'd stopped paying attention. He was looking out the window to the west, where a mass of low clouds on the horizon was beginning to thicken and grow dark. Nimbostratus, I thought. It's going to rain.
And I began to wonder. Was I really starting to understand the weather? Or was I just playing an elaborate computer game? I thought back to all the times when we'd been caught out on a lake by line squalls. I remembered our tarp collapsing under the weight of six inches of snow in August in Quebec, half-way into a month-long trip. And I remembered one wild July night just a few miles short of James Bay, when I watched somebody else's tent cartwheel into the riverand then realized that the two folks who'd been in the tent were now lying sprawled on the muddy bank, clutching at anything they could get their hands on to avoid following their tent right into the wind-whipped rollers.
OK, I thought. A.M. Weather and the Internet have taught me a lot. I've learned why weather happens. I can read a forecast discussion and I can interpret a model. And that's good. But I've forgotten a lot, too. I've forgotten how to use my eyes. I've forgotten how to sense a flaw in the wind on my cheek. I've even forgotten how to smell the approach of a storm. I'm going to have to re-learn these things, I thought. Weather happens everywhere. I don't want to spend all my life tied to my ISP, do I? No, I said to myself. I don't.
I turned to Farwell. He'd finished studying the dark clouds in the west. Now he was looking at me. "So," he said, smiling slightly, "we're going to get rain, right?"
"Yep," I replied. "We're going to get rain."
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