Doppler radar and tea leaves: Having a sense for weather

Written by Jayson Jacoby November 04, 2011 04:26 pm

I went out walking Sunday afternoon and although the day came off bright and balmy, I felt a trifle melancholy.

The reason, I told myself, is that I sensed this was likely the last such day to grace our valley for a long while.

Not till March — or perhaps May if next spring is as tardy as the previous one was — will I be able to stroll around in short sleeves, as comfortable as a cat curled on a patch of rug beside a furnace grate.

Yet after a few more minutes of ruminating it occurred to me that my initial thought on this matter was not merely misguided.

It was pure balderdash.

I didn’t appreciate the late October warmth a tad more than usual because I had any instinctive inkling of winter’s imminence.

I’m a human, afflicted by a human’s stunted ability to detect the subtler rhythms of nature. I’m not a desert horse, capable of “seeing” badger holes hidden by a sprawling sagebrush, not a dog that feels Earth’s restless motions moments before the ground commences to shaking.

I don’t need instinct, of course.

I have Doppler radar.

And orbiting weather satellites.

Broadband access to National Weather Service websites.

So what if I can’t divine, on the breath of a mild October breeze, the chilled exhalations of a storm brewing in the North Pacific.

With a couple clicks of a mouse I can see the thing, spinning counterclockwise off the Aleutians, far beyond the limits of my view.

Still and all, I wonder whether, during the relatively brief span since technology transformed weather forecasting from the folk art of examining tea leaves or animal offal, to the current science of sifting through (much less messy) computer models, our collective talent for gauging the atmosphere has calcified.

Would the Native Americans who lived here a few thousand years ago have recognized, in the clarity of Sunday’s sky, the coming of the long cold?

I’m inclined to answer yes.

There must be a reason, it seems to me, that during my recent stroll I first attributed that tinge of sadness to what I can only describe as a “feeling.”

Perhaps this feeling represented a vestige of some ancient knowledge, one which humans formerly relied on not merely for their comfort but for their very survival.

The reality, though, is that I knew of the coming storm because I had, just a few hours earlier, perused the National Weather Service’s Boise office website, a morning custom as vital to my well-being as the thermos of coffee I bring to work.

Maybe I was unconsciously rebelling against this position of dependency in which I find myself.

Without the websites and the computer-aided forecasts, after all, I would be as ignorant of the weather beyond the horizon as a medieval serf was of the lands outside his lord’s holdings.

Ultimately this topic, though it made for a pleasant intellectual workout to go along with my heart- and lung-flexing walk, is of little consequence.

We’re much better equipped to endure blizzards than we used to be. Imagine how much a family crammed into a drafty sod hut in, say, 13th century France would have marveled at the elegance of a high-efficiency natural gas furnace.

(Well, actually that family would have fled the furnace, shrieking about “the devil’s candle” or some such. But they would have appreciated the device once the local bishop had given it the papal seal of approval — the UL label of the era.)

Yet despite our modern conveniences, we can no more stop a storm, or deflect it toward the next county over, than could our crude-living forebears.

Moreover, a compelling argument can be made that our modern ability to check the atmosphere’s vitals, as it were, looking for signs of fever, is more curse than blessing.

As it stands, I spend much of each winter pacing my house in something of a dither, consulting my array of weather instruments and waiting for the hourly updates to appear online. I relish nasty weather, is the thing, and I’m prone to irrational bouts of depression when a predicted arctic front barrelling southbound out of the Yukon peters out between, say, Spokane and Pullman.

Our ancestors, by contrast, were comparatively ignorant. But along with their innocence there was, I imagine, a pleasant complacency.

I doubt, at any rate, that they worried overmuch, if at all, about whether it was going to snow next week.

The weather was just another force of nature, well beyond their ken.

And, if you go delve deeply enough into history, it was far from the scariest.

What’s a blizzard, after all, against the black plague and the occasional invasion by a horde of Visigoths?


.        .        .


I have a belated complaint to lodge against Halloween.

Well, not against the holiday itself.

Thanks largely to the enduring charm of the Charlie Brown “Great Pumpkin” special, Halloween seems to me pleasantly tinged with nostalgia.

What’s got me riled up is the corporate candy cabal.

Specifically, its insistence on labeling certain of its products, the ones designed to be dropped into plastic pumpkins, as “fun size.”

I can tolerate advertising puffery. Sometimes it’s even amusing.

(The immense implied abilities of the ShamWow towel, for instance — the Soviets sure could have used a few at Chernobyl — never fail to provoke a chuckle.)

But I can no longer stand idly by while big chocolate hacks off the ends of full-size bars and suggests that the diminutive result is more “fun” than having the whole thing.

This is ridiculous.

And patronizing besides.

Even the littlest trick-or-treater knows that a whole Milky Way or Butterfinger is better — or more fun, if you prefer — than an amputed end.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.