Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Let’s talk about the weather

On Monday, in view of the weather forecast, I put in for a day of Annual Leave the next day -- my most direct and least traffic-hassled route to work  tends to flood out in moderate rainfall.  (Look for more of this as the infrastructure deteriorates.)  It turned out to be a wise decision.

There is nothing so pleasant as being indoors, with nowhere you need to go, and a stack of fascinating reading-matter, while the rain pours down in torrents.  And more torrents.   By day’s end, we’d received six inches.

Today at work, a colleague mentioned that she had gotten “more than five and a half inches”.  That seemed an odd combination of vagueness with specificity (the way the media, attempting to be breathless, will say “more than 137” dead or whatever), so I asked her what she meant.  Turns out she has a rain gauge,  which only goes up to five and a half inches, and it overflowed.  So, the companies that designed rain-gauges  did not anticipate a gullywasher such as we are getting now.  Kind of like in the old cartoons, where Elmer Fudd would get really angry and a thermometer would appear over his head (while steam shot out of his ears), chronicling his rising temperature -- until it exceeded the maximum the thermometer could report, and the top would blow off it.

Time was, weather was about the least controversial thing a body could jaw about;  so that was what you’d jaw about, out visiting on the porch  of a Sunday, avoided the awkward topics, and passing around the pink lemonade.  
No more.  Mention “climate change” in mixed company (Republican/Democrat), and watch the crockery fly.

Extreme weather  is the new Godzilla -- much to the benefit of disaster flicks, since  in point of actual fact, gigantic monsters, whether fire-breathing or otherwise, never did threaten humanity, whereas climate change really might.    This summer’s big disaster flick is “Into the Storm”.  I considered taking my wife to go see it, since, although we don’t much favor disaster flicks (seen one seen ‘em all, really), this one, being meteorological, piqued my curiosity (I almost wrote “whetted” my curiosity, but that’s wrong:  appetites are what you whet, whereas what you pique is curiosity), owing to a much, much better movie on the topic, “Take Shelter”, which we have examined in considerable depth-psychological detail here.  But the trailer and the reviews both indicated that the thing is trivial.


While seeking an appropriate extant Word document  in which this brief note could be filed, I stumbled upon an earlier meditation, in my diary from back in April of 2000, when our family lived in Princeton, New Jersey.  It turns out to be kind of a time-capsule.  Evidently I was in a buoyant mood, and could write,

Americans are actually getting down to a clear-headed science-based optimistic endlessly inventive mood, with no real imperial military ambitions to destabilize things as during the Cold War or Viet Nam.

(I blink, reading this now.)  It was the optimism that naturally blooms with the beginning of a new millennium.  This was before 9/11 -- and before the disastrous Presidential election of November 2000.  I still recall my mood:  utterly delighted that, in Al Gore, we actually had a candidate who was way, way ahead of the curve  as politicians ran, on the two big issues that faced us:

(1) Internet security
(2) Global climate change

Then instead we elected a simpleton -- or Florida did, or a bare majority of the Supreme Court did -- who had no clue at all about either of those issues,  and who then swept them off the public square by his rash adventure into exactly that Sisyphean folly he had campaigned against -- nation-building (in Afghanistan) -- and then (perhaps having read somewhere that to be considered a great chief-executive, it helps to have been a War President) launched an elective war (not even a preventive war) against -- well, it was probably supposed to have been Iran, which is what the Vulcans wanted, only somebody couldn’t spell so we attacked Iraq instead.  Whatever.  They all wear turbans -- can’t tell ‘em apart.

Here, then, a meditation upon meteoro-metaphysical disaster, before the actual disasters of this past decade and a half.

~    ~    ~

 (9 April 2000) Yesterday was breezy, balmy.  I stepped through the glass patio doors into exquisite, temperate, flower-scented air.   Spent all day sunning in shirtsleeves, watching the branches blossom.  A baby squirrel whose nose we've been seeing poking out of the squirrel house (put up three years ago, in hopeful expectation of tenants, but until recently occupied only by birds) ventured forth for the first time, started to slip down the too-slick sides, looked down, and scurried back to safety for just one more day.

* * *

I once heard that Japanese begin their letters with a reference to the weather – an expected piece of preliminary business, like the "Dear –" of ours.   Since that day I have often  followed that practice myself.  I like linguistic structure, be it end-rhyme or Arabic amatory preludes.  Yet today  meteorology is the meat, not just the antepast.
Though up late, and though this is Sunday, this morning I somehow woke early – something about the light.  And looked out and drew back and got my glasses and looked again. A silvery mist, almost like a glaze of snow.  Or even, a sort of commotion in the air.  In fact – it's … snowing.  Hel-LO-o!  April!  Birds we haven't seen for weeks  are back at the feeders.  The baby squirrel, needless to say, is nowhere to be seen, no doubt curled up back inside with a storybook.

The other day I heard a lecture by Sir Martin Rees, anent the End.  He showed a slide, merely as prelude, of our galaxy and the Andromeda Nebula  crashing into each other like a couple of SUV's on I-95.  Then he laid out a timetable of hapless expansion, gathering darkness, stars winking out – and then, like some hereditary tares come suddenly to foul fruition,  the very protons start to melt ("The sun, mother, give me the sun!"). – Later I read a review of Robert Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy", which dwells on the spreading chaos of the Third World, and predicts that this will be our lot as well.

The one scenario is speculative and remote, the other speculative and counter-intuitive.  Outside my window there is something concerns me more.  Since I sat down to write, an inch has accumulated, and now it has been joined by a stiff wind.  In  a weird way, I'm more worried about the weather than about anything else.  Which is to say, really, I'm not worried about much of anything these days.  I have never been so bullish on America as I am now, both absolutely and relatively to the rest of the world.  Much of the planet is going to hell in a handbasket, but that has always been the case:  most of history hasn't even been history, but prehistory or parahistory, so primitive or so disordered there's been nobody there to record it.  What counts is that somewhere, something is working:  that as the dinosaurs die, the marmots are breeding; as the imperium falls, the monasteries are forming;  that while Muscovites Kosovars and Ugandans  slay one another or commit suicide,  Americans are actually getting down to a clear-headed science-based optimistic endlessly inventive mood, with no real imperial military ambitions to destabilize things as during the Cold War or Viet Nam.   If this sounds callous, observe that even were the whole world a settled Eden, it would still be but one glowing spot in the soup of doomed protons.

The current issue of The New Yorker has a piece on all this.  It points out that meteorological worry-warts are nothing new, citing Increase Mather's book Remarkable Providences of 1684 (soon to be a major motion picture) as one of the first "weather thrillers" of the New World.   It speaks of boomers, bored by prosperity, surfing for storms as they surf for sports.  And of how global warming, the real story of current times, is seldom mentioned on the television, partly because it's so gradual – no sudden story – and partly because there are no visuals:  you can't see heat.
Anyway, the worry.  It has nothing to do with the Increase Mather subtext wittily mentioned by The New Yorker, "in which extreme weather is taken as a sign of cosmic displeasure for our failure as stewards of the earth".  Nor am I misled by "weatherporn", with its hyping of uncharacteristic stories.  I never watch the Weather Channel, don't even own a TV, and was made well aware what a crock it all is when, last summer, the family headed down towards a prepaid week’s vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and were stopped in our tracks by the approach of Hurricane Dennis.  We broke our journey at Baltimore, and then at Washington, touring enjoyably and keeping a weather eye on CNN, which was giving breathless coverage as of major disaster, with dark mutterings about evacuations and maybe martial law.  But we noticed that they kept running the same damned interview, with a wet distraught bedraggled mother, who had just arrived at the beach and now was packing up her station wagon to leave again – ran it for three days, without telling you when it was recorded.  – When we got to Myrtle Beach, all was sunny, they'd barely seen rain.  We had the normally-crowded water park all to ourselves.
            No, the worry is primarily mathematical.  Civilization is like a little wooden chip tossing on a sea of hydrodynamics.  Hydrodynamics is notoriously computationally thorny; and now we know, from chaos theory, that it is actually theoretically intractable, even in principle.  In practice, for unknown and unknowable reasons, things have been quiet for the last few geological moments, since that last spot of bother with the Ice Age.  But there is no reason whatsoever to assume we shall long escape fluctuations that are par for the course in the planetary scheme of things, yet which on the fragile human scale are monumental.  I also have a nervous concern, though nobody mentions this, about the sun itself.   It too is a big fat hydrodynamic globe, but unlike us, with our large solid core wrapped in a thin mantle of unstable weather, it is hydrodynamic all the way down.  And it is right now in a state – does anyone notice this? -- of uncontrolled all-out total nuclear explosion.  Always has been. (What a way to run a solar system!) There are no moderator rods to slip down into it.  It is fueled by processes that make Chernobyl look like a toaster oven.   That it has been stable from second to second, let alone year to year and for all of recorded history – here, indeed, history as recorded in rocks, not merely on parchment – is a miracle.
* * *

            Jesus, this is getting serious.  Since writing that – and riffling through the magazine, then distractedly surfing the Net, reading the LA Times even before most folks get it out there (it's five thirty in the morning where they are) – another inch has fallen, and another half inch risen, whipped by the wind. What are the birds thinking? They have their internal programs, their mechanisms.  Snow means: get your butt to Florida.  But (they chirp to themselves) – didn't we just come from there? --  It's like a repeal of Spring.
Hmm, wonder what Web Weather is saying about all this.  "An end-of-the-world warning is in effect for our area until six o'clock tonight."  Okay.

* * *

It snowed till midday, accumulating four inches.  By midafternoon, every bit of it had melted, as though it were fairy-dust.  By five, we were staring into a cloudless sky.

Round where we live anyhow, forecasters tend to err on the side of predicting rain.  I guess they figure that if your picnic is trashed by an unforetold downpour, you'll be angry at the meteorologists, whereas if a day turns out fine after all, you'll be simply pleased and won't give the failed prediction of rain another thought.

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