Wednesday, February 16, 2011

You Don't Need a Weatherman ...

San Miguel de Allende is one of those places that draws boasts from people who live here about having the perfect climate. Although it’s in the tropics, it’s also at 6,400 feet so altitude cancels out latitude. Most of the year it’s warm to hot during the day; cool to cold at night. There is a distinct dry season when the sky is an impossible cobalt every day; and a rainy season when it clouds up building to late afternoon thunderstorms.

The thin air and clear days equal crazy blue skies

It’s perhaps a good thing that the weather is so predictable, because we don’t have a six local TV stations with dedicated weathermen giving us blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute up-dates on what’s going on right outside our windows. If I want to know if I should put on a jacket in the morning when I walk my little dog Henry, I stick an arm out of the door.
I’d recommend this technique to those people (and I’ve met many) who complain bitterly because forecasters sometimes understate the anticipated high temperature by a couple of degrees or the estimated arrival of rain by a few hours. “Those weathermen are so useless,” they whine.
Are you freakin’ kidding me?
There was a time when people had to depend on the color of the sky, grandma’s arthritic knee, or some old fisherman’s ability to smell a storm on the wind to know if one was blowing in. Even if they got it right, they had no idea of the intensity or exact time of arrival. People died in droves when they were caught off-guard by a hurricane or torrential rains that resulted in a flooded river.      
Livingstone, the African town where I spent my early childhood, had a tropical climate: hot, humid, and given to spectacular thunderstorms that dumped an average of 30 inches of rain a year on the region. The rain fell in summer and it would usually come as a blessed relief right after the most blistering part of the year. “Long term forecasting” meant we could literally see a storm coming from a distance. When we spotted the steel gray curtain reaching from the sky to the horizon line, shot by jagged streaks of lightening, my mother and I would sit on the veranda and hope—pray—the storm was moving our way.
As it approached, we’d watch its progress with anticipation tinged with a little fear. First we’d begin to hear the rumble of thunder, becoming louder and more synched to the lightning as it neared. Next we’d catch a whiff of the unmistakable smell of rain wetting the parched, red earth. The sky would darken as we heard the sound of the fat drops first drumming on the hard ground and the broad leaves of the pawpaw and mango trees. Then it was overhead, pounding on the corrugated tin roof. Often the lightning struck trees or wire fences outside the door and the thunder rattled both the windows and our nerves. The storms were fast moving and they’d pass over within minutes.
That was a typical year. But there were times when no rain came and we went into drought mode. Other years we’d get more than usual rain. The hydroelectric power plant located in a Zambezi River gorge at the foot of the Victoria Falls would flood and we’d be without power for weeks.

The Victoria Falls in full flood: the power station
was down below in the gorge
We had no television and got only crackly radio signals from the BBC World Service so weather reports were not part of our lives. Consequently, most people were caught flat-footed, without sufficient supplies of kerosene for their Tilley Lamps or dry fuel for fires to cook on.
This was the early 1950s. But even in later in the 60s, when I lived in England, we used to get weather forecasts from ships at sea sent by Morse code. If you carefully turned the dial—yes, the dial—on the radio, you could sometimes pick up the signal: dah, di di di, dah. Weather balloons, telegraphs, and human weather observers were about as technical as it got.
Now we’ve got weather satellites, Doppler Radar, and long-range computer forecasting. We can have an idea by October if it’s going to be a wet December by the temperature of the ocean currents. We can plan a weekend picnic on Wednesday with some assurance that it’s going to be sunny on Saturday.
Think about it. There’s this bucket of bolts and wires and some special kind of camera up in space circling the planet and letting us know whether to take an umbrella to work the next day.

This picture was taken just about when I was
writting this blog! Wow!

When I lived in Southern California, the weathermen would tell us four days out that a storm was on its way. I’d sit on the sofa in my living room watching pictures from space on TV of the big, white swirling mass out in the Pacific Ocean and a computer simulation of how it’s projected to come ashore north of us and travel down the coast bringing two to four inches of rain, depending on whether you live on the coastal plain or in the mountains. When we’d had fires over the summer, leaving mountain sides denuded and prone to mud slides and flash floods, people who lived in those areas would strategically place sand-bags and build drainage channels. And can you imagine the chaos if nobody had known how severe the recent blizzard of the century was going to be? This is something we wouldn’t have had opportunity to know in the dark ages, say about the time I was sitting on an African veranda, storm watching.
Personally, I think being able to forecast the weather so accurately is a nothing short of a miracle. So they’re not100 percent correct all the time. That’s because all the sophisticated equipment in the world can’t second guess Nature: she’s one capricious, perverse, moody mother.
This whole weather thing is just illustrative of what a bunch of entitled bellyachers we’ve become as life has gotten easier, more comfortable, and a whole lot safer. Even as we complain that all the technology that serves our lives doesn’t work well enough to make us unequivocally happy, we simultaneously bemoan a “simpler” time when we weren’t the proverbial slave to it all.
You know, the “simple” life hasn’t actually gone anywhere. You just have to shut off your computer, turn off the TV, take the plugs out of your ears, and sit on the veranda. Or take a walk. But remember to take an umbrella just in case: you won’t know if it’s going to rain.     

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