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American Pie: Weathering The Weather

…Tornados have flattened whole towns where nary a tornado ever appeared before. Hurricanes that hitherto mostly have avoided the Florida Gulf, in recent years don’t seem to be able to stay away…

John Merchant, assembling his words as a tropical storm toys with his pitching boat, ponders on the vagaries of the weather.

To read more of John’s breezy columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/american_pie/

“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Mark Twain.

America’s weather this past three years has provided plenty to complain about – droughts, flooding, tornados, hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and blizzards. Not that there’s anything remarkable about those events, taken individually, it’s simply the intensity and odd timing of them that has people rattled. Tornados have flattened whole towns where nary a tornado ever appeared before. Hurricanes that hitherto mostly have avoided the Florida Gulf, in recent years don’t seem to be able to stay away, and so on.

And the US is not alone. Last year, my home town, Sheffield in England, experienced catastrophic flooding on a scale that hadn’t been seen since the one that devastated parts of the City on March 11, 1864, when the Dale Dyke Dam burst. The conventional explanation for these extremes is the cyclical occurrence of global warming, exacerbated by man-made atmospheric pollution. That well may be the case, but also I suspect that the natural phenomena that create world weather are so vastly dynamic that periodic extremes are historically the norm.

The oceans contain immense areas of temperature difference that mysteriously appear and disappear every 3 or 4 years, exherting a powerful influence on seasonal weather patterns. Just a 0.5 degree temperature difference in areas of the Pacific Ocean can be the determning factor in what kind of summer the west coast of America and the south western states experience.

Known affectionately as El Niño and La Niña, the Christ Child, due to their appearance around Christmas time, La Niña is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific, compared to El Niño, which is distinguished by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the same area. Atlantic tropical cyclone activity generally is enhanced during La Niña.

“The trouble with weather forecasting is that it's right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it.” Patrick Young.

As a Florida resident for the past three years I have developed a keen interest in hurricanes. As Samuel Johnson is reported to have said, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." So far, since I have owned property in Florida, hurricanes Charlie and Wilma have visited my neighborhood. Katrina, which devastated Louisiana, was a near miss, and I’m currently keeping my eye on Ike, which is as yet still in the Caribbean, but heading towards my neck of the woods.

The US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does a wonderful job of tracking hurricanes, predicting their landfall and their potential for destruction. But in order to test their theories and improve their models, NOAA feels obliged to issue a pre-hurricane season prediction of the number and strength of these tropical storms. In doing so, they risk their credibility if the forecasts are incorrect, and thus far their record is a little patchy.

A part of the reason NOAA’s pre-season predictions appear less reliable than they actually are, is that people generally only take notice if they are likely to be personally affected. Most of the weather systems that become hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean emanate from the west coast of Africa. Many of them curve north, away from land masses; others just fizzle out as tropical depressions. So in a given Atlantic hurricane season from June 1 to November 30, there may be many more such storms than an inattentive public is aware of. Ironically, some of the most destructive hurricanes have occurred in quiet seasons.

The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

As I write this piece on my boat in Connecticut, tropical storm Hannah, which started off the coast of Africa over a week ago, is beating on us with 40mph winds, and torrential rain that is predicted to dump over 5 inches before tomorrow morning. Luckily, thanks to NOAA, we’ve had several days to prepare, and most of the boaters have taken off sails and any other canvas that would offer wind resistance, and have doubled up on dock lines.

Don't knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn't start a conversation if it didn't change once in a while. Kin Hubbard.

When I return to my part of Florida in a couple of weeks for the winter, water use restrictions that have been in place for three or four years will have been lifted. Ponds and lakes that were anything up to 4 feet below their normal level when I left in May, due to successive years of drought, will be full. Lawns will be watered without restraint once again, and the Saturday morning suburban car washing ritual will resume. What a wonderful thing is weather!

It is best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain. Mark Twain

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