Never Wish on the Weather

It's unpredictable, and it's out of our hands. A look at weather forecasting with a humorous angle.
By William Chapin
August/September 1995
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Just hold your finger up to the wind.

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People talk about it, celebrate it, condemn it, curse it, implore it, slander it, draw morals from it, rage against it, pray for it, and-on rare occasions-thank it. More than that, they listen to "experts" talk authoritatively about the weather on television. TV weather reporters remind me of sideshow barkers at county fairs: "Step right up, folks, and I'll show you the inside of cumulonimbus cloud." And we have newspapers that devote countless pages, in glorious primary colors, to the weather.

All of this palaver is, I suspect, the reflection of an unwavering truth: There is not a thing we can do about the weather. The weather is simply there, an enormous presence. Unable to change it, we resort to talk, mindless talk. In the wake of months of unrelenting rain this past winter, some of us in California find a little comforting banter our only shelter.

Nor can we really predict the weather with any certainty. Weather forecasters are mistakes waiting to happen. I know, because I once tried to forecast the weather-and failed. Let's go back a bit.

In early 1942, right after Pearl Harbor and with the draft snapping at my heels, I shopped around for a military program that would keep me out of the infantry. The infantry was not my cup of tea. I found an Air Corps meteorology training program at MIT.

For nine months I struggled with the calculus of weather, both differential and integral. It seemed very abstract; tenuously related to raindrops. My most vivid memory of that instruction is a lecture by a distinguished professor who said that three of his colleagues had evolved a series of equations that would forecast the weather a week in advance. The only trouble, he said, was that the equations contained so many variables that it took six months to solve them. By which time the forecast ...well, we saw what he meant. My second most vivid memory is that I was never able to master the theodolite. Don't even ask me what a theodolite is.

Nevertheless I graduated, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and assigned to active duty as the head of a weather detachment at Morris Field near Charlotte, North Carolina. It seems unreal now, but you can look it up.

We in the detachment were an odd bunch. One of us had a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago. Another was an ornithologist. Still another was a rabbi with a law degree. None of us would have struck fear into the hearts of the enemy; but all of us, I suspect, struck fear into the hearts of the young pilots who recklessly relied on us for weather forecasts.

The commanding officer of Morris Field was a Colonel Gates. He would have been better named Colonel Blimp. Colonel and Mrs. Gates had a rose garden. Almost every morning he would saunter into the weather station and demand to know if we would have a thunderstorm that afternoon. My thunderstorm forecast determined whether or not the colonel felt compelled to water his roses. His visits made me nervous-so nervous that when I got a chance to abandon weather and go into flight training I leapt at it.

Not long after my discharge from the service, my wife O'Hara and I and our two small children moved to sunny California. I got here first, and rented a tract house south of San Francisco. I wrote to O'Hara, told her that she'd be able to look through our picture window and see the bay gleaming in the sun. On the day she arrived with the babies it was so foggy she couldn't even see our backyard fence. That first year, she spent quite a bit of time putting snowsuits on the kids when she sent them out to play.

But we're still here, obviously, counted among that vast multitude of Americans who think that by moving to California they will at least improve their weather even if they can't escape it. Wrong, of course. We can't improve the weather and we can't forecast it. Couple of weeks ago, driving from San Francisco back to our home in Sonoma, I went through water that was scudding over Highway 37 in Marin County. I swear the water had whitecaps.

A few years ago I went to a reunion of my MIT class in Cambridge. I went to a lecture by a famous meteorologist. He said, and I assume he was talking metaphorically, that when a leaf falls from a tree in Beijing it affects the weather in Boston.

But I want to know: If you're in Boston and you stick a finger in your mouth and then hold it up to the wind, do they know what you're doing in Beijing? Because that's still the best way of forecasting the weather anywhere in the world.

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