The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About the Weather?

Posted by | January 23, 2016

Snow blowing past the big barn's double doors, February 5, 2015

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition of 1/24/16 and Making It At Home Thursday edition, 1/28/2016.

Always eager to start some new long-term monitoring project, I’m now keeping track of the number of conversations I have about the weather. I’m planning to henceforth keep tabs on with whom, when, and for how long we chatted. I’m already certain one thing will be constant: the changing weather will be discussed in only the most general, equivocal, unchanging terms. You and I will talk about the weather, my friends, but we will say nothing new.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, where normally the weather is a subject completely encompassed by “75 and sunny,” 90% of my conversations with friends old and new began by discussing the recent El Nino rains, mudslides, flooding, and winds. Some people I hadn’t seen in a decade, and we still began by discussing the previous night’s thunderstorm. Dramatic and charismatic weather for Southern California, but still – weather.

Why is the weather such a perfect small talk device? I suppose because it affects all of us, it’s continually new, and it’s hard to hold a controversial opinion about it. (Who doesn’t despise freezing rain? Who doesn’t love sunshine?) Many of us have been raised to believe that, for polite conversation or the holiday table, there are taboo subjects: politics, religion, money. You know, all the good stuff. If there were a conversation spectrum, those would be at one end, and weather (and “how busy we all are”) would be on the other. Why? It’s safe to talk about the weather, I suppose. Weather is the iceberg lettuce of the conversation salad – there for filler, not for taste.

I work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-supported Wells Reserve at Laudholm, so thinking about meteorology is as natural as the seasons here. But I’m still fascinated by the inevitable raising of the subject as a hello, as a pastime, or as a meeting extender. In a culture decrying our declining conversational skillsblamed variously on a polarized media, polarized politicians, television, failing parents, failing schools, Twitter or Facebook – one would think that weather small talk would get less of a pass. Chewing over whether it’ll snow, and how much, or if it’s too warm to snow, or too cold, or is the wind dying down, or if it’s beautiful or just nice out… does it really matter? Don’t we, as a region, state, country, or world, have more important things to discuss?

We do, but we don’t go there. We stick to the weather like frost on the windowpane.

So, fine, let’s talk about the weather… but in a deeper way. Come join me at Weather Underground, the Internet’s daily convention for self-proclaimed weather nerds. Come compare the latest supercomputer model runs, or parse Brian Epstein’s latest Maine Forecast column. Follow me into the whirlwind world of millibars, blocking ridges, decadal oscillations and hydrologic gradients, if you dare.

And then, like my family, quickly leave the room again, shaking your head. But truly, talking about the weather CAN be interesting, even controversial. (E.g., mentioning today’s conditions is banal, but talking about long-term weather trends, also known as climate, can invite a partisan hailstorm.)

Weather forecasts have improved markedly in the past 50 years, and yet so many people still say “those forecasters don’t know anything.” Why? If you get your rain forecasts from local TV meteorologists, it turns out they’re sometimes purposefully, maddeningly wrong to get ratings. Butts hold endless forms most wonderful for children and adults alike, and there’s a growing international effort to crowdsource images for the next edition of the World Meteorological Organization’s definitive Butt Atlas. On Florida’s southwest coast last week, a thunderstorm, not an earthquake, briefly created a tsunami-like wave that washed six feet over the high tide mark. I didn’t even know that could happen, but now I’m terrified for my coastal neighbors. Weather inspires art, from the Krakatoa-infused sunsets in Turner’s landscapes to the jangly drone of 1985’s “Talk About the Weather” by British post-punk group Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.

Sitting in my office perched on the last hill before the Canadian northwesterly blows out over the Atlantic Ocean, I listen to my windows rattle and think often about the weather. If you’re not feeling under it, I’ll gladly talk about the weather with you any time, come rain or come shine.

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His attempted biweekly column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, high pressure and low. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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