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THE CLEAR DAY
WE owe our fair weather to that department of atmospheric activity called anticyclone by the weatherman. The anticyclone is an accumulation of air which has become colder than the air surrounding it. This accumulation oftener than not has an area near the center where the air is coldest. About this coldest area the air currents revolve in the direction of a clock's hands. And since this cold air is contracted and denser than its warmer environment it has a perpetual tendency to whirl outward from the center into this warmer environment.
One comes to think, therefore, of the anticyclone as a huge pyramid of cold air moving slowly across the country from west to east and all the while melting down on all sides, like a plate of ice-cream, into the surrounding territory. It is such an immense accumulation that often while its head is reared over Montana the first shivers of its approach are beginning to be felt in Texas and Pennsylvania. It does not extend equally far, however, to the north and west of its head, which is really sometimes where its tail ought to be. That is, a long slope of increasing pressure and cold will sweep in a gentle gradient from Pennsylvania to Montana and will then decrease by a very steep gradient to the Pacific Coast.
The anticyclone draws its power from the inexhaustible supplies of cold air from the upper levels. This air is very dry and accounts for the almost invariably clear skies of the anticyclone.
In winter when the intensity of all the atmospheric activities is greatly increased, the anticyclone develops into the cold wave. The rapidly rising pressure rears its head and rushes along upon the heels of a storm like a vast tidal wave at sixty miles an hour, tumbling the mercury thirty, forty, fifty degrees.
These cold waves first appear in the northwest. They cannot well originate over either ocean and a high-pressure area building up over the southern half of the country will not attain the sufficient degree of frigidity to earn the title, for even cold waves have been standardized by the Government. But although nearly all the cold waves choose Montana or the Dakotas as a base, they have at least two definite lines of action. Those which are born amid the mountains or on the great plains of Montana have a curious habit of bombarding the Texas coast before starting on their eastward march. It is not unusual for us to read of zero weather in the Panhandle and freezing on the Gulf while the mercury may still be standing as high as fifty in New York City.
It is this rapid onslaught from Montana to Texas that produces those notorious blizzards of that section called northers, during which the cattle used to be frozen on the hoof. The record time for a drive of this extent is about twelve hours and the normal about twenty-four which gives scant time for the Weather Bureau to warn the vast interests of the impending assault. When the cold wave, after following this path, does swing toward the Atlantic Coast, as most of them do, it has lost interest and usually produces only seasonably cold weather along the Appalachians.
Those cold waves that recruit their strength in Canada and enter the United States through Minnesota or, rarely, this side of the Lakes move along the border and supply intensely cold weather for a night or two to New England and the Middle Atlantic States.
Cold waves almost always follow a storm. The storm, being an area of low pressure makes a fit receptacle for the surplus of the high pressure, and since the whole business of the weather is to seek peace and pursue it, the greater the discrepancies the more violent the pursuit. Consequently we have the spectacle of a ridge of cold dry air following and trying to level up a fleeing hollow of warm moist air -- but rarely succeeding. This principle of action and reaction is almost the sole principle of the weather and is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the winter's succession of storm and cold wave.
In summer the anticyclones are not only actually but relatively more moderate than in winter. But their influence is still the same, -- clear skies, cooler nights, dry, westerly winds. During the year the anticyclone furnishes us with about sixty per cent. of our weather. The cyclone is responsible for the remaining forty per cent. The weather depends on the cyclone for its variety and upon the anticyclone for its reputation. So it is well to be able to recognize an anticyclone when one appears.
The first and most reliable symptom of the approach of an anticyclone is the west wind. This sign is valid the country over, and is one of the very few signs that hold true for most of the North Temperate Zone. In summer over our country the west wind comes from the southwest, to be Irish, and in winter from the northwest. But for nearly all of our forty-eight states for nearly all of the year the westerly winds are those that bring us fair days and nights. And it is these crisp, clear days and cloudless, brilliant nights which we have in mind when we boast to English friends of our American weather.
The west wind is so popular because it has a slight downward flowing tendency. It also blows from land to sea over all America except the narrow Pacific coast. These downward, outward directions allow it to gather only enough moisture to keep it from becoming seriously dry. Its upper sources supply it with ozone. Its density gives it weight and by its superior weight it prevails. It dries roads faster than a brace of suns could do it. It is tonic. And curiously enough, although the anticyclone loads half a ton excess weight upon us we like it. The greater the burden the more we feel like leaping and shouting. Our good cheer seems to be ground out of us, like street pianos.
The reverse holds, too. For when the anticyclone moves off us and the cyclone hovers over us, removing half a ton of pressure, instead of feeling relieved we feel depressed, out of spirit.
The animals share this reaction with us. In fact barnyards antedated barometers as forecasters, because all the domestic creatures, with pigs in particular, evidenced the disagreeable leniency of the low pressure areas upon their persons.
"Grumphie smells the weather
An' Grumphie smells the wun'
He kens when clouds will gather
An' smoor the blinkin' sun."
The only trouble about this rather extravagant tribute to the pig, versatile though he is, is that he can tell only a very few hours ahead about the coming changes and it takes so much more skill to judge what his actions mean than to read the face of the sky that the science of meteorology finally comes to supplant barnyardology.
The coming of the anticyclone is foretold by the shifting of the wind from any quarter to the west. The course that the center of the anticyclone is keeping may be watched by the same agency. Since the circulation from the cone of cold air follows the hour hands of a clock it follows that if the center is moving north of you the wind, blowing outward from the center, will work from west to northwest and from northwest to north and slightly, east of north.
If the wind has shifted into the west on a Wednesday, it will likely be cold by Wednesday night and colder on Thursday. By Friday morning the wind will be coming from the north, likely, with the lowest temperature of all. By Saturday the cold will moderate, the wind will tire and gradually die to a calm or become weakly variable. The four day supremacy of the anticyclone will be over. But, mind you, there are a dozen variations of this routine. I am only suggesting a usual one.
If after blowing two or three days from the west the wind shifts to the southwest and south, you may know that the central cold area is passing south of you and that its intensity will not be great. While these anticyclones that float down and to the right of their normal path linger longer, they are never so severely cold, nor, alas, so uniformly clear as the others. It is a profound law of anticyclones and even more particularly of cyclones, that if they deviate to the right they weaken, if they are pushed by an obstacle to the left they increase greatly in intensity.
Occasionally the central portion of an anticyclone passes over your locality. Then the wind will fall. The frost will be keen and the cold will be notably dry and invigorating. In summer although the sunlight may be powerfully bright and the heat great, yet the air will have a buoyant effect, the body a resilience. And the nights will cool swiftly. Soon after the center passes from the locality a wind will spring up from the east with rapidly rising temperature and increased humidity.
The coldest part of the anticyclone is not, as one would suppose, at the center, but in advance of it; and its authority, like a schoolmaster's, is rapidly dissipated after its back is turned upon a place.
The intensity of an anticyclone is measured by its wind velocity and by the degree of cold obtaining under its influence. But the greatest cold occurs rarely in conjunction with the greatest velocity of the wind. The calms that occur at sunrise enable radiation to take an extra spurt which pushes the mercury lower by a degree or so than happens when the wind is blowing. But, windy or calm, the period about sunrise is normally the coldest of the day, even extending in midwinter for as much as half an hour after sunrise, so slow are the feeble rays at restoring the balance of loss and gain of heat.
The greatest falls occur at the advent of the cold wave, no matter whether it arrives at ten in the morning or at midnight. If the temperature starts to decline gradually during the day, a further and decided fall may be expected at nightfall if the sky is clear. And if the temperature rises gradually during the night the normal processes are being displaced and a change from fair to foul is a surety. In summer the hottest time of day is not at noon, any more than the coldest part of the winter day was at midnight, for the reason that the sun can pour in its heat faster than the earth can radiate it, and the hour for the maximum temperature is pushed as far along toward evening as four or five or even six o'clock.
The average anticyclone continues its influence for clearness for about four days. Some, however, hurry the whole thing through in two. Others are interrupted by a more vigorous cyclone and are put to rout. Others are held up by an inherent weakness and are forced to mark time over one locality until strengthened or dissipated. And a few great ones hold sway over the country for a week. These choose the north-center of the country in which to locate. There they pile up the cold air until its very weight causes it to move majestically on. Its skirts sweep the Gulf coast where they are a bit bedraggled by invading cyclones. It gives the New Englanders a fortnight of nipping, brisk days and the mercury in Minnesota and the Dakotas does not emerge above zero. Once, in Montana, one of these refrigerating systems established the record of sixty-three degrees below zero. But in Siberia where the immense extent of the land surface collaborates with a prolonged night, an anticyclone built up an area of superior chilliness that left a world's record of ninety-one below.
In summer a succession of these highs causes the frequent droughts of weeks which harass the West and New England. The air becomes so dry that it parches and then shrivels the green leaves. Any little cyclones that, under ordinary conditions, would suck in moist air from the Gulf and relieve the situation with a rain are dried out and frustrated by the unclouded sun. It requires a cyclone of great depth to overthrow the supremacy of these summer anticyclones.
While the anticyclone furnishes fair weather the sky is not necessarily or even usually free from clouds under its influence. In summer the evaporation during the long days overloads the air for the time being. Normally about eleven in the morning little balls and patches of white clouds dot the blue. These increase in number and size until about three in the afternoon when they will have grown little black bellies and fluffy white tops. By five they will have dwindled and by eight entirely vanished. These heaped clouds, known as cumulus, are a guarantee of a normal atmosphere and continued fair weather. They mean that currents of warm, moist air have risen until they have struck a level so cool as to cause them to condense part of their moisture. This condensation sinks until it enters a warmer stratum and the cloud is dissipated. The total movement is a reasonable exchange that preserves the equilibrium of the air, very much as a person bends one way and then another to maintain his balance.
In winter there is not such an opportunity offered and the few clouds that form because of the daily variation in temperature are flatter and are called stratus clouds. Sometimes these stratus clouds may cover the sky at midday, but in thin platings and not leadenly. In winter as in summer they tend to disappear toward evening. They are often accompanied by an unpleasant wind, but rarely by the snow flurry which is the "April shower" of the winter months.
But when the snow flurry does come there is no better sign for the woodsman of coming cold; it never fails. The morning will have begun brilliantly, but soon great summery puffs of cloud form and increase and darken on their under sides. Their tops are vague and wear a veil. It is the snow. The reason is simple. The coming anticyclone strikes the upper air before it hits the earth's surface. The sudden cold causes rapid condensation. Hence the flurries. But the anticyclone is an agent of dryness, hence their short duration. Sometimes the veil of snow does not reach the earth. Sometimes it blots out everything in a spirited squall. But it never lasts long, except in the northwest states. And it is invariably followed by a period of colder weather.
In summer local evaporation may be so long-continued or so vigorous that the cumulus clouds cannot hold all their moisture content when cooled. A shower is the result, usually a trifling one and mostly without thunder. The great thunderstorms are always in connection with the passing of a cyclone. The small heat thunderstorms are only the indulgences of a spell of fair weather. These tiny showers are daily and sometimes hourly accompaniments of clear weather in the mountains. The air warms rapidly in the valleys and is speedily cooled on rushing up a mountain side and a threat and a sprinkle are the result. When a performance of this sort is going on nobody need fear unpleasant weather of long duration.
Another pledge of a clear day that does not appear too credible on the face of it is the morning fog in summer. In winter it is a different matter. In August and September particularly the rapidly lengthening nights allow so much heat to evaporate that the surplus moisture in the air is condensed to the depth of several hundred feet. By ten o'clock the sun has eaten into this lowest stratum, heated it and yet begins to decline in power before the balance swings the other way, so that a cloudless day often follows a fog in those months. About three mornings of fog, however, are enough to discourage the sun and a rain follows. Of course this is because the anticyclone with its special properties has been losing power.
When these conditions of clear nights with no wind follow the first two or three windy days of the anticyclone, particularly in autumn and spring, frost results. In winter the chances that a fog will be dissipated are rather slim. But if it shows a tendency to rise all may yet be well. An excellent sign of clear weather is this fact of the morning mist rising from ravines in the mountains. And even if you haven't any mountain ravines at command the altitude of clouds can be observed. It is safer to have them lessen in number rather than increase, scatter rather than combine. The higher the clouds the finer the weather. And if the sky through the rifts is a clear untarnished blue the prospects of settled weather are much better than with fewer clouds and a milky blue sky beyond.
After the direction of the wind and the shapes of the clouds the colors of the sky are a great help in the reading of the morrow's promise. And the best time to read this promise is in the morning or evening when the half lights emphasize the coloring.
Soon after the close observation of cloud colors has commenced the amazing discovery is made that the same color at sunrise means exactly the reverse of its meaning at sunset.
"Sky red in the morning
A sailor's sure warning,
Sky red at night
A sailor's delight"
Christ seized upon this phenomenon to throw confusion into the Pharisees and Sadducees when they asked that He would show them a sign from Heaven. As Matthew reports it: -- "He answered and said unto them, When it is evening ye say, It will be fair weather for the sky is red. And in the morning It will be foul weather today for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but ye cannot discern the signs of the times."
The reasons for this contradictory evidence of color are not nearly so obvious as the fact itself. Taking the scientist's word for it need not stretch one's credulity overmuch if he can be followed step by step. He says that sunlight is white light, and white is the sublime combination of every color. If no atmosphere existed about us the light would all come through, leaving the sky black. The atmosphere, however, which is full of dust and water particles, breaks up these rays, these white sheaves of light, into their various colors. The longest vibrations, which are the red, and the shortest, which are the violet, get by and the rest are turned back, mixing up into the color which we call our blue sky.
If the dust and water particles grow so large and numerous as to divert more of the short rays than usual we get a redder glow than usual. This is most noticeable when the sun and clouds are near the horizon for the air through which they appear is nearer the earth and consequently dirtier. If these water globules mass together so as to reflect all the rays alike the result is a whitish appearance. That is why a fog bank, composed of tiny droplets, each reflecting with all its might, can make the sky a dull and uniform gray.
As evening approaches the temperature of the normal day lowers. As the temperature lowers it is the tendency of the moisture in the air to condense about the little dust particles in the air. And as these particles increase in size their tendency is to reflect more and more of the waning rays of light. Therefore if the sky is gray in the evening it means that the atmosphere already contains a good deal of condensed moisture. If the cooling should go on through the night, as it normally would, condensation would continue with rain as the likely result.
If, on the other hand, after the evening's cooling has progressed and yet the colors near the horizon are prevailingly red it means that there is so little moisture in the atmosphere that the further increase due to the night's condensation will not be sufficient to cause rain. Hence the natural delight of the sailor.
A gray morning sky implies an atmosphere full of water precisely as an evening gray does. The difference lies in the ensuing process. By morning the temperature has reached its lowest point and if this has not been sufficient to cause cooling to the rainpoint the chance for rain will be continually lessened by the growing heat of the rising sun. The gray, therefore, is the normal indication of a clear cool night which has permitted radiation and therefore condensation to this degree. It is for this reason that we have the heavy fogs of August and September followed by cloudless days.
A red morning sky shows, like the red evening sky, that condensation has not taken place to any extent. But this is abnormal for a clear night causes condensation. The red therefore means that a layer of heavy moist air above the surface levels has prevented the normal radiation. Hence when the day's evaporation adds more moisture to that already at the higher levels the total humidity is likely to increase beyond the dewpoint with the resultant rain.
These two color auguries are among the most reliable of all the weather signs. Unfortunately the sunrises are scarcely ever on hand to be examined except by milkmen. But a careful scrutiny of the sunset will make one proficient in shades. In summer when the sun burns round and clear-cut and red on the rim of the horizon the air contains much dust and smoke, the accompaniment of dry weather. And as dry weather has a way of perpetuating itself such a sun makes dry and continued weather a safe prophecy. In winter the same red and flaming sun setting brilliant as new minted gold is a sure indication of clear and cold weather. In all seasons the light tints of the evening sky mean the atmosphere at its best. A golden sunset, a light breeze from the west, a glowing horizon as the sun goes down, slow fading colors all constitute a hundred to one bet for continued fair weather. The sunset colors that are surely followed by storm will be discussed in the next chapter.
The sky is too little regarded. Architects that do not consider the sky are behind in their calling. Maxfield Parrish has made himself famous by allying himself with its seas of color. The hunter can read it and learn whether he may sleep dry without his tent. Only we who shut ourselves within rooms and behind newspapers forget that there is a sky -- until it falls and we are taken to a sanitarium.
From the night itself much may be discovered about the continuance of fair weather. A sky well sown with stars is a good sign. If only a few stars are visible the clear spell is about over. Stars twinkle because of abrupt variation in the temperature of the air strata. If the wind is from the west cold and clear will result no matter how much may twinkle twinkle little star. But if he twinkle with the wind from the south or east the cloud will soon fly. That is the way with these weather signs. One sign does not make a prophecy. It is the combination that has strength and reliability. Furthermore the eye must be trained by many comparisons.
Of all the conditions that make night forecasting easy the later evenings of the moon are the best. The moon furnishes just the proper amount of illumination to betray the air conditions. If she swims clear and triumphant well and good. If she rides bright while dark bellying clouds sweep over her in summer, inconsequential showers may follow. But if she disappears by faint degrees behind a thin but close knit curtain of cloud the clear weather is being definitely concluded.
A great many changes in the weather take place after three in the morning. Most campers are accustomed to waking anyway once or twice to replenish the fire, and a glance at the stars will show the sleepiest what changes are occurring in the eternal panorama. A man may have gone to bed in security to get up in a snowstorm, whereas a survey of the skies at three would have noted the coming change. The habit of waking in the dead of night, -- which isn't really so dead after all, -- is not an unpleasant one. Its compensations are set forth in a beautiful and vivid chapter of Stewart Edward White's "The Forest." Every camper knows them, and this added mastery that a knowledge of the skies gives him lends a sense of power, which lasts until the unexpected happens.
For the unexpected happens to the best regulated of all forecasters, the Government. Equipped with every instrument and with an army whose business is nothing else than to hunt down storms and warn the public, the Weather Bureau is still surprised fifteen times out of a hundred by unforeseeable changes in atmospheric pressure. It is scarcely likely then that amateurs without flawless barometers and without reports of the current weather in three hundred places could hope to foretell with complete accuracy. But there is a place for the amateur, aside from his own personal gratification and profit. The Weather Bureau within the limits of the present appropriation cannot expect to predict for every village and borough. That the amateur may do and with as great accuracy for the few hours immediately in advance.
The Weather Bureau may predict with this large percentage of accuracy -- 85% -- for forty-eight hours in advance because its scope is country wide. It may even forecast in a general way for seven days and still maintain a considerable advantage over almanac guesswork. But the man who is relying upon local signs is limited to ten or at most twelve hours. Of course he may guess beyond that but it is only a guess. The work that the Bureau does and that he may do within his limits is not guesswork. Meteorology is an exact science, and forecasting is an art. Both may be studied now in classes under professors with degrees in the same way that any other science and art may be studied. The old sort of weather wisdom which was a startling compound of wisdom, superstition, and inanity has passed away, or is passing away as rational weather talk spreads.
These limits of the layman -- ten hours with no instruments -- are further defined by his locality. In mountainous country changes come more quickly than in level localities, in winter than in summer, so that one's prophetic time-limit is shortened.
While the best indications of the clear day are the great fundamental ones, there are many little signs that bolster up one's confidence in one's own predictions. The lessened humidity coincident with clear weather is responsible often for many little household prognostics. Salt is dry. The windows (of your summer cottage) do not stick. The children are less restless. Smoke ascends, or if the wind is blowing is not flattened to the ground. Flies are merely insects, for the time being, and not the devil. Swallows and the other birds that eat insects fly high because that is where the insects are. Spiders do not hesitate to make their webs on the lawn. They welcome dew but distrust rain. Cow and sheep feed quietly, rarely calling to one another as they do before a storm. In short the general aspect of these is normal and therefore remains unnoticed.
But all these household prognostics may be advertising the most placid weather while only twelve hours away and coming at sixty miles an hour may be the severest storm of the season. The Weather Bureau with its maps and barometers follows its every movement. The man in the woods whose comfort in summer and whose life in winter may depend upon his preparedness for the approaching storm does well to read its warnings and know its laws.