copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)                                             

Click Here to return to
Reading the Weather
Content Page

Return to the Previous Chapter







TOO great emphasis cannot be laid upon the futility, at present, of trying to fore­ cast the weather for more than a very few days in advance. Long range efforts are not made by the Bureau because with its present limited knowledge of the factors that control seasons and with the present limited facilities for collecting data the process of looking into next month has not been perfected, and the at­tempt to investigate next winter's weather proves scientifically impossible.


As usual, fakers step in where science fears to tread. With goose-bones (not their own) and hickory nuts they prophesy with all their might. And if their prophecies come true, as sometimes they must, there is wide rejoicing in the newspapers and the cause of science is set back by just so much. But science cannot be thwarted in the end and every year new dis­coveries are made, new speculations proved true or forever false, and some time, doubtless, the weather will be predicted from year to year with the same 85% accuracy with which the 36 hour forecast is now made. Experimenting is worth the little that it costs, too, for to know when the summer is to be dry or wet, hot or cold will be a boon to everybody and to the farmer most of all.


One conclusion has already been reached by officials in the Weather Bureau and scientists generally. It has been decided by long search through creditable records, painstaking compari­sons of averages coupled with the most accurate investigations for half a century, that, on the basis of ten years, our seasons do not change. That is, counting the decade as a unit, our weather keeps to the same level of efficiency through the centuries.


This statement comes always as a blow. It always provokes argument and citations of grandmother's blizzards. There is a great and universal hesitation in believing that our weather is as good to-day as it used to be. The good old times when there was a general debauch of snow and you could skate all winter on anything but the Atlantic Ocean certainly appear no more. As a matter of fact there has been a change, but it has been in our memories. In grandmother's youth the trains, -- if they had trains then,­ doubtless were stalled by a big snow for then they did not have rotary plows. In father's day they may have had an unbroken winter of sleigh­ing. We couldn't now; sleighs are extinct. But in our time, in fact every year, some record is being broken and the records go back a re­spectable length of time.


For example in Philadelphia the most accur­ate records made by standard instruments have been kept for 43 years. During this time the highest wind velocity was recorded in 1878 O5 miles an hour). The greatest rainfall in 24 hours occurred in 1898 (5.89 inches). The lowest temperature was registered in 1899 (6 degrees below zero); the highest in 1901 (103 degrees). The greatest number of thunder­storms for any one year took place in 1905 when we had 51. As late as 1909 the heaviest snow­fall ever recorded at this station, amounting to 21 inches, occurred. And just a few weeks ago (April 3rd, 1915) it snowed 19 inches in half as many hours. All these items do not indicate a climate decreasing in virility very swiftly.


But there is more evidence yet that Phila­delphia is experiencing the same varieties of weather in about the same proportions. Dia­ries of observant men running back to 1700 show that almost any kind of memory could be founded on fact, that the same violent changes in temperature, the same deep snows and unseasonable seasons that we endure to-day were noticed then. To quote:


"The whole winter of 1780 was intensely cold. The Delaware was closed from the 1st of December to the 14th of March. The ice was from two to three feet thick." We de­spaired of ever living up to this until three years ago when the same thing happened and sleighs crossed the river a little above the city. And despite the new ice-boats!


"The winter of 1779 was very mild, particu­larly the month of February when trees were in blossom."


"On the 31st of December, 1764, the Dela­ware was frozen completely over in one night, and the weather continued cold until the 28th of March with snow about two and a half feet deep."


"The winter of 1756 was very mild. The first snow was as late as the 18th of March."


And so it goes. 1750 was mild; 1742 "one of the coldest since the settlement of the country "; 1741 was intensely cold, 1725 mild, 1714 very mild after the 15th of January, 1697 long, stormy and severely cold. The upshot of it all is that February violets and April snows were just as well known to General Washington as they are to us.


But though all facts point to the fact that the climate does not change in a decade or a genera­tion or a dozen generations, there is some com­fort for those who are not satisfied in knowing that it doesn't stay the same forever. During the carboniferous times the poles were as warm as the tropics and when the Ice Age came on it was very chilly everywhere. If one might only live an eon or two he might then well complain of the changing climate.


Climate, however, is one thing, weather an­other. The climate is the sum total of the weather. Climate is as enduring as our Consti­tution, the weather is as changeable as our city governments. No matter how proud a scientist may be of the lasting qualities of the climate, he has to admit that our weather, taken day by day or even year by year, is versatile in the extreme. And the question he has set himself to solve is how to explain the variations of the seasonable weather. He wants to find out why all winters are not alike, and why no two successive springs are the same. Then he will be on firm ground at last and able to make scientific forecasts for the ensuing year.


The obvious thing was to find out as ac­curately as possible what had happened and sci­ence's keenest eye was focused on records in the hope of discovering fixed periods of warmth or wetness, cycles of cold and drought. So far no cycles have been discovered that are beyond dis­pute. Nothing has been found that cannot be contradicted successfully. This is discouraging. One of the most frequent starting places for investigators is the spots on the sun. They found that periods of three, eight, eleven, and thirty-five years should bear some resemblance; 1901 was eagerly looked forward to. They wanted it to correspond with the remarkably cool summer of 1867. When it started off in July with a temperature of 103 degrees, the highest ever recorded in Philadelphia, they con­cluded that the sunspots were fooling them. A connection between sunspots and weather has not been established, therefore, although they are now known to affect the electrical condition of the earth's atmosphere. Longer periods of observation will permit comparisons that may yet define concurrent cycles of sunspots and weather.


A definite weather cycle has not yet been dis­covered, but one step in the way has been cleared up. We now are pretty sure of one cause for unusual single seasons of heat and cold.


There exist in winter great bodies of cold, dry air heaped up over Canada and Siberia, which are formed by the greater rapidity of radiation over land surfaces than over water. These mounds of cold air build up during December, January, and February and form great so-called permanent areas of high barometer. It is on the skirts of the Canadian high that the smaller highs form which sweep over our country, giv­ing us our cold waves. Also in winter per­manent lows form over the North Pacific and North Atlantic where warm currents afford con­tinuous supplies of warm moist air. From the great Aleutian (Pacific) low spring most of the cyclones which swing down below the border of the Canadian high, make their turn somewhere in the Mississippi Valley, and then head for the Icelandic low.


It can be seen that if the Canadian high is a little stronger than usual and spreads a little farther south, then the northern half of our country will come more directly under its influ­ence and we will experience an unusually severe winter. As the storms are pushed south and as the cold air pours into the northern quadrants the snow line is pushed south too. Hence all abnormally snowy winters are caused by a strengthening of the permanent Canadian high which may be central anywhere north of our Dakota or Montana borders.


Conversely, if this high is weaker than usual the cyclones can cross the country on a line farther north, there will be less snow, and the cold waves that follow will be less severe or even non-existent.


In summer the reverse occurs. Great oceanic highs are built up over the South Atlantic and South Pacific and a permanent low occupies the center of our continent. The character of the season is determined by the strength and posi­tion of these areas. The eastern states are af­fected especially by the slow movements of the South Atlantic low. The puzzle is why should these areas change their power and position, and if they must change why don't they do it regu­larly? The puzzle will undoubtedly be solved. These great centers of action will be plotted against and observed from every vantage point by a thousand observers. A fascinating field for scientific speculation opens.


At present our Government exchanges daily observations with stations in Siberia, Canada, and the West Indies. The great storm-breeder, the Aleutian Low, is watched from Alaskan shores. In the Atlantic the Bureau needs sta­tionary ships to record the growth and decline of the High over the Azores. Knowledge of the wind circulation from this would inform us whether our storms were to be shunted farther north and pushed somewhat inland. A storm which is pushed to the left of its normal track increases tremendously in intensity. Whereas a cyclone that limps slackly to the right of its normal line loses intensity at once. It misses coil. In this respect storms seem to resemble rattlesnakes.


The energy of the Azores High influences the number and destructiveness of the West Indian hurricanes: the larger the area is the closer do the hurricanes hug our shores and the more destruction do they accomplish.


The very sureness that the general average of the seasons is to be the same enables us to guess pretty accurately for individual purposes as to the kind of season coming next. A guess, let me add, is not a forecast. It is a gamble and disapproved of by the Bureau, but until they supply us with a basis for judgment we will have to go on guessing, for human curiosity is as near to perpetual motion as the weather is to the lacking fourth dimension.


One of these guesses is that if the winter has been a warm one the summer will be cool, for the very good reason that the yearly average does depart so slightly from the fixture. Un­fortunately one hot summer does not mean that the following summer will be cool. Certain sequences of the seasons have been observed often enough to have been gathered into prov­erbs. Everybody agrees that "A late spring never deceives." "A year of snow, Fruit will grow." "A green winter makes a full church­yard."


Of the many hundreds of proverbs relating to the seasons a few are sage, some outworn, and many sheer nonsense. Nearly all refer to the obvious fact that one kind of season is followed by another rather unlike it, not much telling what. And there, unsatisfactorily enough, they leave one. But much is to be hoped for from the scientific explorations now in progress. And until they are heard from few of us will realize how many seasonable seasons we really enjoy.

Click the book image to continue to the next chapter