In my previous life I was a Hydrometeorological Technician for the National Weather Service (NWS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Department of Commerce. Our first year of training focused mainly on teaching us to correctly identify who we worked for and to correctly spell our position title.
After 11 years, I left the Weather Service in 2003 to go to school. Prior to the NWS I spent 4 years in Air Force meteorology during the time of the first Gulf War. One of the things I miss the most about 15 years of 24-hour-a-day weather operations is knowing precisely where my community stands in relation to typical climatology. You know, ‘has it been hotter than usual?’ ‘have we ever had snow in June?’ ‘how does yesterday’s rainfall compare to typical spring weather?’ When your job is meteorology, you just know this stuff. It’s reinforced every time you step into the office, and every time you answer someone’s question on the phone, and with nearly every report you compose and broadcast.
People at my current work (VA – not NWS) have been talking about the rain, of course. It has been raining a lot. Yes, it’s Portland, and we’ve all grown webbed toes to accommodate our damp climate, but it has been depressing lately to have so much rain this close to summer (what we fondly like to think of as a time of “warmth and sunshine”). Forget about yard work the last six weeks – my garden has standing water, and my strawberries are rotting on the vine. I can’t mow the grass when my feet go “scooosh! scoosh! schoosh!” through the swampland of my lawn.
In the elevator Friday, I heard from coworkers that we’ve already broken the rainfall record for June, in addition to what I’ve heard several times from them about a record rainfall for May. I do NOT pipe up that I know weather in the midst of a weather conversation. That’s asking for trouble. In my past weather life I was targeted for the public’s general unhappiness with the weather situation. Most people would just accuse me as a representative of all the faults of weather prediction in the world; the kinder people would disguise their disgust in impossibly pointed questions like, “The forecast last Fall in the second week of November was for rain and 36 degrees, but there was freezing rain on the Interstate and people DIED. Why wasn’t there a warning about the freezing rain? In this day and age, with our technology, it’s hard to believe forecasters still get it so wrong.” You see my point. So on the elevator, I said nothing.
Curious about the facts of record rainfall which are very interesting to me, I researched local NWS climatology this morning and found the truth: there was no record May rainfall in Portland, and no record June rainfall in Portland. Not even close. What the hey?!!?
This is a fascinating phenomena that happens universally with people in my experience. They take a piece of weather information, and redefine it in their heads in a way that meets their expectations and assumptions, and then start talking about it till it becomes fact. A common example is when the forecast is for a 20% chance of rain, say, and the human receiving the information hears: RAIN. In the weather checkbox in their head, Rain gets checked. Then when there is no rain, they are puzzled, angry, disappointed, and feel as though the forecast is untrustworthy. Read accurately, the forecast described solid odds for a dry day, and was correct.
Here’s my theory about office gossip last week: there were a couple of days in May with record rainfall for the day. This happened several times in cities across Oregon. People drew upon some key items from their mental data collection: lots of rainfall out the window, the word ‘record’ on the TV weather, we live in Portland, it’s the month of May… and it came out as “Record rainfall for the month of May in Portland.” Several people came up with the same thing, and when it was spoken at work from independent sources, it solidified into fact and was repeated.
I could give them more credit. Maybe one of our TV weather forecasters said there was record rainfall in May and June. I don’t think so. TV weather sources wouldn’t likely be different from NWS weather by over an inch of rainfall.
There is very awesome weather climatology information upon which to base a misconception. For example, by the 3rd of June here in Portland, we had surpassed our June average rainfall for the month! That’s really remarkable!! Can’t we talk about how cool the truth is, without turning it into “We have already broken the June record.”
Humans have a spiritual need to be a part of the greater experience. We oh, so, want to say, “I was there when…” Since weather is a perpetual point of interest, rehashed for generations, we know that to place ourselves significantly within a timeline of weather high points will increase our chance to attain a mild level of fame and even immortality.
Additionally, many of us are incessantly intrigued with the possibility of outsmarting Mother Nature. It is the appeal of the gamble, the puzzle, the mystery of weather. It is exciting to say that with the technology of the 21st century, humans are still humbled by weather. We cannot predict with consistent accuracy beyond 36 hours, and yet we persist in stamping our names and our company’s logos onto “Ten Day Forecasts.” Forecasters are befuddled in the face of a weather anomaly today as much as Benjamin Franklin was in the early days of white men in America. With centuries of mistakes, we can’t resist the temptation to keep trying to outguess the weather-guesser.
And then there is the telling of the human narrative, that -let’s be honest- I do as much as anyone else. I love the human capacity for storytelling. It is a beauty and a gift.