Fluid Dynamics (FD) – that is the science of interest here – and depending upon its pace, FD covers everything from plate tectonics to a barrel of pork lost in rough weather. As already noted, big snows are too complicated to understand for all but tenured faculty in prestigious schools of higher learning. A Ph.D. in History or English Literature should do, but how many can afford the expense and time to get one of those? Instead, we need an analogy that is entertaining while gesturing in the direction of the truth about weather and how to understand it. Now, I believe that I have located one such on our western horizon in the Olympics Mountains. But before explaining it, let’s consider weathermen and weather persons – our meteorologists without much in the way of academic portfolio – who try to explain “the weather” to us on television.
When television was nearly new – as it was during the big snow of 1950 – weather reporting was typically a platform for good-humor men delivering sideshows or entertaining interludes to the more concerned news delivered by talking heads holding notes. These notes-in-hand became a kind of staff of authority, a scepter, for news talents often had little to show either beyond themselves (like film clips) or even of themselves (like wisdom or insightful wit). Then with the introduction of Teleprompters, the higher-paid reporters and especially anchors could throw the notes away. And yet some among them were reluctant to give up these scepters and, if allowed, might still pretend to be reading the notes they held.
Early weather reporters lifted the day’s statistics and forecasts from the newspapers, which got them from the Weather Service, which was then beginning to collect most of its data at airports. With few effects or devices to lean on, the best of the weather clowns were exceptional: entertaining while both delivering their forecasts and later apologizing for them like repentant fools. Consequently, the early weather humorists did not need to be particularly good-looking. It might have been a distraction. In the competitive broadcast market, “Looks,” however, were increasingly important for anchors, and rugged good looks were a splendid cover for bully reporters working in the field.
And by now even the weather reporters are ordinarily pretty. Weather women, especially, are often as pulchritudinous as the sensitively lighted snapshots in a plastic surgeon’s promotional album of nearly miraculous effects. And voices have also changed. Now one had best be either a mellifluous baritone or a contralto. And here I will ask my old housemate – from the time of that 1978 snow illustrated above – to reflect on all this. I have often referred to Bill Burden for reflection on this or that, because he is at once both brilliant and kind. And in this context we may note that Bill is also part of a large family that includes a few TV News personalities.
To my figuring, the weather report on TV was and still is the thing people actually care about the most as being a part of their lives, even though it is really just the same stuff over and over. Especially in the early years of TV reporting, it was the one job where one could be a little strange, as in geeky or smart. And then there was Sandy Hill of KOMO who used the weather thing to leap to much higher cloud formations – I think she was analogous to the page 3 bare-breasted cuties of the Daily Mail in building a certain viewership.
TV (or the individuals running it) generally favor beauty as a way to cut their losses – everybody knows why they hired the new weather girl with large bosoms – but the “meteorologists” with the biggest followings still seem to be characters rather than faces. It also strikes me that weather folk are the only TV reporters who really work in 3-dimensional space – gesturing to how the low pressure system is going to build in or the fog will spread, playing the green-screen projections as if they really existed.
I remember the period when forecasters would work behind a plate of glass, on which they would write the temps for the areas outlined on the glass. Writing backwards was a skill that weather folks worked to perfect – except for Sandy Hill (back to her again), who was “thrust” into the role without the skill – so the techs simply reversed the entire image so it made sense to Sandy on her side of the glass and to us viewers on our side.
All weather is a truly chaotic system with too many variables to completely define the past-present continuum in order to project a future (even with gigaflops of computing power). Great strides have been made to get us to where there’s real confidence at 24-36 hours out. But as we all know, even 5-day forecasts are still about like throwing chicken bones, so maybe our weather folk are the most effective who are the most shamanistic, not to say clownish.
I agree with Bill, for it seems to me too that of those on a television broadcaster’s team the weather reporter requires the greatest wit and agility of those that at the end of the news hour have once again described the day’s events with the restraint that supports public peace and does not offend the sponsors. An anchor need only be a “good reader,” and after an hour of looking earnestly ahead at the camera where a Teleprompter is superimposed for his or her eyes only, an anchor need hardly break a sweat on her or his powdered upper lip. But as Bill noted, today’s weather persons are surrounded by gizmos, several cameras, Teleprompters from many angles, and other expensive appliances. In the rush of limited minutes they move like cheerleaders whom we may admire. Still, we may wonder if this one or that once failed to get a leading role in the senior class play. But then so did we.
Before describing my biddable Olympics analogy that unravels the complexity of weather, or at least ties it up differently, I will take a last sympathetic look into the understandably ambivalent attitude of our local weather reporters. They must describe a region with little of the meteorological melodrama enjoyed, for instance, by Buffalo, Tiera del Fuego, and Spokane. In spite of sensational exceptions, like Columbus Day 1962, Puget Sound weather is more likely to require – well, you know, small talk, like a Nebraska farmer admiring the height of his haystack. Still, a certain amount of this lesser talk about weather is obligatory everywhere. It is a humdrum part of the community, with daily relevance to travel, picnics, and homelessness.
On the sensational side, heroic talk about our local weather is best kept local, lest it be compared with the extremes in someone else’s weather. For instance, if size makes a difference, there is little to profit in telling Seattle snow stories to someone from Spokane. “Last December we had 19 inches of snow.” “We had 61.” (Statistic: for Spokane, 61 inches was the largest monthly snow total since it started keeping records in 1893. As reminder or sign of the challenges represented by a Spokane winter, we include here a 1929 scene of a bus trying to head for Spokane through some drift between here and there.)
In Seattle, hurricanes are found in libraries. Tornadoes all decompose. Strong winds – once in a century. Cyclones – on YouTube. If we want weather hyperboles, we are most often reduced to exaggerating the number of gray skies that half-light our summer barbecues. Here we save our resentment primarily for sodden summers and days without sun. We seem to complain about big or extreme weather, too, when really many of us hope for big snows, gale-force winds, although preferably without the rain.
If we go for long without something untoward from above, we may begin to look with uncanny interest at pitted windshields. But should we? Can’t we be pleased to live in a body with few symptoms, in a theatre that has air conditioning? Within the range of our welcomed mediocrity, weather remains chaotic and capable of comic reversals. However, falls from this stage are rarely tragic. Such is the dispassion of our temperate Eden, our Mediterranean of the Pacific. We should sympathize with the performer in the weather reporter, for covering Puget Sound weather may be a bit like playing dinner theatre in Middletown.