As I sit staring out the window yesterday at persistent, gray clouds – the results of cold air damming, I reflect upon just how complex weather really is. Don’t get me wrong, I think about the topic almost daily, but this afternoon, it’s heavy on my mind.
Often I am asked why our weather is like this or why the storm did that, and my answer tends to be either too short or too long for the person who is inquiring. It’s too short when I give the most obvious explanation such as “because we had a cold front pass through.” It’s too long when I go into the details of the many ingredients required to setup the situation in question.
Sadly, there seems to rarely be a correct length of answer. How I answer should really depend on how well the person asking actually understands the different dynamics at play. Unless I know that person well, I am usually unsure how weather savvy he is. So, I tend to keep my responses short and may come across as curt. If he asks for more detail, I suddenly offer too much information and come off as a know-it-all.
Believe me. I do not know it all. No person does, and I wish more people were willing to admit it. One of the most useful lessons I have ever learned was when I was told about 15 years ago that there are the things we know, the things we know that we don’t know, and the things that we don’t know that we don’t know. You may have to reread that last part twice. It’s not a typo, I promise, and most of the universe fits into that third set of “things.”
The thought will keep you humble, but before I go too far on a philosophical tangent, let’s return to the weather.
The word “complicated” means “composed of interconnected parts” or “difficult to analyze, understand, or explain,” according to Dictionary.com. That word perfectly describes the weather. Today’s clouds aren’t just caused by humidity or warm air rising as they might be on a more spring-like day. Today’s clouds are caused by high pressure to our northeast, light winds coming from the Atlantic, and the mountains blocking those winds, forcing the cold air they bring to collect at the surface in a dome-like structure stretching across the Piedmont. Cold air sinks, and in this case, literally dams up against the mountains and traps us in this grey, cloudy, chilly day.
For this type of weather pattern to break, something has to change in the atmosphere to our northeast and/or to our west. That high pressure system either needs to move along, or a frontal system from the west needs to bring in warmer air. Usually, what really happens is some combination of both because it is literally all connected.
Where does the high pressure system go, and the warmer air come from? How did they get there in the first place. What does a butterfly flapping it’s wings in the Indian Ocean have to do with anything? Well, I’m not sure if the butterfly has a huge effect, but our weather is determined, at least in part, by global patterns, waves, and oscillations across the planet.
While we may have a pretty good handle on the basics of weather forecasting at this point – at least it is enough to make some pretty accurate predictions in the short term, there is still an unknown amount of things we still need to learn. Truly, I don’t know how much we still don’t know – nobody does, but I do know that the entire goal of science is to constantly discover new information about the world around us. If we make the assumption that we know it all – even about a single topic, science stalls, so we have to keep an open mind, read different perspectives and studies, and do our best not to shut down to differing viewpoints no matter how much dissonance it causes us.
Okay, so maybe there’s a little tangential thinking here, but I stick to my initial title: Weather is complicated. To say that the universe is complicated would just be too obvious.
*Note: This post was actually written Monday afternoon.