by Whit Gibbons

November 26, 2006

The weekend after Thanksgiving is too late to write about turkeys or pumpkins and too early to write about reindeer or poinsettias. But one subject is always appropriate for an environmental column and requires no special occasion--the weather. (In truth, I may have been prompted to write about the weather because I spent four exhilarating hours this morning walking around in a wetland checking animal traps in a sleeting rain.) Like Rachel Carson, I agree that "a rainy day is the perfect time for a walk in the woods." I also find truth in the words of John Ruskin, 19th-century British poet and art critic: "There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather."

But don't think I am about to launch into the polarizing issue of whether global warming is real, imagined, or a carefully crafted plot by Bill Clinton or the pope. The weather itself is a worthy environmental topic. My only allusion to climate change in this column is a quote from Mark Twain: "Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get."

So if the column isn't about global climate change, what is it about? It's about people (like me) who enjoy talking about weather and others (not like me) who don't, and a few comments on our puzzling fascination with weather forecasting. In other words, it's just some unharnessed thoughts about weather.

Some people think even talking about the weather is inane and boring. I do not agree. But in the spirit of full disclosure here are some points of view from the other side. Oscar Wilde stated that “conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” And Kin Hubbard, an Indiana humorist said, "Don't knock the weather. If it didn't change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn't start a conversation." Perhaps the most hurtful statement to those of us who find weather fascinating came from the insensitive words of Thomas Fuller, a British physician who died in the 18th century. "Change of weather is the discourse of fools." Hey, back off, some of us like weather talk, even if it's just a healthy way to complain.

I don't seem to be able to talk about the weather without mentioning the foolishness of something I do each day, along with several billion other people, which is check the weather forecast. Not just for the day, but for the week, yet! Why do we continue to pay any attention to a weather forecast? My cousin Steve, who is a meteorologist, asserts that "nowcasting" is the only reliable weather report. He notes that meteorological studies have documented that the prediction that the weather tomorrow will be exactly like it was today is more likely to be right than any other predictions that are made. So why do we all keep checking the weather report? Someone named Patrick Young has part of the answer: "The trouble with weather forecasting is that it's right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it."

Want some proof of how unreliable long-range weather forecasts are? Tape those five-day projections on your refrigerator each day for a week then line up what happened today with what was predicted five days ago. You will find the earlier forecast about whether it would rain was right about as many times as it was wrong. Flip a coin and your chances will be as good at predicting whether it will rain or not rain five days from now.

A difference between wild animals and humans is that animals that based their survival on the misguided belief that they were able to predict the weather eventually left no descendants. That kind of thinking no longer exists in the animal kingdom, except for humans. Nonetheless, despite a lifetime of confirmation that a long-range weather forecast is absolutely meaningless, I still routinely check to see what the magical weather report says is in store for us. How else would I know the perfect time to wander through a wetland checking animal traps?

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