Thursday, April 29, 2010

Whither the weather?

There are all sorts of time-worn colloquialisms about the weather -- two of the best attributed to Mark Twain.

The first: Everybody complains about the weather ... but nobody ever does anything about it. And the second: If you don't like the weather in New England, wait a minute.

There's validity in both sentiments, but particularly the second, and even more particularly in the spring.

This is when our weather can be as unpredictable as a car careening out of control down a highway.

This year, we were blessed in the Boston area with an early spring. The snow spigot shut off, with a couple of minor exceptions, in February. And March was, for the most part, one of the warmest ever.

Of course, we paid for that gift dearly -- which is another aspect of New England weather. Nature provides a cruel balance sometimes. So at the end of the month, when the National Weather Service trots out is average temperature and precipitation figures, it's best to take them with a grain of salt.

In 1978, for example, the region suffered perhaps its worst blizzard ever. There may have been storms that resulted in high snow totals, or colder weather, or worse flooding. But when you factor in the timing of the storm (it reached its maximum level of ferocity right around rush hour), the rapidity in which it escalated (almost immediately) and its length (almost three days, enough for three rounds of astronomically high tides and the coastal flooding that came with it), the Blizzard of '78 set the standard.

Route 128, which was, at the time, the major traffic belt that connected Boston with its suburbs on all flanks, became a parking lot of abandoned cars as the blizzard, with its almost zero visibility, made driving futile. Amphibious vehicles had to patrol streets in coastal communities, with rescue workers often plucking people out of unwelcome ocean water that had crashed over seawalls and into homes. Some communities got two and a half feet of snow.

Michael Dukakis, our governor at the time, shut down the state for an entire week (and also made L.L. Bean a heck of a lot of money by appearing on TV with a different sweater every time appeared on the tube).

Yet on February 28 of that year, the National Weather Service issued a statement that called the previous month "on average, mild and sunny."

Yeah. Right. I'm sure a lot of people felt the same way as they were sloshing water out of their basements and piling snow onto banks taller than they were. It took me two weeks to shovel a path from my driveway to the back door of my house. Somewhere in the family archives there are pictures of my wife's car, in our driveway, with only the radio antenna visible. It was dwarfed by a giant snow drift.

This was pretty much my reaction when I heard, for the first time (I've actually heard it several times) that March 2010 was exceptionally warm. Sure it was ... if you eliminate the amount of rain we got (we set records with that, too). Now, here's the thing. It cannot rain when the weather falls below freezing. It snows.

So in order to establish rain records in March, the temperature has to be above freezing, right? So, to end the statement by saying "it was one of the warmest Marches on record" is just a great big, "DUUUUHHHHH!" It really doesn't justice that went on in March 2010.

What happened is this: We had two mega-Nor'easters -- so named because of the way the storms circulate (bringing in a fierce, chilly ocean wind -- which comes in from the northeast -- and, with it, bands and bands of rain or snow, depending on how cold it is), and because some New England farmer couldn't pronounce "Northeaster."

These two storms, combined, dumped over a foot of rain in many locations, taxing rivers, dams, bridges, backyards, basements, and -- in Warwick, R.I., an entire mall. Although there was some coastal flooding, the people who suffered most were the ones who lived near rivers and streams, whose banks overflowed freely. Those little babbling brooks, which look so rustic and serene in ordinary times, did a little bit more than babble. They spewed water all over the place.

And the big rivers (well, what there are of them in Eastern Massachusetts) just became impossible to contain.

But this is spring in New England. It can be 70 degrees one day and pouring rain the next. And in between these two storms, we had perhaps the most marvelous stretch of early-spring weather we've ever had.

But while systems move in and out with the speed of lightning most of the time, every so often, they stick around for days at a time. This sets up what I like to call "The Black Cloud" effect, which amounts to day after day after day of relentlessly gloomy weather. It may not rain exceptionally hard ... and sometimes not at all. But the predominant trend is overcast, raw, damp and miserable.

And it's the kind of cold that just goes right through you.

I am a beach walker, and I love it the most in the dead of winter, when there's hardly anyone down there walking. I love the solitude. And even though it can get mighty cold on a brisk February afternoon down by the shore, it's an invigorating kind of cold.

One of the many physical therapists I've had for my cranky knees told me that there's no such thing as "too cold." Only "under-dressed." And he's right. If you dress properly -- in layers, keeping your extremities warm, you will survive a winter's walk on the beach very nicely.

That's a winter's walk.

Yesterday (Wednesday) was one of those Black Cloud kinds of days. It rained Tuesday, and it was supposed to be better yesterday, only it wasn't (again, typical of spring in New England, when these coastal quagmires can be as stubborn as a child during a temper tantrum).

(As an aside, that's pretty much how I define spring in New England: it's beautiful except when it isn't.).

I layered up about as much as I could. Shirt, sweatshirt fleece jacket, gloves, hat, wool socks ... everything I'd normally wear in February if I went for a walk down the beach.

I might as well have been wearing nothing. The wind just whipped through me as if none of those layers even existed. It went straight to the bone. I couldn't wait to get back into my car and go home.

I wonder whether this phenomenon is more due to our exasperation over having to deal with cold weather again ... especially after being teased by the genuine warmth we've already experience ... or if it's because there's something especially nasty about a raw northeast wind that just penetrates everything you do to protect yourself from it.

Spring in New England is also a time for extremes. Yesterday, it never got out of the 40s. By Sunday, it's supposed to be 80 (actually I hope they're as wrong about this as they are about everything else. The Greater Boston Walk for Hunger is Sunday, and I'm not sure I want to be doing that in 80-degree heat).

There are few happy mediums in New England during the springtime. But oh, how glorious it is when you get them. I'm a man who likes his seasons. I'll put up with winter ... as long as it's in the winter. And while I love summer, I don't necessarily like it in the middle of October, just when I'm starting to appreciate the beauty of a crisp, clear fall day; and I don't necessarily like it in May, when my system is still trying to shed its natural protection from the cold.

So when you get this high 50s, low 60s days, with a gentle wind, all you want to do is be outdoors reveling in it. It's days like that when you want to go off, play hookey, and find some open space of green grace, where the gardens are just starting to sprout. For me, that would be the Boston Public Garden. I make a beeline for it every chance I get in the springtime.

I suppose the reason we feel this way is because, in New England, those days are few and far between. You never really get a consistent stretch of weather like that because there's always the next front, followed by the one after that, and there's always the possibility that, without a lot of notice, you will go from 40 to 80 before you ever get a chance to take the fleece jacket off.

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