The first day of spring was once the time
for taking the young virgins into the fields,
there in dalliance to set an example
in fertility for Nature to follow.
Now we just set the clock an hour ahead
and change the oil in the crankcase.
Climate is predictable weather patterns
Climate is the general state of atmospheric conditions over a long period of time—a composite of averages and extremes during a number of years. Weather is the expression of day-to-day conditions. In short, climate is a large amount of weather averaged out. Climate affects patterns of vegetation and water resources and every human endeavor. Mounting evidence shows that human impact on the environment is causing climatic changes.
The following maps show average conditions over many years. Conditions for any given year will differ significantly from long-term averages. Sharp changes may occur within short distances, particularly in mountainous areas, due to differences in elevation, slope of terrain, type of soil, vegetative cover, bodies of water, air drainage and human activity.
The value of weather
The main value of weather is conversation. As “Kin” Hubbard pointed out, “Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while.” Coastal Californians don’t have real weather so they use riots and earthquakes for the purpose.
We humans are fascinated by anything that we can’t control. Actually, we’re embarrassed by our failure. That’s why there are so many weather jokes. (City slicker: “Think it’ll rain?” Farmer: “Always has.”)
So-called perfect climate isn’t. It’s predictable, it’s boring, it’s expensive to live where it occurs. Seasons bring continual change and delight the senses. Cold is refreshing. Gardeners know that many plants need a cold dormancy period before they produce—like politicians between elections. That’s why apples grow better up north.
Nonetheless, some folks prefer dependable warmth. My mother and father, who grew up in Wisconsin and northern Michigan, now live in Arizona. They’ve evolved from snowbirds to roadrunners, though at 84 and 91 there’s not much running going on. They love the warm winters. But what an awful spot to garden! Their place is a tiny oasis in the desert but the oven-like summer heat challenges even my mother’s formidable gardening skills.
Many others who seek predictable comfort without effort have moved to the subtropical climate of the Sun Belt. But Florida in summer is awfully hot and humid, and southern California has so many problems it’s losing natives as fast as it is g aining immigrants.
Climate is important for much more than just the quality of temperature comfort. If your greatest passion is skiing then your ideal home will be in or near a snow area. If gardening is your highest priority you will choose a climate with a long growing season and ample rainfall.
In praise of seasonsInterest in the changing seasons is a much happier state of mind
than being hopelessly in love with spring.
When I visualize four seasons I think of a rainy warming spring, grasses appearing, flowers exploding into view, the burgeoning, multi-green panorama of budding trees, birds building nests, spotted fawns on wobbly legs; a summer of waking to sunlight, lushly clothed trees, heat, thunderstorms, occasional humidity, meals straight from the garden, straw hats, the smell of new-mown grass, sitting in the porch swing until 9 p.m., sleeping with just a sheet; a glorious autumn, my favorite season, with vines, shrubs, trees offering yellows, oranges, reds, nature’s big palette, each day a new hue, cool days and cooler nights; then a winter of resting plants, gray, somber days, my beard full of frost after the mile mailbox walk, and of course snow, although in our part of the world it usually lasts for only a few days; and then, finally, impatience for spring to begin again.
Like the seasons of human life, the seasons of weather move us, invigorate us, inspire us to taste of life to the fullest. Changing temperatures are elixirs for human vigor. Four seasons show off nature. Those who refuse winter give up the glory of spring and autumn. The energy of the cycling natural world makes boredom an unlikely condition.
Preference may simply be conditioning. I grew up in Wisconsin. If you grew up, say, in Florida or southern California, you may have different feelings. And feelings are always correct. So visualize your ideal climatic conditions.We decided in favor of the north-east, for various reasons.
Aesthetically, we enjoy the procession of the seasons.
In any other part of the country we would have missed
the perpetual surprises and delights to which
New England weather treats its devotees:
the snow piled high in winter and the
black and white coloring from December to March;
the long lingering spring with its hesitant burgeoning into green;
the gorgeous burst of hot summer beauty combined with cool nights;
and the crisp snap of autumn with its sudden flare of color
in the most beautiful of all the seasons.
The land that has four well-defined seasons
cannot lack beauty, or pall with monotony.
Helen & Scott Nearing
Living the Good Life
Conventional thinking is that almost anything about a piece of land can be changed except the climate and, usually, the topography, although bulldozer operators working for determined developers sometimes make even large hills disappear. For us more sensitive types, topography pretty much stays intact.
Climate and topography are wedded together, in fact shape each other. A billion or so years of rain and freezing turns rock into soil. Flat terrain becomes hills and hollows. Birds drop seeds, trees and grasses grow and cause water to linger where it falls before it begins its insistent descent. Hills cause warm wind currents to rise, dropping their gift of water as they meet higher, cooler air. Evaporation reloads the water machine and the cycle continues.
If we cut down enough trees we can create a desert; some feel that if we grow enough trees, we can reclaim arid regions. There is reason to believe that the Sahara desert was once the Sahara forest. Archeological evidence proves the Sahara had extensive settlement during prehistoric times. Much of its land is fertile—only 20 percent of Saharan soil is sand—but natural regeneration is thwarted by overgrazing and firewood gathering. Scientists now fear further desertification will occur in both Africa and South America where tropical rain forests are being systematically destroyed. According to Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 1994, Earth’s forests cover 24 percent less land than in 1700 and just between 1980 and 1990 decreased by an area twice the size of Texas. State of the World 1996 explains how global warming will force forests to move north or die from disease and fires, further exacerbating CO2 (carbon dioxide) buildup. And State of the World 1998 reports that 16 million hectares (39.52 million acres) of forests are disappearing each year.
We now know that humans are changing the weather, indeed, the temperature of our planetary home. The 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (U.N. scientists) in Berlin concluded that “a pattern of climatic response to human activities is identifiable in the climatological record.” The scientific focus today is on how fast it is happening. The burning of fossil fuels has increased almost fivefold since 1980. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are at the highest level in 150,000 years.
United States climate
Most of the 48 contiguous states have substantial seasonal climate variability. Coastal areas moderated by the oceans or land near large lakes have less variability. The eastern U.S. is humid with annual precipitation averaging about 40 inches. The northwestern coast receives more than 100 inches per year, but the rest of the west is mostly semiarid, with 10 to 20 inches per year.
The 48 states have been divided into four major climatic regions, shown below. Cool areas experience a wide range of temperatures, from -30 degrees to 100+ degrees. These areas typically have cold winters and hot summers with winds year-round, generally out of the northwest and the southeast. Temperate denotes an equal distribution of overheated and underheated periods, with seasonal winds from the northwest and south together with periods of high humidity and large amounts of precipitation in the east but much less in the west, except in the far northwest. Hot-Arid is a region of clear, dry atmosphere, extended periods of overheating, and large daily temperature range. Wind is usually along an east-west axis with variations between day and evening. Hot-Humid is a region of high temperatures and consistent vapor pressure. Wind velocities and direction vary throughout the year, with velocities of up to 120 miles per hour accompanying hurricanes, which usually come from the east-southeast.
Climate has a profound influence on human experience. With the exception of love, weather has arguably appeared in more songs than any other subject. Well, okay, old songs. As I don’t mind dating myself, I’ll let words from songs introduce most of the various features of weather, which with seasonal occurrence we call climate.
“Everything’s coming up roses for you and for me . . .”
If your activity criteria include gardening, you’ll want a climate that cooperates. All ornamental and food plants have natural climatic preferences: citrus thrives in the south and apples do best in the north; if you must have fresh mangoes or die, you will not move to Maine. Growing tomatoes is a far greater challenge in North Dakota than in Tennessee.
Pick the climate zone where you can grow what you most want to look at and to eat fresh. The Northwest, with lots of rain and cool temperatures, is lush with rhododendrons, azaleas, ferns. Much of the lower Midwest has a six-month growing season, from mid-April to mid-October, which allows cultivation of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
The United States Department of Agriculture developed plant hardiness zones based on average minimum temperatures. These zones are often referred to by nurseries and gardening books where plants are classified according to their ability to survive cold.
The minimum temperature often determines whether a plant will survive in a given spot. The problems faced by southern gardeners are often the opposite of those in the north. Southerners are unable to grow some plants common in northern landscapes because of too much heat or too little winter cold. Azaleas won’t make it in hot, dry Arizona.
Whether garden plants will fail, or whether they will grow to maturity and fruit depends in great part on the length of the growing season, for most garden plants the period between the last spring freeze and the first fall freeze. A long growing season may allow two crops of certain vegetables, for instance brassica and various salad plants. A growing season can be too long; constant heat and warmth precludes growing certain plants, although botanists regularly introduce new varieties tolerant of diverse conditions.
Small areas on the sunny or shady, upwind or downwind side of a hill or mountain, protected valleys, and other spots often exhibit climatic conditions substantially different than those in the surrounding area. Water warms and cools more slowly than land masses, so areas near large bodies of water tend to exhibit more stable climatic conditions. These microclimatic areas are sought by those who wish to raise certain crops which might be damaged by late frost, or which thrive on certain temperatures, air-movement patterns, or precipitation. Well-known microclimates include New York’s Finger Lakes region below Lake Ontario and California’s Napa Valley. Microclimates abound in mountainous areas.
“It’s too darn hot. . .”
It was so hot here that I found there was nothing left for it
but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.
The retiree flight from northeast states to Florida is propelled by the lure of escape from cold, windy, snowy winters. Once there, many find the sultry summers unbearable. Snowbirds from Montana spend winters in Arizona, then flee north before the summer sun starts sizzling. But today even northern spots get hot; in Chicago, July 13, 1995, the mercury reached an all-time high of 106 degrees—536 deaths were attributed to the heat.
“Baby, it’s cold outside,” and “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
In the range of inorganic nature, I doubt if any object can be found
more perfectly beautiful than a fresh, deep snowdrift, seen under warm light.
Those who experienced the record-setting Blizzard of 1996 may disagree with Mr. Ruskin. Philadelphians found 30 inches of the white stuff a bit much and New Yorkers took several days off from work. Such climatic anomalies appear to be increasing. Scientists say that more extreme weather will occur as global warming accelerates.
Cold and snow are not constant companions but they often hold hands. To me, cold without some snow is rather like eating pizza without wine or beer. Winter heaven is awakening to a fresh snow, walking in a white wonderland, taking pictures for Christmas cards, following animal tracks, and seeing the world perfectly clean. Skiing and ice skating are optional. Sitting in front of a crackling fire is a perfect end to an exhilarating day.
While a foot of fresh snow is a skier’s paradise, it is bad news to someone who has to drive to work. Even with snowblowers, getting out to a cleared road can be a major challenge. If you want to live in snow country and must commute to work, you will want to have short, level access to a county road. County road crews typically are out plowing the roads first thing in the morning. And employers in snow country are aware of how road conditions affect commuters.
This map shows where the cheeks are rosy, the skiing is great, and Christmas is guaranteed to be white.
The effect of elevation (altitude)
Temperature in the atmosphere drops with increasing elevation. Some writers state that the rate of decrease is 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet. Others say one degree Fahrenheit for every 250 feet. Your choice.
“The iceman cometh”
Yeah, I know, it’s a play, not a song. We don’t think too much about ice unless we ice skate, or unless we find ourselves suddenly lying on it wincing at the sky, or unless our car slides into a ditch. If you choose an area with four distinct seasons but have not lived with ice, practice driving in a large, empty parking lot covered with hard snow or ice. Accelerate, brake, and turn increasingly smaller figure-eights until you know what to expect and how to handle it. Plan ahead—it’s like driving a boat. Expect other drivers to make mistakes. They will.
The “Great Ice Storm of 1998” demolished trees and power lines in northern New England. Thousands of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Quebec residents were without power for weeks. If you choose to live in an area with a history of ice storms, consider installing backup systems for water pumps and heating systems that blow or pump the heat medium. When the electricity goes out, our modern world shuts down.
“I’m singing in the rain. . .”When it rains
we’ll laugh at the weather.
Mountain Greenery, 1926
Precipitation usually, but certainly not dependably, equates to available water for human use. In many populated areas water demand far exceeds water supply. That condition is worsening, most strongly in the West, where population continues to grow even as droughts regularly occur and even as critical water shortages have become widely acknowledged. Arizona, California, and Colorado are three notable examples of states where water demand exceeds water supply. Areas of the West are currently experiencing heavy population growth, which will cause even deadlier water wars than those already experienced between cattle and sheep ranchers. While the battles may be fought in the courts, make no mistake about the outcome. Individual lives will be uplifted or crushed by the verdicts.
Water has always been valued; now it is fast becoming a high-priced commodity. It is prudent to expect that politically powerful cities will continue to rob farmers and other rural residents of water. We would do well to put ourselves where precipitation and groundwater are dependably abundant.
As shown on the map above, levels of precipitation can be far different within short distances, most dramatically in the Northwest, but also in many places subject to the microclimate phenomena. In Washington and Oregon, depending on which side of the Cascade Range you are on, you may receive a stingy six inches or an awesome 100-plus inches of rainfall. Desert or deluge, take your pick.
Effect of mountains on rainfall
The reason that mountains collect rain on their windward side is the orographic effect—the rain shadow of a mountain—shown in the drawing here. Warm, moisture-laden air currents are forced upward by mountains; as they rise they collide with cooler air, which precipitates the moisture. Once past the peak, the now-dry air slides down the leeward slope, evaporating ground moisture, which makes the moisture difference between the west and east sides even more dramatic, as illustrated by the lush growth on the west slope and the relative lack of tree growth on the east slope.
“I just finished drying off from my shower and I’m already dripping with sweat.”
Well, that’s not from a song (although singing and showers do go well together), but we’ve all heard the expression, especially if we have friends living in Florida or what is often called the deep south.
Humidity is water suspended in air, like fog. It’s not much of a nuisance except when high humidity combines with high temperatures. High relative humidity is uncomfortable, energy draining, and may be detrimental to some health conditions. Either high or low humidity may feel uncomfortable. Dry desert air dries one’s skin and nasal passages. High humidity thwarts perspiration and intensifies heat discomfort. It also makes cold feel colder.What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
is much more common where the climate’s sultry.
“I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down.”
Okay, that’s also not from a song. It’s from a nursery rhyme, but it should be from a song. Why hasn’t someone written a musical about the three swine architects? Miss Piggy is the obvious choice for narrator and Jack Nicholson would make a great huffer. I wonder if he can sing.
The January and July wind maps are produced from ground data gathered at local weather stations, most often airports. The direction of the arrows indicates the prevailing wind direction during those two months, indicative of both winter and summer conditions. At first glance, these maps seem to indicate that U.S. winds have little order and are in fact rather helter-skelter.
While local low-level winds may come from many different directions depending on constantly changing atmospheric conditions, the prevailing winds and weather movements in the U.S. generally move from west to east. This is shown in the map: Major Climatological Storm Tracks.
The following maps are useful not only for understanding weather movement but for determining the potential for acid rain and other airborne pollution for a given site. They are also useful for planning the placement of buildings, gardens, landscaping, and windbreaks.
“Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky . . . stormy weather . . .”Thunder is good, thunder is impressive;
but it is lightning that does the work.
Smart man, Mr. Clemens. One of the advantages of summer thunderstorms is that lightning affixes nitrogen to raindrops and down they come to fertilize our tomatoes and corn. That’s why lawns become greener after a good, rollicking thunderstorm. I love ’em. I sit on the front porch and applaud the performance. Jupiter was believed by the Romans to be the god in charge of the sky and the weather. It’s a pure pleasure to watch his trainees flexing their thunder muscles.
This map shows where the sky fertilizes the lawns and the gardens.
Too much water too fast
The top news story of 1993 was The Great Flood that battered the Midwest—approximately ten million acres of lakes where there had been homes, roads, towns, and farmland. The floods of 1889, 1937, and 1973 killed 2,100, 250, and 23 respectively. The 1993 flood killed only 26 people because of abundant warnings, evacuation plans, lack of flash floods, and a massive levee and dam system. Thousands of people had to leave their homes and many had no homes to return to—many buildings were beyond repair and were broken up and carried to a landfill. Some people rebuilt, some to new building codes that require elevated residences. Government cost estimates rose in one week from 500 million to eight billion dollars in damages.
In February 1996, Oregon’s Willamette River drove tens of thousands from their homes and flooded some Portland homes to the roofs. Flooding in Oregon’s extreme northwestern corner swept away homes, vehicles and livestock (The New York Times, 2-11-96)
All this in spite of billions of (taxpayer) dollars spent by the Corps of Engineers constructing an elaborate flood-control network, including 7,000 miles of levees. Are we or are we not the arrogant species? Perhaps one day even bureaucrats will concede that nature is in charge.
All waterways are subject to flooding; generally, the larger the watershed, the greater the possibility. Our little stream floods about twice each year. Its watershed, over 2,000 acres, is heavily wooded so most water slowly soaks into the ground to recharge the several springs which provide steady year-round flow.
Occasionally we get a sustained heavy rain, say four inches in 24 hours, the ground stops absorbing, and the creek rises within a few hours to raging river status. At our road crossing, the stream has expanded from its usual 15-foot width and 12-inch depth to over 100 feet wide and four feet in depth. And the water moves fast. The house is nicely sited, about 200 feet back and about 15 feet higher than the stream at normal flow, so there is no danger. But the several days the stream takes to normalize is inconvenient unless we are both on the house side with our usual full stock of supplies and no rush orders for autographed books. Chris and I remember well the night she returned from a rainy day in the city and found the crossing flooded. We shouted our frustrations to each other over the roar of the torrent before she went off to stay with a neighbor.
A natural condition, a human challenge. I envision a dam with a very large underflow capability, a road on top of it, a trout pond behind it. In the meantime, I have built a log bridge, which has now survived its third year.
Too little water too long
Some climatological bureaucrat decreed that no rain for up to two weeks is a dry spell; anything longer is a drought. In that case there’s a whole lot of droughting going on. Really serious droughts seem to occur at 20- to 22-year intervals in the western U.S. Our most famous drought area, the so-called Dust Bowl, covers an area of about 150,000 square miles, including the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and adjacent parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas, an area of light soil, annual rainfall of about 15 inches, and high winds. The dust condition is exacerbated by tilling for crops and the resultant destruction of grasses and other root systems that anchored the soil. The Dust Bowl does not qualify as an area for ideal home places.
Too much air too fast
Sounds like the description of a political campaign. Midwesterners think Californians are in imminent danger of falling into the ocean from earthquakes whereas Californians envision Midwesterners being demolished by tornadoes. And everyone but those living there is convinced that Floridians and others living on the Gulf and East coasts will all eventually be blown away with hurricanes. They may be right; the 1995 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active since that of the 1930s. And before that, there was 1992.
“Although sophisticated warning systems have limited the loss of life, economic damage has been unprecedented because of burgeoning coastal development. South Florida’s vulnerability was demonstrated on August 24, 1992, when Hurricane Andrew came ashore with sustained winds of 235 kilometers per hour [146 miles per hour]—the third most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the United States in the twentieth century. Andrew virtually flattened 430 square kilometers [166 square miles] of Dade County in Florida, destroying 85,000 homes and leaving almost 300,000 people homeless. Total losses were estimated at $30 billion—equivalent to the combined losses of the three most costly previous U.S. storms” (State of the World 1996).
The occurrence of mega-storms such as Andrew has frightened the insurance industry to the point that industry executives have contracted with Greenpeace to help get a handle on global warming, now understood to affect weather. When the ultraconservative insurance guys and the left-wing Greenies get together, you have to know it’s serious business. Sort of like Goliath and David getting together on the stone thing. “Listen up, big guy. I’ve got something here that’ll do you in, but I’m not discussing it with you if you don’t show me some respect.” And then it takes a stone against the head to make the point. Or an Andrew against the cash reserves.
Tornadoes, also known as twisters or cyclones, are often associated with severe thunderstorms. They typically leave a path of destruction less than 200 feet wide and average 5 to 15 miles in length. Most occur in spring and early summer in the central southern U.S., later across more northerly regions. Of the nation’s yearly total of about 1,000 tornadoes, most occur in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. But it’s not the number, it’s the severity. On February 23, 1998 surprise multiple tornadoes in central Florida killed 39, injured hundreds, destroyed hundreds of homes.
Contrary to the belief of Californians, we in tornado country do not run for our basements at every thunderstorm. Weather forecasts in twister country dependably include tornado alerts and since tornadoes occur most frequently during mid-to-late afternoon they are rarely a surprise. Harold Brooks, a meteorologist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory points out that, while the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 killed 689 people, a similar 1989 twister killed no one. The tornado warning system works—but we have to pay attention to it: a May 6, 1995 tornado in southern Oklahoma and northern Texas killed 23 who were inadequately protected. Californians take note: the earthquake warning system does not work at all.
“Shake, rattle, and roll”Nature bats last.
Philosopher-historian Will Durant said that civilization exists by geological consent and is subject to change without notice. Those who have lived through strong earthquakes are most likely to concur.
Earthquakes are not part of climate but, as natural phenomena, acts of God, they fit here best. I have survived earthquakes in Japan and in both northern and southern California, including the magnitude 6.8 L.A. quake January 17, 1994, which rousted me out of bed at 4:31 a.m. I have visited L.A. at better times. Durant’s admonition rang loud and clear. That quake killed 61 and created the most expensive natural disaster in the history of the U.S. Some people will never be the same. I met a lady who survived the total destruction of her house in Santa Monica from that quake at a booksigning in Tampa. Earthquake paranoia is real and painful.
Thirty-seven states have a significant danger from earthquakes, including the Northwest, New England, and the Midwest. The New Madrid fault is potentially the most damaging. Roughly 200 miles long and 40 miles wide, it is a crack within the tectonic plate that makes up North America. It lies two miles below parts of Arkansas, western Tennessee and Kentucky, southeastern Missouri, and southern Illinois. The New Madrid quake, 100 years ago, made the Mississippi River temporarily run north. That’s a lot of muscle.
The danger from earthquakes exists primarily in and close to cities; in sparsely populated rural areas earthquakes are of less danger because of the nature of, or absence of structures. In the L.A. quake the greatest loss was from fire, damage to freeway overpasses, large concrete parking structures, masonry facades, multiple-story buildings (one three-story building collapsed down to two stories, killing 16), and homes built on the edges of cliffs or sides of unstable hills. Worldwide, earthquake damages include landslides and dam collapses.
Single-story homes are usually damaged to a dangerous degree only when they are near the quake’s epicenter. Nevertheless, the prudent person will not choose to live in an area of high seismic risk. As we have the entire country to choose from, there is no need to consider such a location.
The bottom linesThe way I see it,
if you want the rainbow,
you gotta put up with the rain.
Climate is a major factor contributing to quality of life. It regulates our activities and brain waves. It affects our moods. It also makes decisions that we must live with. You can fight city hall far more easily than the weather. Outside activities are often dictated by weather conditions. But inside our houses, with today’s technology we can live in any climate in reasonable-cost comfort while remaining true to environmental sanity. Pick a climate that will allow you to enjoy your preferred activities, grow the food and ornamental plants you wish, provide health, interest, and vigor, and give you the sights you like to see. Now make notes about your climatic preferences on your criteria worksheet.
Climatic data for the U.S., each state, and 274 cities, in publications and maps, is available from the National Climatic Data Center. The NCDC data are derived from 275 primary and approximately 5,000 cooperative weather stations worldwide. Publications are available for each location at very low cost. To order, write to the
National Climatic Data Center
151 Patton Ave.
Asheville, NC 28801-5001
Seismicity maps are available for nearly all states, for $4.00 each.
U.S. Geological Survey
Federal Center, MS 967
Denver, CO 80225
It provides various climatological data, including monthly normal temperatures and precipitation, based on the 30-year period 1961-1990.
The U.S. Government Printing Office has weather-related publications. See Appendix A for complete inquiry and ordering information for these and the more than 12,000 other books, periodicals, posters, pamphlets and subscription services.