FORECASTING WEATHER

Joke: Why did they invent the dismal science of economics? Answer: To make the weather forecasters look good.

I’ve been watching the Weather Channel over the last few days as it forecasts the path and strength of Hurricane Irma. On Thursday, Irma was a Category 5 hurricane, projected to hit South Florida then slide up the Atlantic Ocean side. Based upon this forecast, Becky’s niece, Emily, along with her husband Mike, son, Max, dog, Baxter and mother, Sarah–who’d popped down for a short visit–welcome to Florida Sarah–loaded up, left the mid-Atlantic side of Florida, and headed north to South Carolina to stay with friends. They were bumper to bumper, like the Oakies heading to California during dust bowl years.

On the other side of the state, Beck’s cousin, Chuck, and his wife, Donna, decided to stay in Fort Myers (Gulf side) based upon the forecast of the hurricane barreling up the Atlantic side of Florida. But when the forecasters changed the model a few days later to show the hurricane whirling up the Gulf side, instead, Chuck and Donna switched plans. They drove across the state to a hotel on the east coast at West Palm Beach–which had vacancies, because everyone there had left that side of Florida–and drove north and west, to place like Tampa. But now, early today (Sunday), Tampa is the projected epicenter of the deadly eye-wall, with the Irma down-graded to a Category 3 hurricane, then 2. What a deal!

Today, forecasters are educated professionals, armed with sophisticated computer models driven by complex data-crunching algorithms created by a 12-year-old Wunderkind–brilliant but pale white from never getting outside to play tackle football. And they have modern, digital communication to broadcast their message instantaneously to everywhere. Impressive but imperfect.

When I was young, if there was any forecasting, I didn’t see it. It wasn’t until the mid 50’s that television became more prevalent and included a weather program with forecasts. There was no Doppler radar to triangulate weather systems nor complex computers from which sprouted predictions based upon tons of data input. No. People just kind of guessed. How’d we survive?

In Tuscola, there was Lars Klepsonsen, a dedicated bachelor farmer from the old country to predict weather for us. Lars would set out on his west-facing back porch all year long and stare at clouds patterns, wooly worm movements, leaves changing, unusual bird behavior and consider whether or not his bunions hurt and how much, before he’d come into town-usually the grain elevator–to say something like “Gonna rain tomorrow” or “Gonna be a real bad winter” or “My bunions hurt. Could be a tornado somewhere.” He was our most reliable and dedicated weather forecaster.

As you might surmise, Lars’s forecasting was not very precise. However, it did occasionally get Lars off that porch and into town where several women from the church he attended twice a year–every Christmas and Easter, rain or shine, regular as a Saint–took it as a chance to hook him up with an equally detached woman in the church, preferably one that liked setting on porches out in the country, counting wooly worms crawling across the county’s oil and chip road, and not get all grossed out when a juvenile delinquent townie would roar by in his hepped up 54 Chevy Biscayne–two door sedan, turquoise over white over turquoise–crushing hundreds of wooly worms that had not done a thing to the punk. Nothing.

The well-meaning church ladies belonged to the Altar Society of Matchmakers Concerned About Singles (or ASMCAS for short) did this because, back then, church women hated to see a single guy or single gal, especially if there were equal numbers in town. “Everyone should be married” was their philosophy. And they wanted to see new babies, and lots of them. But, first things first: they had to get Lars hooked up.

It was matchmaking at its most difficult. But it was something for people to do back then in pre-smart phone days. That and guessing about the weather by studying wooly worms and watching the behavior of birds.

Back then, weather was exciting because it was unpredictable, mysterious, often catching you off guard. And exciting and dangerous, especially in the winter when a blizzard could seemingly whip up out of nowhere. Tragically, Lars fell asleep one chill December afternoon while rocking on the back porch and was later found buried waste deep in a snow drift, his toes frozen like fish sticks in a package of Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks, which, back then, were absolutely horrible tasting, except when slathered with ketchup. Preferably Heinz.

He let his guard down. And lost his toes. Probably because his bunions didn’t hurt that day. Or maybe because he didn’t have a wife to look after him–ASMCAS had warned him of the hazards of the single life, out in the lonely country. They’d specifically mentioned frozen toes.

Lars passed away some years ago. An unrepentant bachelor. He’d scoff at modern weather forecasting. Tragically, no one has stepped up to replace him, and it is feared his old-fashioned, naturalistic weather forecasting skills have been lost forever. Gone with the wind.

mike carroll