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Weather, under ground

Bill Meredith

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
…Bob Dylan, 1965

(June, 2015) I suppose there may be people somewhere who can keep up with changes on the internet, but I am not one of them. I got a new computer a couple of years ago, and when I turned it on for the first time the screen filled up with icons I had never seen before. It was intimidating, but I finally got up enough nerve to pick one at random and open it, and it presented me with a website called Weather Underground.

It had a selection of weather maps on any scale from international coverage to a group of weather stations less than 10 miles from Emmitsburg, with interactive radar, long-range forecasts, historical records, air quality indexes, and other information I had never thought of. Over the next few months that website became an important source of information for me, because to an ecologist, weather is one of the most important aspects of the environment. But my first reaction to it was that it awakened memories of insecure and threatening times. To those of my generation, the term "Weather Underground" recalls that time from the mid-1960s to the late ’70s, when the world as we had known it came apart.

Remembering that time always makes me think of the "Law of Unintended Consequences." That concept has a long and rather vague history. Apparently it was proposed independently in the 17th and 18th centuries by several serious thinkers… John Locke and Adam Smith, among others… who were attempting to caution politicians that laws passed with the best of intentions often produce unanticipated results. Theoretically, these results could be either good or bad, but in practice it seems that "Unintended Consequences" is just another way of re-stating Murphy’s Law… anything that can go wrong will, and at the worst possible time.

The case in point began with a song called "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which Bob Dylan wrote in 1965. The second verse ends with these words: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." I don’t remember ever hearing it performed, and I’ve never felt sure I knew what Dylan was thinking when he wrote it… or any other time, for that matter… but looking at the lyrics now, 50 years later, it seems to be a youthful reaction to the injustice that resulted in the Civil Rights movement, opposition to the Viet Nam war, and the violence that followed.

But it had an unintended consequence. In 1969 the line quoted above was co-opted as a name for a violent protest group who called themselves the "Weathermen," and their movement, "Weather Underground," became a domestic terrorist group whose ultimate goal was to overthrow the U. S. government. The group was involved in bombing several government and civic buildings before it ultimately disbanded in the late 1970s after the Viet Nam war ended.

Perhaps our collective memories of historical events are short, or, perhaps, young people just don’t place much value on knowing history. Or, perhaps the individuals who make obscene amounts of money by creating new websites don’t bother to think of history. I have to give them credit; they have created an excellent source of information about the weather, and I have come to use it every day. I find its predictions remarkably accurate, and the information it provides helps me understand the environment I live in. I just wish they’d called it something else.

It hasn’t always been that way. In my early memories, there was a small box on the front page of the newspaper which presented a weather prediction for the following day, but it was notoriously inaccurate. If there was a flood, hurricane or blizzard, articles in the following days would report the damage; and major droughts like those in the days of the Dust Bowl reported. But we could do nothing to anticipate these things, so we went about our lives, one day at a time.

On the farm, there were certain tasks like milking and tending to livestock that had to be done in a daily routine, regardless of the weather. Other things, like gardening and making hay, could only be done when the weather was favorable; long-range planning was usually futile, so we took our chances and lived with the results. Sometimes the hay was cut, cured perfectly in the sun, was stored in haystacks that shed water when it rained, and kept beautifully. Other times, we would mow hay on a fine, sunny day and then have a week of rain, and the whole crop would rot. A lot of praying was involved; sometimes it appeared to help, but other times it seemed that we were being punished for some real or imagined sins.

One of the unintended consequences of the War was that radar, invented for locating enemy ships and aircraft, turned out to be useful in locating storm systems, and made it possible to create weather maps that could be updated regularly. This enabled meteorologists to measure how fast a frontal system was moving, and to predict when it would arrive at a particular city or airport.

Television was developing at about the same time, and soon every TV channel included a weather report in its news programming. Initially these reports featured pretty girls reading the forecasts, or reporters who attracted an audience by goofy antics and puns (remember Willard Scott?), but as graphics evolved and information became more accurate, reliable forecasts drew a following based on merit.

For several years The Weather Channel provided accurate and professionally presented information; I watched it regularly and used it as a source of teaching material as well as for gardening and vacationing. But in recent years its value was diluted by hype for personalities and an emphasis on sensationalism. I now rely on my computer and the Weather Underground website… in spite of the name.

Lately I’ve been thinking about taking the name literally, and I’ve come to think that what goes on under the ground is important. We had an old-fashioned winter; the ground froze to some depth, which usually reduces the populations of pest insects. It also delayed the beginning of plant growth; plants came up later, but then grew faster than I remembered in recent years. Earthworms spent the winter below the frost line, and came up plentifully when it thawed. Frogs and toads are more abundant in my yard and garden than they have been for years. But in spite of our improved predictive power, I’ve no idea what the future will bring. It’s an El Nino year; will the drought in California continue? ... will we have fewer Atlantic hurricanes? …how will my garden do here in Emmitsburg? …will I be able to play golf next Wednesday? Maybe there is something going on under the ground that will determine these things. Or, maybe not.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith