And As Long As It’s Talking With You, Talk of the Weather Will Do

Can I tell you something? Weather is something I just don’t understand.

I remember studying weather in 5th grade science. My teacher made us memorize that wind is caused the “the uneven heating of the earth by the sun.” The memorization part totally worked, but I still have exactly zero idea what that means.


Don Quixote and I are both confused about wind

I remember studying it again in 7th grade science, this time learning that seasons are caused by the earth’s tilt. This one made a little more sense, but I think Mrs. Stiveson has a lot of explaining to do about latitude.

Case in point: let’s look at the seven places I’ve lived and worked in my life:

City Latitude Elevation Average Daily January/ June Temp. Precip./year Other Exciting weather facts
Pittsburgh 40°26′N 1000 ft 28.5°F / 72.5°F 38.1 in 200 cloudy days/year, high heat index
Cincinnati 39°6′N 482 ft / 147 m 31ºF / 76ºF 42.5 in Thunderstorms, tornadoes, high humidity and heat index, 21 days/year > 90ºF
Philadelphia 39°57′N 39 ft / 12 m 33ºF / 78ºF 120 days;  41.5 in High humidity and heat index, 27 days/year > 90ºF
Barcelona 41°23′N 39 ft / 12 m 49ºF / 76ºF 62 days;  25.5 in Nada
Pontevedra 42.43°N 70 ft / 20 m 49ºF / 69ºF 134 days;  71 in All the rain
Fornelos de Montes 42°20′N 1243 ft / 379 m 157 in The rainiest place in Spain (coincidentally, not the plain)
New York City 40°42′N 33 ft / 10 m 32.5°F / 76.5°F 122 days;  50 in Hurricanes, tropical storms, high humidity, unpredictable springs and falls

Okay, so let’s talk about what we have here. Other than noticing that I’m drawn to cities with very long names, you might realize that latitude doesn’t strictly dictate what summers and winters are like. Granted, we’re talking 5° of latitude at most, but I still think it’s pretty fascinating that winters are so much colder in the U.S. than in Spain. We kind of get the shit end of the stick with all these really hot summers and really cold winters. For more weirdness, try looking up a city that is at the opposite latitude of yours. I don’t think I ever would have guessed that so many cities in New Zealand were as far south of the equator as I am north.

Which brings me to diversion #1: The human body and temperatures

Apparently we can survive indefinitely at any temperature from 40-95°F/4-35°C, but most people aren’t all that comfortable in a t-shirt when it’s 40° out or in any clothes at all when it’s 95°. Speaking of 95°, if the body is 98.6°,  why aren’t we cool with 95° weather? It turns out that our bodies (and the bodies of a whole lots of mammals) likes to stay a toasty 98.6° to it fights off fungal infections. When it’s hot outside, it’s harder for our bodies to release the energy (aka heat) that they’re constantly producing and so we feel kinda gross. 

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But back to the chart.  Another thing you might notice is that it rains a whole damn lot in costal northwestern Spain. Kind of like costal northwestern U.S. I’ve tried to read about this, but I don’t understand it even a little. (If you want to explain it to me, I’ll explain something fun like phonology to you. The barter system is the best, isn’t it?)

This is called a schwa

This is called a schwa

Diversion #2: Galicia

Listen. I could talk about Galicia for eons, but the thing I want to tell you right now is about their relationship with rain. When I landed in Vigo, the first word I learned was choiva which, obviously, means rain.  As it turns out, choiva is only one of 70 words that means rain. It’s kind of like the thing you hear about snow and the Inuit except actually true. I later learned chuvia, chuvasco, and trebón. Four down, 66 to go.

These babies are all dressed up as rain drops for Carnaval because nothing's more Galician than rain

These babies are all dressed up as rain drops for Carnaval because nothing’s more Galician than rain

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What is up with elevation? (get it?!?!?). I have this stupid question that occasionally bounces around my head that goes like this: if the sun is what makes the earth warm, why is it colder on top of mountains, closer to the sun?

Like today, for example. I’m in New York – where it was 66°F and lovely. My girlfriend is currently on a mountain outside of Los Angeles  – a full 6° south – and is experiencing snow. Why?

I looked this one up too and as it turns out, it’s all because of atmospheric pressure. I really can’t put it better than Esther Inglis-Arkell:

“Air molecules at low altitudes are crowded together in cities. Rough, unpredictable, they’re likely to bounce off each other, and run riot through the streets, and go to nightclubs with guns stuck in the waistbands of their jean shorts. They’re at a high energy and that makes for a high temperature.

“Meanwhile, high altitude air molecules wander in solitude, a pack on their back and a cranky yak carrying their tent behind them. They have more space to wander around in, and because they don’t bounce off each other as much, because they’re not crammed into a small space by the pressure of the air above them, each square inch has a much lower temperature than sea level air.”

Thanks for the great science metaphor, Esther. I now get why it can snow on a Southern California mountain but still be a beautiful 70° in LA itself.

Finally, diversion #3: Mr. Fahrenheit

Mr. Fahrenheit, why is you name so difficult. I have an entire degree and a third under my belt, worked as an editor for 2 years, and taught English to a bunch of delightful weirdos in Galicia (see above) and still can’t spell your name.

While we’re at it, Mr. Fahrenheit, did you realize that your stupid system would still be in use 290 years after you tired to invent a temperature scale and MESSED UP? I mean, you got pretty close, I guess. 98.6° is kind of like 100°. But this is science we’re talking about, aren’t we supposed to be a little more scientific?

I suppose you have the complete lunacy that is the British Empire on your side. Thanks to them, we now use nonsensical units of measurement – from the mile to the gallon to your crazy version of a degree – for everything. (This person disagrees with me, please read on for a fair and balanced view, a la FOX news. Not.)

If it weren’t for you (and the British. And America’s inscrutable dedication to English systems of measurement. I mean really; even English itself eventually adopted the Celsius.) we wouldn’t have so many degrees between freezing and boiling. I mean, is it really necessary to differentiate between 70° and 72°? Why not just use decimal points? Even a fever is pretty easy to tell using Celsius. 37°? You’re cool. 38°? You’re probably sick.

Why didn’t you just stick to glassblowing?


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