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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About the Weather?

Posted by | January 23, 2016

Snow blowing past the big barn's double doors, February 5, 2015

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition of 1/24/16 and Making It At Home Thursday?edition, 1/28/2016.

Always eager to start some new long-term monitoring project, Im now keeping track of the number of conversations I have about the weather. Im planning to henceforth keep tabs on with whom, when, and for how long we chatted. Im already certain one thing will be constant: the changing weather will be discussed in only the most general, equivocal, unchanging terms. You and I will talk about the weather, my friends, but we will say nothing new.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, where normally the weather is a subject completely encompassed by 75 and sunny, 90% of my conversations with friends old and new began by discussing the recent El Nino rains, mudslides, flooding, and winds. Some people I hadnt seen in a decade, and we still began by discussing the previous nights thunderstorm. Dramatic and charismatic weather for Southern California, but still  weather.

Why is the weather such a perfect small talk device? I suppose because it affects all of us, its continually new, and its hard to hold a controversial opinion about it. (Who doesnt despise freezing rain? Who doesnt love sunshine?) Many of us have been raised to believe that, for polite conversation or the holiday table, there are taboo subjects: politics, religion, money. You know, all the good stuff. If there were a conversation spectrum, those would be at one end, and weather (and how busy we all are) would be on the other. Why? Its safe to talk about the weather, I suppose. Weather is the iceberg lettuce of the conversation salad  there for filler, not for taste.

I work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-supported Wells Reserve at Laudholm, so thinking about meteorology is as natural as the seasons here. But Im still fascinated by the inevitable raising of the subject as a hello, as a pastime, or as a meeting extender. In a culture decrying our declining conversational skills  blamed variously on a polarized media, polarized politicians, television, failing parents, failing schools, Twitter or Facebook  one would think that weather small talk would get less of a pass. Chewing over whether itll snow, and how much, or if its too warm to snow, or too cold, or is the wind dying down, or if its beautiful or just nice out& does it really matter? Dont we, as a region, state, country, or world, have more important things to discuss?

We do, but we dont go there. We stick to the weather like frost on the windowpane.

So, fine, lets talk about the weather& but in a deeper way. Come join me at Weather Underground, the Internets daily convention for self-proclaimed weather nerds. Come compare the latest supercomputer model runs, or parse Brian Epsteins latest Maine Forecast column. Follow me into the whirlwind world of millibars, blocking ridges, decadal oscillations and hydrologic gradients, if you dare.

And then, like my family, quickly leave the room again, shaking your head. But truly, talking about the weather CAN be interesting, even controversial. (E.g., mentioning todays conditions is banal, but talking about long-term weather trends, also known as climate, can invite a partisan hailstorm.)

Weather forecasts have improved markedly in the past 50 years, and yet so many people still say those forecasters dont know anything. Why? If you get your rain forecasts from local TV meteorologists, it turns out theyre sometimes purposefully, maddeningly wrong to get ratings. Butts hold endless forms most wonderful for children and adults alike, and theres a growing international effort to crowdsource images for the next edition of the World Meteorological Organizations definitive Butt Atlas. On Floridas southwest coast last week, a thunderstorm, not an earthquake, briefly created a tsunami-like wave that washed six feet over the high tide mark. I didnt even know that could happen, but now Im terrified for my coastal neighbors. Weather inspires art, from the Krakatoa-infused sunsets in Turners landscapes to the jangly drone of 1985s Talk About the Weather by British post-punk group Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.

Sitting in my office perched on the last hill before the Canadian northwesterly blows out over the Atlantic Ocean, I listen to my windows rattle and think often about the weather. If youre not feeling under it, Ill gladly talk about the weather with you any time, come rain or come shine.


Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His attempted biweekly column, Between Two Worlds, ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, high pressure and low. More at

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