Friday, March 22, 2013

The Groundhog Effing-Lied!

The Groundhog Effing-Lied!

Today, the second day of spring, Adjunct Proff is standing up to his proverbial butt (not quite as big as his actual butt) in snow.  And this on a planet that is experiencing global warming --ahem, "climate change."  AND, the %#$&%@! Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil, the Nation's Official Groundhog, predicted an early spring!  All these factors together have prompted Adjunct Proff to devote today's blog to the history of meteorology, or as my friend and fellow bar-fly, the guy whose name I don't know, calls "the science of getting paid to be wrong on T.V. twice a night."

Back in the dawn of civilization (it always goes back to those stupid Sumerians, doesn't it?  They're probably to blame for everything, including the impending collapse of Cyprus' banking system!), weather predictions were easy to make.  All one had to do was to sacrifice something of value (wheat, goat, small, bratty child) to the appropriate god or goddess in order to get the desired weather to happen.  So, slaughter a goat to Enlil?  Expect variable sunshine with occasional cloudy patches for the next 10 days.  This is because the temple priests were no fools.  They kept an eye on the weather and remembered how things went the last few years at this time of the season, so after our sucker --err, supplicant --left, the priests all sat down to a nice barbecue of goat for supper.

Maybe they should try
barbecued groundhog
It wasn't long before even the dimmest Sumerian figured out that the weather offering was a pile of Sumerian goat-doodles (it was the barbecue sauce on all the fat priests' faces that tipped him off --that, and the fact that their success rate at influencing the weather was hovering at around 30%).  The Greeks and Romans did no better at predicting the weather, although the Greeks did figure out that rain came from clouds, and that fog was really just a super-low-flying cloud (don't believe me?  Check out Euripides' play, "The Clouds"), and the Romans knew that snow and rain were somehow related, because snow eventually turned into water.  No, what the world needed in order to make its next BIG  GIANT  LEAP  towards the 5-Day Forecast and bikini-clad weather girls was this li'l baby: the barometer.

Vaudeville comedians used
seltzer water in their siphons
The Italian scientist, Evangelista Torricelli, is usually credited with inventing the barometer in 1643, but another Italian, Gasparo Berti may have accidentally invented one sometime between 1640 and 1643.  Before that, Rene Descartes described how one could conduct an experiment that would figure out what the air pressure was, but nobody knows if he actually built a barometer to actually do the experiment (he was too busy coming up with Latin one-liners like Cogito ergo sum [trans: Je pense donc je suis] to actually do any of the experiments he thought up).  In fact, the bloody barometer wouldn't have been invented at all if yet another Italian, Giovanni Baliani, didn't write to Galileo (yes, THAT Galileo and yes, yet another Italian) to complain that his siphon, which had worked brilliantly at the bottom of the hill, stopped working at the top of the hill.

Galileo knew that Berti was trying to prove the existence of the vacuum (the absence of air, not the Hoover), and thought that Baliani's faulty siphon had something to do with it, so he suggested that Berti fill a really long glass tube open at only one end with water, stick it in a pan of water, and see what happened at the bottom and top of a big hill.  The result was a complete success: the vacuum was discovered, air pressure was discovered, AND the barometer was discovered all in one go.  However, because he wasn't trying to invent the barometer, Berti had no idea that he had, in fact, invented the barometer.  It took Torricelli to figure the whole thing out: that the weight of the air was pushing down on the pan of water, which pushed some of the water up inside the tube.  For some reason, air weighed less on top of hills than at the bottom (which accounts for the siphon's high-altitude failure), so it was heavier at ground level.  Torricelli is also the first person to use mercury in a barometer (he had to hide it in case his neighbors saw it, because they thought he was using his barometer to practice black magic.  Mercury barometers are much shorter than water barometers.  Torricelli's neighbors were really stupid).  Yet air pressure wasn't constant --it changed as rapidly as... THE  WEATHER!  Could there be a connection?
Oh yeah- this baby can so totally predict the weather,
and it doesn't completely look like a penis
Those wonderfully wacky Victorian amateur scientists discovered that if the air pressure suddenly dropped, there was a really, really, reeeeeaaalllllyyy good chance that it was going to rain, or at least be cloudy, windy and miserable.  Conversely, a sudden rise in air pressure meant that it would almost certainly be a sunny say (unless Adjunct Proff had washed his car that morning).  Wow, it turns out that weather could be almost reliably predicted, as long as the weather predictor combined air pressure with wind speed and direction, wrote all this stuff down on a map, and predicted where it would all go in the next couple of days.  No problemo, mi amigo gabacho! (no translation available)

This weather system TOTALLY looks like a smirking smiley face!
And this is why weather forecasters (even the cute weather girls) get the forecast wrong so much of the time, even though these days they can look right at weather systems from space using weather satellite imaging: it's tough to figure out where air will go next.  Weather is so fluid and dynamic a system that it confounds even really smart computers (the one I am using to type this blog is NOT one of those smart computers!)  Which is why people like using familiar, folksy, naturalistic long-range weather predictors, like the thickness of woolly caterpillars' coats, the arrival of migratory birds or, yes, whether or not the effing groundhog sees his shadow on February 2nd. 

...and if Daryl's man-boobs get bigger in the fall, we're in fer
a good-god-didly-damn of a winter!
BELIEVE  IT  OR  NOT, there is some actual science behind the stupid groundhog prediction-thing. You see, if it's a sunny day on February 2nd in Punxsatawney County, Pennsylvania, that is probably because of a  high-pressure system, which is usually accompanied by a northwesterly wind direction, which is colder because it's cold up north in the winter, which means that winter weather will probably hang around for another six weeks or so.  A no-shadow day means clouds, rain or snow, which indicates a low pressure system, which is usually accompanied by a southwesterly wind direction, which is warmer and wetter due to the influence of the Gulf-stream, which means an early onset of spring-like weather.  The fact that it's a groundhog seeing its shadow is incidental --any animal would do, even the fearsome Ass-nibbling Bunny of Hillsborough County, New Hampshire (who once tried to nibble Adjunct Proff's actual, non-proverbial butt but failed, hahaha!)
Me woud makes a gud weather forecastard 'cos me sooo dignified.
To be fair, those weather forecasters have been known to get it right a whole bunch of the time, especially when a lot was riding on their prediction.  Wander with me, back to the South-coast of England in early June, 1944.  375,815 American, British, Canadian, and Free French (as opposed to Expensive French) soldiers are poised to land on Normandy's beaches in order to eventually pound Hitler's face into pulp.  This landing was supposed to happen on June 5th, but Group Captain Stagg (no relation to the moose pictured above) of the British Meteorological Office said no, wait a day.  Good thing they listened to him, because June 5 was a thoroughly nasty day for a beach party on the scale planned by the Allies, and would have been an even bigger fiasco than the actual D-Day landings on June 6th (the Germans wouldn't be able to shoot as many of the "Good Guys" on the 5th as they did on the 6th, because most of the invasion force would have drowned).  Nice going, Group Captain Stagg!  You saved Western Civilization by getting the weather prediction spot-on.
Bloody-Hell, I totally look like
Adolph Hitler, old chap!
These days, meteorologists are very important people who do very important work.  Before any manned or unmanned space flight lifts-off, the weather-people have the final say on whether or not to go.  Weather forecasters, along with NOAA, issue warnings of severe weather like tornadoes, hurricanes, nor'easters and the like.  Sometimes, people have to evacuate their homes based on a severe weather forecast.  And access to weather information has vastly improved.  There is an entire cable-T.V. station devoted to weather (TWC); smartphone apps keep one constantly updated on current and forecast weather conditions.

But if you're at all like me, none of the above-mentioned methods come close to the accuracy and sincerity of folk-weather-forecasts.  My 86-year old mother can accurately predict the arrival of rain one day before it gets here, due to her arthritis --she really hurts before storms.  And then there's the squirrels in my neighborhood: last fall, they didn't leave one acorn on the ground.  They packed them all away in their winter-dens because those miserable arboreal rodents knew we'd get whacked with snow this winter.  We did.  It's still here.

Al Roker can kiss my furry little ass
So even though I'm ticked at ol' Punxsatawney Phil, I'm prepared to cut him a little slack.  According to the good people at, Phil's accuracy grade is 39% for the period of 1887 through today.  click HERE to see tons of GH-Day facts!  But still, that's 9% better than our Sumerian weather-phoneys.  AND, according to those wonderfully smart-and-sassy people over at Freakonomics, present-day weather forecasters are 37-59% accurate for the next day's rain forecast, but only 0-18% accurate for the 7-day-out forecast!  And Phil doesn't even use a satellite for his prediction of 42-days out!

Way to go, Phil!  Don't take it personally whenever people hassle you about missing a prediction.  You're way better than just about the entire weather establishment, from NOAA to TWC to Kimmy on KCAL-T.V. in Los Angeles.  AND you were great in that Bill Murray movie.  AND you're cute, adorable, perform well under pressure, modest, unassuming, a snazzy-dresser (even though fur is kind of over-the-top --but ok if it's attached to your own skin, I suppose) and a great sport.  May you forever have a place in American culture and the science (?) of meteorology.

"I promise to not drive angry, Bill.  Now, take your finger out of my butt."

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