Monday, December 6, 2010

The Fearful Nomenclature of Weather Prognostications

The Baler Now In Storage
I am currently reading a book entitled, Giants in the Earth, written by O. E. Rolvaag.  It's a story of the Norwegian settlement of the Dakota Territory.  Aside from retrospective issues concerning the displacement of Native Americans as a result of the foreigners' settlements and subsequent dislocations of original inhabitants, these were stout people whose survival was nothing short of a miracle.  So, I wanted to use the story for today's blog, to segue into The Weather.

The main character in the book, along with several of his fellow settlers starts out across the prairie on a mid-winter day, to get firewood at considerable distance from the main settlement.  Mind you, the "settlement" consists of five or so families, in the vastness of the majestic prairie in the 1800's living in sod houses.  Several of the men leave on what appears to be a rather warm and sunny day, with sleds and oxen, only to discover a while later, as they are making their way slowly to the wood supply, that an ominous cloud bank seems to be approaching and building from the West. It turns into a ferocious blizzard and the main character nearly dies.

Fast forward to now.  Today, we have bells and beeps and computers and weather "forecasts" and "Special Weather Statements" that at least make the weather "gamble" seem simpler.  Unquestionably, lives are saved by a technology that is ever more sophisticated and seemingly accurate.  We anticipate a "weather event" nowadays, far in advance of its arrival.  OTOH, because of this, change in the weather unexpectedly, is to be anticipated and even expected. 

Predictions can go only so far, as the weather is capricious, fitful and perplexingly independent-minded.  The terminologies continue to layer themselves as we try to figure out the accuracies or inaccuracies in what sometimes appears to be just another slicing and dicing of the same thing.  We have Winter Storm Warnings, Winter Weather Advisories, Winter Storm Watches...we have "blizzards" and "all hazards" that warn us to pack our cars with food, water, blankets, flashlights and be ready for the worst.  The drumbeat of warnings fans our fears and we are almost of the impression that the end of the world is at hand!  Why, The Weather Service can even interrupt the SEC championship game to warn of impending impendings with a Special Weather Statement!

Contrary to my character in the book, at least now in modern times we know SOMETHING is coming.  And that is good.   And I don't take lightly the service that is rendered by our valiant WFO (government speak for Weather Forecast Office).  But what the actual weather might end up being is still a challenge for the WFO.  Often enough, nothing remotely like the NOAA forecast ever arrives.  This weekend, we got perhaps 3-4 inches of snow, and I commend the National Weather Service for their unstinting efforts to beat the odds with their forecasts.  But even as we wait to see if the WFO beat the odds, we have to accept that Mother Nature can be a gamechanger and the nomenclature of weather forecasting doesn't necessarily represent anything more than a list of selected terms!

We can have "snow....heavy at times" or "snow showers" or "scattered snow showers" or "snow flurries" or "light snow"  and then we can branch out into either "rain" or "freezing rain" or sleet or an all out "ice storm" or freezing drizzle....then we can also have "partly cloudy" or "partly sunny" or "cloudy" or "overcast"...then we have "heating degrees days" and "cooling degree days"  We can narrow the window to 50% chance; 40% chance; or perhaps a 100% chance of whatever...and that doesn't reflect the actual simply means that under similar conditions in the past, in this particular geographic location the event has happened X% of the time in the what the heck does THAT mean????

I think the public has become sold on the idea that choice makes things better, as if the more choices we have, the better off we are.  Certainly, my character in the novel could have been helped  by a voice eminating from a distant forecast office telling him that a blizzard was rapidly advancing upon him.  I don't believe, though, that giving him 20% or 40% chance of precipitation of some kind, would have helped all that much.  Having accidentally run smack into a cabin with his oxen and sled in the midst of the blinding snow and howling gale was the only thing that saved his you-know-what! 


  1. Elora -- Good post! Your book has been put on my book list to order from the library.

    Words sent out by the Weather Forecast Office over our air waves to describe weather need to be interpreted like the native Alaskans weather words.

    Your post's multiple weather words resemble native Alaskans many words for weather as follows:
    A. Snow particles

    (1) Snowflake
    qanuk 'snowflake'
    qanir- 'to snow'
    qanunge- 'to snow' [NUN]
    qanugglir- 'to snow' [NUN]
    (2) Frost
    kaneq 'frost'
    kaner- 'be frosty/frost sth.'
    (3) Fine snow/rain particles
    kanevvluk 'fine snow/rain particles
    kanevcir- to get fine snow/rain particles
    (4) Drifting particles
    natquik 'drifting snow/etc'
    natqu(v)igte- 'for snow/etc. to drift along ground'
    (5) Clinging particles
    nevluk 'clinging debris/
    nevlugte- 'have clinging debris/...'lint/snow/dirt...'
    B. Fallen snow

    (6) Fallen snow on the ground
    aniu [NS] 'snow on ground'
    aniu- [NS] 'get snow on ground'
    apun [NS] 'snow on ground'
    qanikcaq 'snow on ground'
    qanikcir- 'get snow on ground'
    (7) Soft, deep fallen snow on the ground
    muruaneq 'soft deep snow'
    (8) Crust on fallen snow
    qetrar- [NSU] 'for snow to crust'
    qerretrar- [NSU] 'for snow to crust'
    (9) Fresh fallen snow on the ground
    nutaryuk 'fresh snow' [HBC]
    (10) Fallen snow floating on water
    qanisqineq 'snow floating on water'
    C. Snow formations

    (11) Snow bank
    qengaruk 'snow bank' [Y, HBC]
    (12) Snow block
    utvak 'snow carved in block'
    (13) Snow cornice
    navcaq [NSU] 'snow cornice, snow (formation) about to collapse'
    navcite- 'get caught in an avalanche'
    D. Meterological events

    (14) Blizzard, snowstorm
    pirta 'blizzard, snowstorm'
    pircir- 'to blizzard'
    pirtuk 'blizzard, snowstorm'
    (15) Severe blizzard
    cellallir-, cellarrlir- 'to snow heavily'
    pir(e)t(e)pag- 'to blizzard severely'
    pirrelvag- 'to blizzard severely'

  2. Still snowing and very cold here. A day to sit by the fire...

  3. Barbara, Even teaching in Native Alaskan villages as we did, I had no idea that so many phrases for snow, existed! Amazing! We taught in an Athabascan village, as well as a Haida village. I won't which Native Alaskan language is reflected in your list (or combination of several?)

    Yes! "Sitting by the fire" is exactly what we're doing...after morning chores, that is! I am "connecting" with your farming son and daughter-in-law, Vicki! Bet they're doing many of the same things as we are in this cold!