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Today's forecast: Nothing certain

The trouble with being a snowed-in scientist is that it is hard to get angry with the meteorologists--you know what they are up against: chaos theory.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Tuesday, February 3, 1998


It started innocently enough: a light snow had painted the world white overnight. The county had called off school, so my wife, Susan (a teacher), and the kids sleep in. I too get a bit lazy and arise later than usual. I watch the Weather Channel as well as listen to the National Weather Service radio broadcast. They agree that the snow would change to rain by noon, so at 8:30 I make a critical decision--I would (begin ital) not (end ital) drive our tractor up to the house from its parking place at the base of our 2,000-ft road. Plowing deep snow uphill is impossible, but I won't need it today.

At the University, I boot up my office--a procedure that includes turning on the Weather Channel as a sort of meteorological Muzak. As an astronomer, astronomy lab teacher, gardener, and property owner, I (begin ital) live (end ital) by the weather forecast. As the morning wears on I begin to get worried--now the snow is to change to rain (begin ital) later this afternoon (end ital). Some of the Charlotte TV stations go their own route and predict several inches of snow.

The Weather Channel has the nerve to play their commercial where a woman at a 'weather bar' admires he insight of the Weather Channel staff compared to the local guys. But, outside my office the evidence is building in favor of the TV meteorologists who know their local microclimates. I think of my elevation-challenged Kubota, grit my teeth and curse the earlier forecast--I know I'll pay a price for their mistake.

Small changes, big results

The trouble with being a scientist is that it is hard to get angry with the meteorologists--you (begin ital) know (end ital) what they are up against. Weather is a good example of a phenomenon best explained by chaos theory, which holds that small changes in conditions in complex systems can lead to profoundly different outcomes. The track of a low pressure system from the Gulf, the timing of the arrival of a cold front from the northwest, the effect of the mountains, the air and ground temperatures when and where the clash occurs--all of these conspire to allow a wide variety of results.

The only science that has a more difficult time with chaos predictions is economics, which correctly forecasted only 15 of the last five recessions. At least the financial wizards admit their mistakes. These Weather Channel guys seem to have no memory of their incorrect forecasts--every day is a new day with no yesterday.

Indeed, chaos may be partly responsible for why we are even here at all. Paleontologist Stephen J. Gould has pointed out that the evolution of life on Earth could have taken any of a myriad of paths, and that the one that led to human life might not occur again if we replayed the random walk a million times. As an astronomer I hope that there is life elsewhere in our galaxy, and I hope I live to see its discovery. Yet, Dr. Gould is right, and those million replays may have already been done throughout the Milky Way. Chaos says that we may indeed be alone.

After the storm

By the end of the day we had a foot of snow--I would walk up to the house from the roadside. At 8:30 we lost power as the snowy night sky flashed blue and yellow from arcing wires and exploding transformers. I cranked up the generator and threw the switch to relight our house.

Eight more inches of snow would fall that night. It would be four days until power was restored and five until a neighbor clears my road with a larger tractor. We would come to appreciate some of the daily challenges faced by power companies: load management, fuel deliveries, polluting exhaust. But, I would have the last laugh on their attempt to sell me on an all-electric house. The generator kept our fuel oil fired boiler running fine.

After the storm passed we had a starry night--a bit darker than usual, with hundreds of outdoor lights turned off by the power failures. A sort of celestial silver lining to the clouds. You, too should take in the view the next time an ice storm or hurricane takes your town's power. And, wonder if there are other beings looking at you through their own skies darkened by chaos.

Today the Weather Channel predicts "rain/snow" for a situation very similar to last Tuesday's.

My tractor is already positioned.

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