atmospheric river

Page from weather record book December 2021

Weather Anxiety

I am a weather nerd. I follow weather obsessively online, via forecasts, satellite and radar, a network of local observations, and meteorologists’ technical discussions. For the past several decades, I have recorded high and low temperatures, cloud types, approximate wind strength and direction, and precipitation every day. I know how weather works in my region. Until this year.

All day it has been windy. The trees are in full leaf now, and their branches toss and sway, throwing off twigs, leaves, and green unripe keys (maple seeds). Siberian irises just coming into bloom shimmy and shake, but one stem of a tall bearded variety (white with purple edges) bows down to the ground. The gardener hustles over, makes sure the stem is only bent and not broken, and administers first aid with a bamboo stake and a couple of ties.

An evening around the time of the summer solstice. There is no wind; the air is absolutely still and perfumed by a thousand rose flowers in bloom. Plants stand in their characteristic shapes, their leaves precisely angled to stems and stalks, each one with its own version of the colour green. The sun has slipped out of sight, but its light gilds the scene with perfection. The gardener stands and stares, a cluster of deadheads in one hand, secateurs in the other. As dusk softly advances, the garden becomes a place in which a mystery is about to be revealed.

I wrote these two paragraphs last May, back when local weather was what is generally termed “normal.” I think I intended them to be part of a blog post about weather from a gardener’s point of view. Then at the end of June came the “heat dome,” four days of abnormally hot temperatures. All kinds of records were shattered, 600 people died in the province of British Columbia, and a small town in the interior was pretty much destroyed by fire on a day when the local temperature topped out at nearly 50 degrees C.

Weird light at sunset. Orange light due to wildfire smoke.
Weird orange sunlight because of smoke from forest fires in the BC interior, 2018

Autumn came, a time that is usually benign and associated with harvest and plenty. Not this year in BC. After a dust-dry summer, copious rain in September and October quickly saturated soils. A succession of “atmospheric river” rainstorms arrived at the end of October and into November and brought catastrophic flooding to several communities. And I really mean catastrophic–homes destroyed, farm animals drowned, lives disrupted. Between fires and floods, thousands of people in this province were forced from their homes in 2021, some permanently.

There was a small tornado–in November, in Vancouver, BC! Nothing like the truly devastating tornados in the US in December, but both of those events were unusual and suggest that fundamental change is happening. Almost every week since June, weather in western Canada has been described as “extreme,” “record-breaking,” or “unprecedented.” Including extreme cold during the week between Christmas and the new year.

I spent an hour on Christmas day moving potted pelargoniums (tender geraniums) and the garden hose into the house, because three nights of -8 or -9 degrees C (16 to 18F) were predicted. The average low temperature at this time of year is 1C (34F). On Boxing Day, the temperature did not exceed -5C (23F), and that night my max-min thermometer recorded -10C (14F). All day, I was busy rotating hummingbird feeders in and out of the house as the liquid inside began to freeze. At first I tried a trick I saw on the internet: wrapping a string of incandescent Christmas lights around the feeder. It looked pretty, and one hummingbird even visited, after he got over his nervousness, but unfortunately the lights didn’t produce enough heat. I resorted to buying a third feeder so I always had one in the house to swap out with a freezing one outside. Sadly, I suspect some hummingbirds–females or juveniles–may have perished.

Hummingbird feeder with Christmas lights December 2021
Not the best photo, but it shows the Christmas light setup and a hummingbird visiting the feeder. Too bad the lights didn’t produce enough heat.

A short period of below normal cold isn’t unusual in the course of a winter, but it usually happens in January or February, not December. Same with the occasional summer heat wave–in July or August, not June. I can’t help thinking that this period of extreme cold right after the winter solstice somehow corresponds to the abnormal heat which arrived right after the summer solstice.

Right here, right now, the weather is out of whack. It’s tempting to attribute this to climate change, rather than to normal ups and downs. Against reason, I’m hoping this has just been a year of anomalous weather for western Canada, but three anomalies in the same year indicates something more fundamental. Governments and power companies now advise everyone to put together emergency kits in case of extensive power outages or evacuation orders. (Of course, we who live on the west coast are supposed to have such kits already, in anticipation of the Big One.)

Whatever the cause, I’m now experiencing weather anxiety, even though I haven’t been affected in any serious way (yet). When sounds of rain and wind wake me at night, I get up and doom-scroll check radars and satellites on whatever device is handy. Earplugs are now standard sleeping equipment. Normal isn’t normal any more. The past can no longer predict the future. Scanning my decades of weather observations tells me only about weather of the before times. The extremes of yesterday may be the normals of tomorrow.

Weather record books

Or maybe this is only a blip (well, three blips)? Take the Blizzard of 1996, for example. A metre and a half of snow fell on Victoria, BC over several days in late December, with a grand finale that buried cars and brought the city to a standstill for a week. It was one of those extreme, record-breaking, unprecedented weather events. But nothing like it has happened in the quarter-century since. So, climate change notwithstanding, I hope 2021 has just been a year of freakish weather in my part of the world, and we can return to blissfully boring in the near future. Recognizing, of course, that for some folks in the towns of Lytton, Merritt, Princeton, and in the Fraser Valley, the road back to normal may be long and hard, no matter what the weather.