Sunday, December 6, 2009

December, and the Ice Man (My Sacred Life, Sunday)

My wonderfully expressive wife and I had a discussion yesterday about the fact that Mother Nature has learned to read a calendar.

We both noted how, as November ebbed, we saw daytime temperatures in the 60's--I'm sure there were Denver-area golfers taking advantage on Thanksgiving Day if they could sell the idea to their families--and some plants beginning to think their long nap was already over. Then, right on the button which was the first day of December, Denver was thrust into mid-winter conditions and temperatures.

Of course, anecdotal evidence relying solely on human memory of weather conditions from one year to the next is notoriously suspect. That's the nice way of putting it.

[Geek alert: if you are made sleepy by discussion of numbers as if they were both interesting and enlightening, exit now. No further warning will be provided. Do not operate heavy machinery while under the influence of such discussions]

The National Weather Service tells me that November this year was about five degrees above average in our daily high temps and a good bit below average as far as precipitation goes. I would have bet that we had at least average snowfall, and probably above average, and I would have lost that bet. Certainly, we knew it was warm, although not as warm as last year. On November 18th, 2008, the high in Denver reached 78 degrees F, a gasp-inducing four degrees higher than the previous record for the date. Be still, my heart.

We had two significant snowfalls (almost a foot each time) this year in November, so that skews the memory. A typical November would involve five or six storms, each smaller than our storms this year, but with a precipitation accumulation which was much higher than this year's. Plus, this year's November storms brought snow with a lower moisture content per inch than is typical.

While we are less than a week into December, the numbers so far are telling and in complete agreement with what our sense of it was before looking up the data.

Temperatures are running more than 11 degrees below normal for daily highs, and we have had lows below zero twice already. The temperature numbers are not likely to improve soon since we are expecting cold and snowy weather the next few days. It's almost as if Mother Nature is trying to show off, as she is offering stock-show weather almost a month before it is due. For those of us with long memories, stock-show weather equates to brrrrrrrrrrr.

Denver hosts the National Western Stock Show every January, a more-than-two-week-long, deep dive into what are the real roots of this part of the country. It is an excuse for the national media to think of Denver as a cow town even as Denver recognizes and honors the hard-working folks who come from hundreds of miles away to celebrate and educate all us city-dwellers on what it's like to be a rancher, farmer, or llama wrangler.

To avoid getting too far off topic, I'll tie the stock show to weather remembrances of Januaries past.

In the days of yore, I was working as the night assistant manager of an Arby's restaurant in southeast Denver. As best I can triangulate, it was January of [year redacted] when I closed the store 17 times in a period of three weeks, and 15 times, my car would not start when I tried to depart for home at 3 a.m.

I know, I silly of me not to get the problem fixed. In my view, the problem was that it was way too cold--about 15 below at closing time--and I knew that the problem would take care of itself soon enough. It's the attitude of the person making two bucks an hour (think slightly above minimum wage): either it takes care of itself, or one adapts. I learned to nap effectively inside the store until the manager arrived about 6 a.m. and would help me by jumping my battery.

We had a December-January weather pattern not all that different only a few years back, as the snowfall in late 2006/early 2007 was at near-record levels even as the temperatures were ridiculously low. It translated into a winter unlike any other I can recall in Denver: ruts in the icepack on our streets which lasted into March, and a deeper understanding of the lifestyle of the Minnesotan. It inspired a respect for the people who deal with it every year and an intense desire never to move there.

The bottom line today is, our memories are usually close to the truth, but they are unpredictably inaccurate. As I recall the Donald Rumsfeld lecture on known unknowns versus unknown unknowns, the corollary of unpredictable inaccuracies is one to note and avoid in real life when possible. Don't bet the next mortgage payment on something you swear happened ten years ago.

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