I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 6:10 AM GMT on December 23, 2009
Yaris, the Blizzard and Me
As those of you who read Jeff’s blog, and everyone does, you know that Jeff declared me snowbound in the Great Blizzard of 2009. (I met a woman whose admiration for Jeff’s blog had him at the celebratory level of Robert de Niro.) This is my story of the blizzard.
Before I got to Maryland, I had looked at the forecast. Of course, I dismissed the threat of being “snowbound” based on my Washington-DC-press index of blizzard forecast exaggeration.
Figure 1: As I recall, the total accumulation of a 2005 Major Winter Storm in Washington, DC.
On the other hand, when I worked in Washington, I saw the forecast of snow cause panic, leading to fleeing from the office to the grocery store to buy 24 rolls of toilet paper and tubes of 8 D-cell batteries. It is easy to bring Washington to a halt with a “dusting,” and bring out the news reporters talking about DC as a “Southern City.” (Is there an archetypical Southern City these days? Could it be Tallahassee? Mobile? Memphis? Charlotte is pretty new South. Richmond? ) Anyway, having looked at the forecast I thought about it a little.
On Friday night the snow started out 3 hours earlier than predicted, and I was motivated enough to go public on a Washington Post web page with “starts early, ends early and less than six inches of snow.” I mean, for the storm to deliver it required the development of a secondary low pressure system to the south and west of the original low, which I will call a Hatteras low because I am old and partial to North Carolina. Historically, models have had a little problem with this situation, and despite the fragile credibility of my entire life having to rest on numerical models of the atmosphere, I really wanted to have a nice little storm with six inches of snow on the hilly side of DC.
I was staying in Rose Haven, Maryland, in the Herrington Harbor Inn. The Inn sits on the south shore of Herring Bay, with a view straight up the core of the Chesapeake Bay to the north and west.
Figure 2: Rose Haven and Herring Bay, Maryland. On the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
At dawn, I looked out the window and the grass showed through the little bit of icy snow on the ground. This was very encouraging to my desire for a lot of wind and a little snow. I turned on the TV and excited reporters in fur-lined hoods where standing in ankle deep snow on empty Saturday-morning streets in Baltimore. On the ubiquitous WU web site, there were still in BIG RED LETTERS, a blizzard warning for Anne Arundel County.
I had been sleeping with the window slightly open (and, yes, the heat was off, I have some carbon scruples), so I closed it and went back to sleep. About an hour later I got up, opened the door, and noted it was, perhaps, windy. The tall grasses in the new eco-scaping were blown to about a 45 degree angle. The stems were wrapped in ice and held stiff. The tufts of seeds moved back and forth like small brooms. Deciding, “coat,” I went out towards the back of the Inn, away from the Bay to see if the road had been plowed, and if the car could be had. It was and it could. When I came back from behind the building into the wind the ice and snow stung my face so much I had to retreat. Down closer to the water a bundled man struggled with a snow blower. The wind was blowing not only the snow back, but the man and blower.
The decision of “coat,” had fortunately brought the provision of “hat,” and it was, without hyperbole, stinging ice and blow-you-backwards wind. It was then that I noticed, that the grassy ice laid in striations where the high-speed currents of air that were stripping the snow from the ground. The already cleared side walk had 6 inches of snow, in the lee of the clumps of grass were two feet of snow. (A more poetic version, perhaps.) The television in the breakfast room said the wind gusts in Annapolis were 34 miles per hour. The wind coming from down the core of the Bay, I doubt, was ever less than 34 miles per hour. (I was once a reasonably proficient sailor, and have a propensity for standing in driving rain, perhaps with a bit of surf spray. This was unpleasant, and though perhaps a bit softened by age and the mild winters of the Southeast Michigan and the Colorado Plains, well, this weather was actually scary.)
Figure 3: Snow in the wind, on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Yaris is visible in the background.
The walk downwind, back to my room, was more difficult than the upwind walk. I have never been the fan of the unplanned jibe, and liked to avoid the run, even the broad reach. I could not hold the cup of calming lemon chamomile tea still in the wind. More than half of it shook out.
Let me introduce Yaris. Yaris was new to me. This follows, I am sure, from my consuming commitment to all things climate and the construction of a very fine chicken coop. But Yaris, I had to look it up to make sure it was not Varis (note to marketing department, new font), was provided to me at the airport in a line of compact cars I could choose from. It said Toyota on it, and it was odd and small and very red, and I decided to see if such a creature could be in my future.
Yaris was sitting in the parking lot “across from Mango’s.” Thanks to the wind, and not, now I understood, a lack of snow, it was pretty clean. It being that I was in a “Southern City,” there was no ice scrapper, no broom. Yaris, while not buried in snow, was like the grass stems, encrusted. Yaris, sounds male and from the early 1900s Chicago slaughterhouses – he warmed quickly. Now you have to understand that the tires on Yaris are about the size of the tires on a modest size boat trailer, perhaps a large wheelbarrow. My impression of Yaris on the drive down had been, “souped up version of my 1980 Chevette.” Perhaps it is the Mini’s mini. I put Yaris in drive, it would be a pretty cool car with a manual transmission, and started crunching through the parking lot.
Forward momentum was possible. Yaris reliably crunched forward. Given Yaris’s size and my size, much of Yaris’s momentum relied on my mass. The immediate challenge was the modest ridge of crunchy plow tailings at the mouth of the parking lot. With the tools at hand, Yaris’s bumper and a bit of momentum, I flung Yaris into the tailings, only to be thwarted. But Yaris was able to back up, and back up he did, and again he rammed forward.
Now being trained in the basics of physics, though I am sure many of my scientist friends would claim there is no evidence of this, I became concerned about the presence of “the ditch.” Yaris was deflecting more and more to the left. Having recently been assured that gravity still works independent of Mr. Newton’s personality, there was the potential situation that always motivated my college roommate and me to say, “that’s a funny place to park.” I decided to stop the Hagar the Horrible strategy and get out and look around. Opening the door in the snow helped me appreciate just how low to the ground Yaris stood. The door pushed back the snow. He was doing pretty good, not Subaru good, but pretty good. (Subaru is, at least, some sort of appreciated standard. Not Humvee level, which apparently DC Police get in snow storms.) I stomped a couple of wheel tracks through the pile of road plow, got back in Yaris, took aim, and like an FSU running back bursting through a paper Seminole, Yaris made it onto the road. (In this whole time, not a single car had passed.)
A couple hundred yards from the water the wind died down, and the snow was piling up quickly. But given a half plowed road, Yaris moved reliably forward, and backwards when called upon.
Those of you who have read far more of my writing than is normal might remember Christmas at the 7-11. This part of Maryland is a place of big pickup trucks, and eventually Yaris was amongst the trucks and the Jeeps. (One of my favorite snow driving experiences is the happy Jeep driver coming up behind me, casually pulling out to pass, pulling back in, and proceeding quite directly into a yard full of dogwoods and redbuds and safely (I checked in my rearview mirror.) stopping at someone’s front porch.) I will spare you many of the exciting moments of the 45 mile drive at the height of blizzard to BWI Airport, where because I had given the weather forecast some credibility, I had arranged a room at the airport hotel. I did befriend a big pickup truck with a blade on the front to make a path around a less able Ford Fiesta. I think by the official definition, there were whiteout conditions. I was fearful of the plow tailings at the exit ramp from I-97, but I followed the tracks of a MUCH wider vehicle and the nearly round Yaris did not even threaten to fishtail. We arrived with a wind shield that looked like Charles Lindbergh in an ice cloud. Many greater vehicles did not make it.
Figure 4: Taken by my brother Bob in Esmont, VA, which was not even officially blizzard, and it snowed "a few more inches." Used without permission.
I can now officially say that I made it out of B’more on Sunday. This is thanks to a major Chicago based airline and no thanks to an airline commonly associated with Detroit, Minneapolis, and now Atlanta, which seemed in total collapse. (Have seen total collapse in that Chicago-based airline as well, but Sunday they behaved real smart.) I am where I want to be.
There were many, many soldiers heading home on Sunday. A bunch got upgraded to First Class on this plane. I am, without exaggeration, stunned at their youth. Many of them are young women. Over the last 5 years, I have come to notice, far more, youth and its strengths and fragilities. The students I teach are older than many of these soldiers, and even 4 years older they are still at the beginning. There are middle-aged men in the National Guard who are living a different life than they once imagined. These people are doing, hard, hard things, and I hope they made it to peaceful homes.
Let Jeff know, I was not snowbound.
OK, climate change question? What may a record December snow storm in the East say about climate change? Anything? In many places this storm exceeded the average snow totals for the entire winter. It was forecast magnificently, and that is more often the rule than the exception. What is the value of this forecast?
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