By Suzanne Wilson
You’ve heard it a thousand times: if you don’t like the weather here in New England, just wait five minutes and it will change. While that is definitely true, there are experts out there who can predict, with a great deal of accuracy based on scientific knowledge, whether it will rain or snow, be sunny or cloudy. Some of these pundits work for the government; others grace the local evening news. But there is one whom we can proudly claim as part of the LAB family. His name is Steven P. Roberts, published author and meteorological maven. Back in May, Steven had a chat with LAB’s Jim Barrett, during which they talked about Steven, his love of all things meteorological and his recent literary accomplishment.
Steven did not become a weather buff overnight; in fact, it has been a huge part of his life even as far back as when he studied at the Perkins School for the Blind. “I’ve been interested in the weather since I could walk and talk and look out the window,” Steven explained. When TIC radio came to Lowell in the 1990s, he was encouraged to share what he knew with their many listeners. He recalls that the first storm he ever covered on the show that he entitled “Weather Wisdom Weekly” was the memorable Hurricane Bertha.
Obviously, the show struck a chord with many people, because it wasn’t long before Steven was inundated with requests to write a weather book. Although he was reluctant to take on the daunting task at first, he somewhat jokingly told our own Dorothy Donovan that if she could come up with the title, he would write the book. You guessed it: about a week later, she called him with the perfect one, The Whys and Whats of Weather. “I got bagged,” Steven said, laughing. And although it has been a while in the making, with a concentrated effort over two academic years, this 400-plus page compendium of weather wisdom is certainly worth the wait.
It’s safe to say that if you have questions about how the weather and its phenomena work, you can find virtually all of the answers you seek in this lovingly researched volume. Beginning with the basics of how the “weather machine” is constructed, each chapter builds upon the last to help the reader develop a thorough, perhaps even encyclopedic knowledge of many things meteorological. These include but are not limited to: the causes of weather changes (temperature differences from poles to equator, rotation of the earth, seasonal variances), fronts, three-dimensional atmosphere, sky color and clouds, hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards. You’ll learn about terms you’ve never heard of before, such as snow bombs and train echo weather patterns. But most of all, you’ll get a sense of how much Steven enjoys studying these phenomena and sharing his knowledge with others. “Writing a book is a very arduous process,” he explained. “When you write a book, you’re really making a commitment to that idea. And you’re giving that idea everything you can bring to it. So there’s an awful lot on the line whenever you go out to write a book.” . . Now I’m promoting the book, and it’s been said that promoting a book is a much more complex process than even producing it. As it turns out, I see what they mean.”
Steven is indeed working hard to let the public know about The Whys and Whats of Weather. In recent months, he has had several radio interviews and continues to work hard at self-marketing. A quick Google search of the book title yields an instant result showing the many venues from which it can be purchased.
In spite of his busy schedule, Steven continues to enjoy nothing more than doing what he has loved best for years: explaining weather terms to make them understandable to the layperson. So what, you may be asking, are snow bombs and train echo weather patterns? Jim wondered the same thing, and Steven was happy to answer. A snow bomb is a nor’easter that develops explosively, often producing anywhere between eight and 16 inches of snow. A train echo wave pattern is nothing more than a thunderstorm parade, a succession of storms that takes the same track.
When someone has literally spent years of his life crafting a reference book of this magnitude, you almost can’t help wondering which of the many weather phenomena Steven is most fascinated by. He revealed that it is neither thunderstorms nor hurricanes, but blizzards that most capture his fancy. “They can paralyze and blind and they can bring about all sorts of impacts on society. And in some ways, they’re kind of fun; they’re unusual. We see a blizzard in this area once every five or six years. Some years, you hit the jackpot and you get two of them. . . but that’s rare.”
Another relatively infrequent but devastating occurrence that can affect us here in New England is flooding, most recently the separate floods in 2006 and 2007. In the case of the 2006 event, it was preceded by a three-month rain deficit. Then came a low pressure system loaded with moisture from the tropical Atlantic, and Steven became worried. He predicted four to eight inches of rain even when others in the field weren’t anticipating anything serious. It turned out that we got anywhere between eight and 16 inches, with the Merrimack River going from below average levels to flood stage in an astonishing three days. By contrast, the 2007 flood was a lethal combination of rainfall and snow melt.
Another typically New England weather pattern is our bitterly cold and snowy Februaries. Why are they like this, Jim asked. Steven explained that it generally comes down to the weather’s propensity to run to extremes. At that time of the year, it is common for there to be a motherload of cold Arctic air and snow. In the case of this past winter, it harkened back to a pattern we saw in the late ‘70s.
What predictions does Steven have about our future weather? As you might expect, he has several. Most important, there is a growing indication that we will see another El Nino later this year. El Nino is the periodic warming of the waters in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific that causes the subtropical jet stream to become active. As a result, heavy rains develop over the Pacific and into Southern California. The moisture crosses over Texas, grabs more from the Gulf of Mexico, reorganizes, and sometimes it curls up the East Coast and gives us nor’easters. Should this come to pass, next winter will likely be cold and wet, but warmer than last year and less snowy.
One theme that particularly seems fascinating to Steven is dynamic volatility, weather’s tendency to go to extremes. Just think about our recent weather: the floods of 2006 and 2007, the ice storm of 2008, Superstorm Sandy, Snowtober and the Polar Vortex. Steven believes we are truly in an era of dynamic volatility, affected to one degree or another by climate change/global warming. Yet, he hastens to add that this isn’t necessarily anything new or apocalyptic. In fact, weather has its year just as we do. The year begins in August with hurricanes; September continues with hurricanes and nor’easters; October through February features winter storms and nor’easters; March is the transition from winter storms to severe weather, which peaks in June. Believe it or not, July is generally the calmest month of all, meteorologically speaking.
Ask Steven for his opinion on global warming, and he treats the subject with a refreshing lack of grandstanding, combined with hard facts. It happens gradually and throughout the world, he explains. You need to take the average of the entirety, not just a small snapshot of a certain place or time. He sums it up in this way: “Twenty, thirty, forty years from now, people will still be digging out from snows of great depths—even though the world is getting warmer.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the weather, the National Weather Service periodically teaches classes for those who want to become weather watchers in which students learn very specific ways to observe and note the weather in their areas. If you would rather learn about meteorology from the comfort of your own easy chair, Steven has lovingly created a reference work that will get you well on your journey to becoming a weather guru in your own right. The Whys and Whats of Weather is available in print and digital form on Amazon.com and from the Kindle store. Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo™ and Smashwords also carry it. Finally, you can purchase it through Steven’s website, http://www.dvorkin.com/stevenproberts.
If you would like to hear the full interview that Jim Barrett conducted with Steven, here it is: