I should have worn a trench coat to the stormspotting seminar; I was there under deep cover. No way was I ever going to be sufficiently observant, grounded, and methodical to be of use to the National Weather Service. Nope, I just wanted to learn about clouds.
In my carefree youth (I am not sure it was ever carefree, but it was less busy, at least) I would lie in the grass and stare up at clouds, imagining them as fantastic creatures and wondering what it would be like to fall asleep on one the way the mattress ads promised.
I miss those days of wondering. Now I know that I would fall through and land in a treetop soaking wet, because a single cloud can hold a ton of moisture (literally, a ton), divided into minuscule droplets of water or ice. The minute the weather forecast begins, I perk up like a terrier spotting a squirrel, listen with furrowed brow, give up and let the data wash over me, then ask my husband or phone an hour later, “What’s the forecast again?”
I want to be able to look up at the sky and know something. Even the names of the clouds would be a start. Life seems so insulated—we travel in metal enclosures, tell Alexa to climate-control our house, move from garage to hermetically sealed office tower and back again. Yet weather is not remote: It touches roughly $1.3 trillion of the U.S. economy. We use it as a metaphor for our mind, our moods, our luck. Bosses thunder at us and ruin our sunny disposition. Bad stock market reports are introduced with a few bars of “Stormy Weather,” even though rainmakers can improve those numbers. Corporations alternate between brainstorming and blue-sky thinking. We scorn fair-weather friends and freeze out rivals. Cloud computing is the future, yet we worry when a mind is clouded, a brain fogged.
Fog is, it turns out, just a sunken cloud. There are all sorts of cloud types; meteorologist Jon Carney of the National Weather Service’s St. Louis office showed us pictures. Cirrus, a word used in the eighteenth century for a tendril of hair, names wisps of white that float high in the sky and signal fair weather (high air pressure). Cumulus means a heap or accumulation; these are the puffy clouds we tend to doodle. They form when the surrounding air is warmer: Convection currents bubble the air up like a convection oven puffing pastry. Cumulonimbus adds the Latin nimbus, which means a rainstorm. (It also, in an intriguing contrast, means the sort of shining light thought to surround deities when they walk among us.) Stratus is flat cloud cover; an overcast day. Mammatus clouds are a quilt of protrusions so round, they make their name self-explanatory.
Anvil clouds happen (this I learned from a nephologist, a cloud expert, on the awesome podcast Ologies) because the stratosphere is too stable to penetrate. The cloud rises, then has to flatten out beneath that uncompromising ceiling. Clouds are white because they scatter sunlight equally in all directions, preserving that rainbow of colors that creates white light. Rain clouds darken into gray because they are so heavy and dense with moisture, it blocks the light. Clouds take on a greenish cast when they are ready to slingshot hail at your new car. Hail means the conditions are right for a tornado but does not guarantee one.
Carney flashes up photographs, testing us. Flanking lines—cumulus clouds that stairstep their way neatly upward to a storm tower. Wall clouds, which descend abruptly and just might spin off a tornado. Shelf clouds, extending from horizon to horizon on the leading edge of cooling rain. (If it winds up “raining cats and dogs,” we might thank the Greek phrase cata doxa, referring to something far beyond our previous experience, the nephologist explained. And if we were on Saturn, the experience really would be beyond experience: Lightning storms turn methane gas into carbon, so it can rain diamonds.)
Weather is especially interesting in the Midwest, Carney tells us, so eager and earnest that I force myself to stop comparing storms and tornados to a rain of diamonds. I do love the suspense of darkening skies and whip of wind; the drumroll of the first hard, cold drops; the crack and cymbal clash of thunder; the freshness of rainwashed, translucent air. “There’s nothing between us and the Gulf of Mexico but the Ozark Mountains,” he points out, “and nothing between us and the Arctic but a wire fence.”
Jotting notes, I feel a tingle of awe. All this has been happening over my head for more than half a century. Grand battles between cold fronts and the warm air that tries to rise above them. Air pressure rising and falling, precipitation gathering and then bursting forth. Had I known what I was seeing, a simple glance at the sky would have told me more than my dazed brain ever gleaned from all that data rattled off on TV or mapped in neon online.
After class, I buy my first pair of galoshes. Shiny black with red trim, very Tommy Hilfiger. I want to splash through puddles; squelch my way around campus; walk to and from MetroLink stations; stop making excuses to a sad dog and walk him, too. I want to feel the weather.