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Essayist Shares Thoughts on Weird Winter Weather

February 6, 2007 at 9:26 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

METEOROLOGIST: Big Arctic air mass up here. Big Trout Lake is 20 below zero…

NANCY GIBBS, Time Magazine: “Climate is what we expect,” Mark Twain warned. “Weather is what we get.”

So far in 2007, if you’re a Hill Country Texan, you get to see what it’s like to drive your car on a luge run. If you’re Mel Gibson or Barbra Streisand, you get the world’s most expensive neighborhood bonfire, courtesy of low humidity and fierce Santa Ana winds that raked through Malibu, followed two weeks later by the first snow in decades.

WOMAN: It’s so cold!

NANCY GIBBS: If you’re a snowshoe hare in New England, you get eaten because you had — on schedule — turned from brown to white, but there’s no snow to blend into, so you’re as visible to predators as stars on night.

This has been the warmest New England winter in a century, the most snowy in the Great Plains in years, and then there’s the ice. It leaves all creatures great and small off balance and out of tune.

In some regions, the temperature floated 20 degrees above normal, not just for a single illicitly sunny day, but for weeks at a time before skidding into the single digits. Bears were not hibernating, the geese not flying south. There were crocuses in New Jersey and peach trees blooming in Maryland, and the gulls swirled sloppily over the huge unused salt piles, as runners loped along New York’s rivers in a city that has not been this snowless since 1877.

Before the ice storms, Midwestern farmers worried that the weeds and poison ivy would be fierce this spring because they weren’t killed off by the normal frosts.

Cold works that way, an anesthesia and antiseptic, slowing us down into a winter rhythm of longer books and hotter tea. But this year, we don’t quite know where we are or what time it is.

The first week of January, an outdoor pool was open in Washington, while drivers in Denver dodged avalanches and kids in Nebraska did homework by flashlight after storms unplugged their town. By the third week, California’s oranges glimmered like Christmas ornaments while strawberries turned into daiquiris on the vine.

Growers talked about their trees looking pale, stressed, the leaves curled in alarm. Also visibly stressed were the dolphins lured into a Long Island cove by plentiful fish in the warm waters; they had to be escorted out to sea before the cold snap came. It’s easy to get lost when geography wrinkles and the tropics come to us.

Meteorologists are crackling with theories: It’s the strong west-to-east jetstream flow; the cyclical ocean currents; El Nino; it’s the sunspots adding energy to the storms in the Northwest and the Rockies.

There are things to welcome about this odd clanging of the seasons: money saved on snow removal; a bonus day spent playing at home because flights were grounded; the near certainty of surprise when you step out the door in the morning.

“A change in the weather,” Proust observed, “is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” For now, we recreate ourselves every day, wrap up in a parka, but keeping our flip-flops handy, improvising snow days and lazy summer afternoons.

I’m Nancy Gibbs.