Natural navigator Tristan Gooley says the meteorologists have their limits, and wants to give the power of prediction to the people
The developments in professional forecasting have led to a strange relationship between ourselves and the weather. First, most people have lost the belief that we can look at the weather as the source of its own forecast. Second, weather has become detached from its home: the land. There is now an imbalance between how professionals describe weather and how we experience it. You will have noticed that TV and internet forecasts contain vast swirls that cover entire regions. It might take five hours to drive across a single forecast region, yet we experience weather on a much smaller scale.
If a meteorologist speaks of ‘showers’ in conversation, I like to ask whether it will rain in my back yard. This often prompts a laugh, because they know all too well where I’m going: they know the limits of their approach. If the hundred best meteorologists in the world borrowed a hundred of the world’s most powerful computers, they would still struggle to work out exactly where a predicted shower will fall tomorrow. And they will concede total defeat if they don’t know the landscape intimately. These are wise people and they are doing amazing things, but when it comes to the scale in which we actually experience the weather, they are up against it. A forty-eight-hour forecast was deemed impossible in 1865 and forecasting accurately on a small scale remains impossible for computers that don’t know the land.
The same need not be true for those of us who rely on our senses. We may struggle to predict shifts in weather trends five days ahead, but we can often tell exactly where rain will fall later in the day. For two reasons we have an unfair advantage over meteorologists in this game. First, they are catering to thousands over a wide area, while we are more interested in how the weather affects us than anyone in a neighbouring county. Second, they treat the weather mainly as an atmospheric phenomenon but we experience it as creatures of the land it envelops. A person sensitive to their landscape is granted powers of understanding denied to machines… We live in cities, on hills, in valleys, by the coast, in woods, on islands. We live in a landscape that is shaped by the weather and in turn shapes the weather. Woodlands lead to more rain, which helps many tree species to live in that space, and the cycle is strengthened. Woods are a basic sign that rain is more likely there than in the nearby area without trees. And the rain we feel changes as we walk from one tree species to the next.
A small, flat island has different weather from a neighbouring large, hilly one. And that larger island experiences different weather on each side. Viewed from above, many islands are completely different colours on either side: one side receives nearly all of the rain and the other almost none. On the same day we might find sunbathers sizzling on the dry south-west coasts of the Canary Islands, but rain-soaked plants on the opposite north-east.
The more we zoom in to any landscape the more striking the shifts we find. The climate on two sides of an 800-metre-high ridge in the Swiss Jura mountains is so different that two separate ecosystems almost touch each other. Trees that need warm conditions, like downy oak, are found on the south slope, and subalpine species, like Alpine pennycress, on the north. The two environments are separated by a ridge that is only 50 centimetres wide. In climate terms we can walk across a change similar to 1000 kilometres in latitude or 1000 metres in altitude in a single step. And that, by definition, means that the weather is, on average, wildly different over such small distances, too, and predictably so.
The difference in climate between the north and south sides of juniper bushes in temperate zones of the US and Europe is as stark as that between desert and a northern forest. Scientists found that the microclimate around these bushes varied by the same amount over a few metres as the broader climate did over 5000 kilometres. When exploring these bushes our arms can stretch across a continent of weather.
I must emphasise that these are not theoretical differences, not just academic facts or measurements. Microclimates reveal average and probable weather conditions, but they also dictate them. They give us clues to what we will experience. Once we recognise how habitats reflect and change the weather, it is exciting to predict, then feel those changes… Forecasters have developed an amazing understanding of the weather on the large scale: they have given us a ‘known world’ of big weather. They have done great work that has saved countless lives. But it has had some unintended consequences: their success has led us to think of the weather on a scale far larger than the one we inhabit.
In this book we will explore the clues and signs that unlock the weather we experience in the towns and out among the trees and hills. Some of these signs point to large-scale events and overlap with the known world of meteorologists, but most are nestling in the landscapes we inhabit. And quite a few are within touching distance. This is the secret world of weather.
Watch “A Drink with Tristan Gooley and Bill Anderson” here.