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Weather Almanac for June 1998
Comes The Rain and Thunder
Outside, a gentle rain falls, as uniform as the slate grey sky above. The breeze blows gently but does not cool as the air hangs humid and thick over all; conditions not conducive to extreme exertion. The summer-long din of children at play is hushed this day as they seek indoor recreation. No human body reclines beneath the current of solar radiation in the modern act of sun-worship. The day is not one of action but one of contemplation.
Astronomically speaking, the summer season is that period of time between the summer solstice and the vernal equinox. I look on the summer season in solar energy terms rather than solar position or air temperature. To me, the summer solstice is mid-summer. However, each person has their own definition of the season: the period when the beaches are open, the fishing season or the baseball season or the sun-tanning season, and thus summer has a very intimate relationship with each of us. We hold in our memories a hot, hot day at the beach, multicolored flower gardens, a thunderstorm, the whopper that got away, the summer love now long in the past.
My most vivid summer memories occurred during my mid-teens. One summer in particular would shape the course of my academic and career pursuits for the next three decades; it was the year of my first love affair -- with the sky. During that season, some deep curiosity surfaced to seek the ways and nature of the weather -- an interest inspired by thunderstorms.
The spark flamed in the skies of northern Illinois, my boyhood home. That particular summer was unusual in its frequency of gentle thunderstorms. The region can be the crossroads of some of the wildest thunderstorms. But this summer, they were gentle. Winds associated with them were light, at times non-existent. The rain falling from them too was gentle, thus enabling me to keep closely pressed to the open window, allowing all my senses to partake of the experience. The late hour of their occurrence, just past midnight in those years when most went to bed before then, meant that I had the world virtually to myself. No glaring lights nor blaring television sets, no automobile lights to break the magic of the night's stillness.
By mid-summer I had learned to glean from the weather reports and the crackle of static over the radio, the best moment to begin my storm watch. Comfortably seated in front of my bedroom window, I gazed into the western sky. The stillness of the evening was interrupted only by the chirp of the cricket chorale and the rhythmic tap of steel on steel as freight trains roamed through the night along the distant tracks.
Eventually on the western horizon, flashes in the sky announced the entrance of the cloud line. Shortly the low rumble of thunder could be heard. The outflow of air from the thunderhead itself rustled through the leaves of the giant elms lining our street. As the line of storms approached, the lightning changed from sheet lightning, bolts hidden from direct view and reflected off the surface of the clouds, to various patterns of streak or forked lightning.
I believe that the forms of streak lightning bolts are as unique in their brief existence as are the snowflakes of winter. No two are exactly alike. Bolts expand from cloud to ground, to other clouds or to other portions of the same cloud in an attempt to alleviate the over-concentration of electrical charge. At times, the repeated use of a preferred channel became visual to my slowly reacting eyes. Contrary to folk wisdom, lightning can strike twice in the same place, in fact it does so an average of 25 times in each lightning strike we see.
Theory, however, at that point did not overshadow my fascination with a lightning bolt crossing my view from left to right with several obliquely slanting forks. The path was retraced moments later by the crack and rumble of thunder as the air expanded under the hot bolt. The sounds from each bolt comprised a chord that merged into the orchestral symphony of other bolts traversing their allotment of sky.
Then the rains came. Softly at first, sweet-smelling rains that settled in the dust on the road. The drops pattered through the branches and leaves and thumped on the cement of walks and metal of cars, providing the staccato background for the storm sonata. The long, mournful wail of the freight whistle finding a solo voice enhanced the mood of the night.
Finally, the storm passed, speaking ever more softly as it rolled eastward. The hour now late, I too drifted off, to the world of sleep.
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