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Weather Almanac for March 1999
A MARCH PARADE OF WINDS>
When I think of March weather, I think mostly about the old saying: "In like a lion, out like a lamb." The focus of this adage is March storminess -- in particular, of course, the wind.
I lived most of my years in the Great Lakes Basin, and there a wide variety of weather can occur in any month, but March is generally one of the most volatile of the twelve. Part of the reason that March is so variable and blustery is the position of the Polar Front -- the boundary between the cold, dry air of the arctic and the warm, moist air of the tropics. It often lies across the Great Lakes basin in March, providing the highway for vigorous storms and invasion of warm air one day and bone-chilling cold the next. The clash of the two dichotomous air mass types spawns boiling thunderstorms and gusty winds: March's lion suit. (Yes, sometimes March wears a snow leopard skin as well.)
When the Polar Front lies over the region, the lion prevails. But sometimes the lion moves further north and the skies are populated by small fluffy cumulus (technically cumulus humilis) whose shape conjures further images of lambs.
I love March weather, especially watching the March winds blow. Hey, I love watching the wind in any month, but March winds have so many potential sideshows: thunder, lightning, snow, ragged clouds, pouring rain, fog. You never know which will be on stage, and like a three-ringed circus, March weather may have several elements performing at once.
To many, however, the wind is something invisible, felt, and at times heard, but not seen. How is it this man sees the wind? The secret is to watch its trail, see its footprints on the land, its playful teasing of water and tree, grasses and snow, smoke and debris.
My favourite device for wind-watching is that universal translator: the windsock. My current windsock is a colourful affair with multi-hued tail feathers and rainbow-striped body. It hangs from a hook on the bottom rim of the balcony above mine and is exposed to the southern sky, thus dance mostly to the baton of southerly winds as they bounce off the building face.
The past winter has seen the windsock very active. New choreography has arrived almost daily, delivered by an unending troupe of storm cells from the north Pacific, a true oxymoron this year. I am glad that my windsock never tires of its job, for it links me to the sky. From my desk I see it dance; at night while watching tv, it beckons me to turn my attention outdoors.
When I was younger, clotheslines hung with damp laundry were my first windsocks. I used to love lying beneath the drying sheets, smelling their cleanliness as they waved in unison and rippled in discord. Socks also provided interesting dances as the eddies of wind set them a jazzy beat.
When away from home, I love to watch the trees swaying in the wind. And not only do the species vary in their dance but there are also seasonal changes in them as the deciduous species shed their coverings in the annual autumnal strip-tease. In contrast, the coniferous clans often add a thick skirt of snow in winter, reducing the movement of their lower regions to a shimmy while their crowns lean to the left and right, swaying to the rhythm of the sky.
Water surfaces are also good translators of wind into the visual. Calm waters in the wind's absence are perfect mirrors but even the slightest zephyr sends ripples and cat's paws across the surface. Waves grow with the wind speed and jostle each other with each change in direction, finally putting on their white caps in the stronger blows and losing them in the gales.
Wintertime, particularly when the snow cover is dry, can show so much wind detail. Light falling flakes gyre and pirouette at the slightest change in the wind as they descend earthward. And when winds really blow, the already grounded flakes and crystals are again enticed to join the dancing, catching every detail of the wind's character: updrafts and down, swirls and eddies, gusts and lulls.
[Excuse the break in my thought, I had to go outdoors and release my windsock from a major predicament, an updraft eddy in the blowing gale had sent its tail skyward and it entangled in the balcony railing above.]
One of my favourite memories of visual wind translators occurred during high school when I turned my attention from a not-so-interesting lecture to the dance of dry leaves caught in a building vortex of a trapped wind stream. The leaves revolved and ascended the vortex axis while dancing to the smaller whirls before being tossed from the dance line at the top of the lift.
Oh, I have so many additional ways to watch the wind: plumes of smoke or condensed water vapour escaping from a chimney or smokestack, clouds of dandelion and milkweed fluff, soap bubbles from a child's play, clouds scattering beneath a gigantic storm cell. I have also seen what the wind looks like by watching it roll across wheat fields and meadows of tall prairie grasses, forming undulating land waves which never break.
Next time you have a moment, find yourself a comfortable location and watch the wind dance and whirl, gyre and frolic its way from high pressure to low, from cold to warm. If you are a regular wind watcher, enjoy all the nuances that you have come to see revealed in the wind flow. If you are a newcomer, watch for the many details in the performance. Pick a spot and concentrate on the small gestures of the wind. I think you will enjoy it and perhaps secretly hope that March's lion remains a little longer.
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