Sunday, February 12, 2006

Column 10: What got me into weather...and what got you? (originally posted October 25, 2005)

As Wilma's remnants move past the southern Maritimes, I'm sitting here in awe of Mother Nature. I also found myself thinking that I'd like to write a column but don't have any inspiration.

Then I got to thinking about the job I have (as a meteorologist)--how much I love it, and how I sometimes lose my enthusiasm. And how I get back that enthusiasm: I remember why I got into this business in the first place.

So now it's story time. I hope when I'm finished, I can read your stories. I always find it interesting to hear how other weather weenies came upon their passion. (Addiction? Obsession?)

My grandparents lived outside of the town of Wynyard, Saskatchewan. It's a town of about 2000 people in the east-central area of the province, one which processes a huge amount of poultry. Chances are if you've eaten chicken in western Canada in the last 20 years, you've had chicken that was processed in Wynyard.

But I digress.

Where was I, anyway? Oh yeah. Every summer when I was growing up, our summer vacation would be to go out to the farm for a month. This was great, as it afforded myself and my 2 brothers to hang out with our cousins, who lived just outside of Toronto. We got to see how the other half lived.

So one summer, it was the summer of 1984, was special. Wynyard had just opened up its brand new outdoor swimming pool. (Previously, if we wanted to go swimming, we would have to go to Foam Lake.) Well, this one particular day was extremely hot and humid, so we wanted to go swimming. After lunch, the parents said.

After lunch, when the dishes were (finally) done up, myself and my 2 brothers, along with 2 of our cousins and our uncle, piled into the car, on our way to the Wynyard swimming pool.

Now, let me explain a bit better about how hot it was. Even 21 years later, I can still feel the heat baking my skin, as well as the oppressiveness that I didn't know how to describe at the time but I know know as high humidity. I can feel that clammy, uncomfortable warmth and estimate that the temperature and dewpoint were about 32 and 19. Pretty humid for Saskatchewan, but not overly so.

Again with the digressions, Dave.

We were driving north, on our way. Those puffy cumulus clouds were all around, creating the perfect (so it seemed) Saskatchewan summer day. Until it suddenly (it seemed) started to rain.

It seems we came upon a fairly vigourous cumulus, one that had grown into a cumulonimbus. There was very soon extremely heavy rain and lots of lightning.

But then something started to happen.

There was something else mixed in with the rain, and it was making splats on the window. Small hail.

Well, the "small" part didn't last for long. The small hail soon turned into medium-sized hail and then large hail, ending up about the size of golf balls.

And then it stopped.


It didn't taper off, like you'd usually expect. In the matter of a second, it went from golf balls pinging off the windshield to eerie calm.

That's when I saw it.

I looked out the window I was next to (on the left side), and saw something I will carry with me for the rest of my life: a funnel cloud.

When I say "funnel cloud" I mean it. This looked very much like a funnel--an inverted traffic cone, if you prefer. The main cloud base was about 2000 feet off the ground, and this protrusion extended about halfway from the main cloud base to the ground.

I sat there, transfixed, staring, in awe, almost inside myself. I now think that if someone had hit me, I barely would have noticed.

This scene didn't last for very long--maybe a minute. My uncle had seen what I had seen and floored the accelerator, albeit to no avail--the heavy rain and hail had turned the gravel road into a mud pit, and he only succeeded in making us fishtail a bit. But we were moving quickly enough that we were back in the hail inside a minute.

The hail did, once again, start, as big as it had been before. Then it got a bit smaller, and smaller, and smaller still, until it was indistinguishable from the rain. The rain then gradually let up and soon enough we were back under blazing sun, the only inklings of what we had just gone through being the dark cloud with the occasional lightning stroke extending downward from it, and the attendant lightning static on the (AM) radio.

We got to town about 20 minutes later but you could have fooled me. I didn't notice anything for the rest of the trip. I've heard this description about many things and I think it suits the situation nicely: it felt like a tactical nuke had been dropped on my head.

I never did end up going swimming that day. When we got to the pool I said as much. My uncle, who didn't (and doesn't, so far as I know) swim, was going to stay in the car so I decided to hang out with him. He asked why I now didn't want to go, and I think I gave him some cock-and-bull story about not wanting to get hit by lightning while swimming. That seemed to satisfy him and he didn't ask me about it again.

That was a lie, of course.

I sat in that car with my uncle, quiet as a mouse. You would be, too, if at the age of 9 you had figured out what your life's passion and career would be.

I had much more important things to think about than swimming.


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