Though we still have yet to experience that first widespread snow in the lower elevations, we’ve been fortunate to have finally received a nice string of storms during the past week, bringing much needed precipitation to the region. Nearly half an inch of rain fell last Monday in Coeur d’Alene, along with wind gusts up to 44 mph. Spokane saw a peak gust of 45 mph, while a weather station in Bonners Ferry measured 47 mph. Additional rainfall has fallen since Monday, but totals were not available when this article was written.
When the weather starts to get more interesting, people talk about it more, and oftentimes weather even makes the headlines. Lately I’ve noticed a lot of weather misinformation floating around, not only amongst the general public, but in the media and even in science lessons taught at school. A couple of months ago I read a news headline on a local Web site which said that “snow, sleet and hail” had hit the area. That kind of weather news definitely caught my attention, especially since it would have been highly unlikely, if not physically impossible for that to have really happened during the same day in this region. What likely happened, is that only two types of precipitation fell, but three different people called it three different things. Hail and sleet are formed by two completely different processes, under vastly different meteorological conditions.
I remember when I was a meteorology student at the University of Oklahoma. The movie “Twister” was out, and a bunch of us went to check it out. We had fun watching the movie and picking out all the scientific and meteorological “mistakes” that were in the dialogue and special effects. Of course one couldn’t be too critical, as it was just a movie and meant for entertainment. There were probably folks, however, who saw the movie and assumed that all the meteorology stuff was based on reality. I bet my experience was similar to doctors who watch “E.R.” or “Grey’s Anatomy” on television, or for folks in law enforcement who watch “C.S.I.” Though I’m sure writers of those programs try to make the scenarios as realistic as possible, some stuff gets overlooked or thrown in for dramatic effect.
What really bothers me, though, is when I see the science materials that get handed to my children from school. There is usually a lesson on weather, and though I know you can’t get too fancy explaining complex meteorological processes to elementary school kids, I don’t think it’s right to simplify something to the point where the information is not correct. My second-grader brought a “weather” book home from school last week. It stated that clouds were made of water vapor. If that were the case, we would never be able to see the clouds at all. Clouds are made up of tiny water droplets, which condense from the invisible water vapor. Water vapor is the invisible gaseous form of water. Like the oxygen in the air we breathe, we cannot see it even though it is all around us. Likewise, the book explained that rain formed when the water droplets in the cloud bumped into each other, and grew in size until heavy enough to fall. That may be true in the tropical rain forest, but in the mid-latitudes that is not the case at all. Maybe I’m just being too sensitive and picky.
Finally, it looks like the first measurable snows for the valley locations (which is not formed when rain freezes by the way), could arrive this coming week along with some very chilly temperatures.