Shall We Pray for a Hurricane?

Is it really weird to pray for a hurricane? My mother used to. Frustrated gardener that she was, she was positive that somehow, some way, those on the Western Shore were hogging all the rain and she was sure this would continue all summer unless a hurricane showed up to save the day.

Every summer, gardeners across the Shore wonder, as she was sure was true, does it really rain more on the “mainland” than here on the Eastern Shore? Seems like, to those scrambling to get water to desperately thirsty veggies, that there’s always more rain “over there.”

Is it just grumpy gardeners’ perceptions? According to Dr. Walker Skeeter, a climatologist in Salisbury, it’s generally true.

Climatologically speaking, summer storms weaken as they pass over the Chesapeake Bay.

“I grew up watching weather radar on TV,” he explains, “noticing that storm systems seem always to weaken by the time they get to the Eastern Shore.” Skeeter’s brother, another Salisbury native and also a climatologist, figured out that the Chesapeake Bay can weaken storms; Dr. Skeeter moved that knowledge forward with carefully mapped ongoing observational data, eventually commanding a doctorate with his studies.

“It doesn’t happen with every single storm,” Walker says, “but the findings of my dissertation are that more often than not, the storm events on the Eastern Shore are weaker east of the Bay than west of it.”

For the meteorologically challenged (most of us), wind results from temperature/pressure differences. Warm air is less dense, or “thick,” than cold air. You can grasp this; think about a life without heat or air conditioning. In the winter, it’s cold, and you snuggle with your loved ones (including your dogs). In the summer, when it’s hot, you want lots of room around you. Anybody who tries to snuggle is likely to be thrown off with a shriek. The average molecule (atoms stuck together) acts just like us humans, moving closer together when it’s cold and further apart when it’s warm.

Tightly packed molecules, which happens in cold, are far denser than those struggling to keep as far away from anybody else as possible. When air is cold, it’s more dense than warmer air.

Being packed tightly together is tough on anybody, including a molecule. All pressed together, they’re looking about for some way to get a little more room to breathe – and, suddenly there’s Shangri-la, a nice warm area to move in on and stretch out. Can you blame the cold, tightly packed, dense air for leaping at the chance to move into the warm vacation?

The ongoing attraction of warm air to cold, dense air creates the weather fronts we’re used to seeing on the Weather Channel. Since the cold, dense air rushes as fast as it can to the warmer area, wind results. So does a “storm front,” which is what we are familiar with. The storm front is where a wedge of cold air pushes forward, and, like a sumo wrestler facing a lightweight, it wins. The cold, dense air moves forward relentlessly, while the warm, “lighter” air floats atop it.

Okay! Storm fronts happen. How come they don’t seem to happen in the summer on the Eastern Shore? Blame the Bay.

Dr. Skeeter theorizes that, due to the essentially flat, low friction surface of the Chesapeake Bay compared to the mountains, trees, and buildings of the land west of the Bay, the wind close to that surface can move faster over the water than it did on the mainland.

The wind moves so fast over the water that the air essentially “stretches out” the lower sections of the storm. At the same time, the winds at higher altitudes don’t always change. Like a house divided that cannot stand, the storm begins to break up. By the time the storm reaches the Eastern Shore, it’s just not the entity it was on the mainland.

While it would take computer modeling to prove the theory, it’s very clear from observational data that this effect is strongest in summer. Spring and fall allow more “even” storm distribution. Amazing what climatology can prove, isn’t it? Thousands of gardeners’ perceptions proved by careful observation and analysis of data.

Oddly, the ability to study points on a map and note differences that can make a difference is what led Dr. Skeeter to his current job. On the face of it, clouds and crime are in no way related. And yet, Dr. Skeeter is a valuable employee for the city of Salisbury, where he grew up. In his “City Employee” guise, Dr. Skeeter is a data analyst. Working mainly with crime data, he nails down points in Salisbury where “hot spots,” interesting to police, occur.

Every city has neighborhoods. Every so often, a neighborhood suddenly has an outbreak of crime; similarly, even the most placid of climates, like ours, has an outbreak, a huge storm, a hurricane, a snow event for the records. Trained for 11 years, Walker is equal to the storm of crime events that might occur in a city like Salisbury.

He plots addresses where crimes have occurred. Using magical number crunching and map skills earned by studying the weather, he can produce maps that show where there’s been an uptick in crime, which allows the police to monitor that neighborhood more closely. This results in much greater safety for the residents and proprietors of that neighborhood.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about points on a map,” Walker remarks, “tracking crime trends is similar to plotting climate data.” Both utilize similar sets of statistical techniques to draw meaningful conclusions from the data.

Skeeter’s skills were tested – oddly – before his doctorate, just as the world shut down due to the COVID pandemic. While studying for a particularly daunting climate physics exam with a group of other panicked students who all feared failing the course, COVID was discovered in the building next door to the building they were madly studying in.

“Never,” Skeeter chuckles, “was a group of people so happy to hear a pandemic had been declared.” The campus was closed directly after that announcement. User-friendly online testing resulted, which allowed a far greater success rate with the course in question.

Dr. Skeeter loves his job, partly because it brought him home to Salisbury, but also because he feels he really helps the community.

“I help the city utilize limited resources efficiently,” he explains. “Tracking crime trends is more similar to plotting climate data than one might think.”

In his leisure moments, Walker enjoys growing peppers – the hot varieties – and, of course, following meteorological (weather) data. But, if you’ve wondered why it seems that every summer is a dry, dry, dry, summer…this is it. Blame the Bay.

Maureen Rice is a naturalist/gardener living in Talbot County. She is the author of “Not! Your Granny’s Garden.” Email notyourgrannysgarden@explodingcoder.com to receive the blog straight to your inbox.

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