Last week I was reminded of something lofty that I had neglected during a year of graduate school study in global climate change policy: clouds. By clouds I'm not speaking of the question of how global climate models represent future changes in cloud cover due to warming, which is a major scientific concern, but rather I am referring to clouds in the simplest and everyday sense. Like many readers who lead busy lives, school caused me to forget to look up and take in the sky, read the clouds as clues, and appreciate them for what the U.K.-based Cloud Appreciation Society calls "the most egalitarian" of Mother Nature's displays.
The countless hours of library time that school demanded left me with little time to view the whims of the daily weather. Thunderstorms rolled through while I was in windowless classrooms. Snowstorms occurred as I wrote papers from a library wing dubbed the "Harry Potter Room" for its high wooden ceilings and imposing darkness. When I tried to sit in the main library area that had large windows overlooking the school's tennis courts, I became too distracted by the weather and couldn't get any work done, so I sequestered myself away from the sky. After a while I stopped missing the weather, and got used to my more earthbound existence.
There were even times when I left my apartment to go to class without (gasp!) even checking the latest National Weather Service forecast discussion, logging onto this website, or looking at the radar. I was just too busy. I was a weather geek cut off from the weather. As any weather aficionado will know, this was a recipe for depression.
Fortunately, the end of the school year arrived in early May, and last week the atmosphere and I got reacquainted. Our relationship is almost back to normal, although there are lasting bruises. In some ways we'll never be the same, but my relationship with the atmosphere is kind of like that couple you know that breaks up five times before deciding to get married. The love is there, it's just the commitment that takes a while.
As the long Memorial Day weekend began, I embarked on a long drive from Boston to New Jersey, and the trip reminded me of why I love weather. The day began cloudy and raw in Boston, with a low layer of ragged stratocumulus and nimbostratus. Small raindrops hit the windshield as my girlfriend and I pulled out of my barely off-campus apartment, headed for the strangely high-priced town of Princeton for a climate-related summer internship. As I got on the Mass Turnpike I thought that the drive would be challenging, because it's difficult to fight fatigue on a gray day with light rain falling. It wasn't even legitimate rain, which is interesting to drive in, but rather there were barely enough drops to wonder, "Is it raining out or is it just me?"
As we drove into Connecticut, the drab gray overcast broke up into a decidedly mixed sky. Stratocumulus and cumulus dominated, but there were also pieces of altocumulus, altostratus, and cirrus interspersed as well. A cold pool of air aloft, associated with an area of low pressure and an accompanied cold front, was making itself known. I soon spotted a young adult cumulus, one that clearly wanted to grow into a towering cumulonimbus, but wasn't quite sure how to do it yet. Its top tipped over into the stronger winds aloft and slightly warmer layer of air, stunting its growth. Its sheared top was disappointing to watch, since it signified a cloud that failed to reach its full potential.
As the drive continued and the day's rays of strong late spring "self destructive sunshine" heated things up a bit, heavier showers and thunderstorms formed. They were small, but given a dry layer of air in the mid levels and close to the surface, they contained sharply delineated rain shafts that faded dramatically as they fell towards the ground. The evaporation led to a cool and gusty outflow. One cell that we drove through had winds gusting to 40 mph or more, knocking my fully loaded Subaru hatchback out of its lane along I-95 in coastal Connecticut.
We crossed the border into The Garden State at around 4:00 p.m., and watched as an intense band of rain swiftly moved towards the Jersey shore. In a clear indication of the cold air aloft, the precipitation shafts of these cells shone a bright white, and a partial bright rainbow appeared near the ground.
Six hours after departing the Boston area, I finally pulled into my summer residence in quaint, upscale Princeton, where I plan to spend the summer pretending to be an Ivy Leaguer. The sky was clearing, and by this point was mainly comprised of debris clouds from the earlier convection. There were your cirros and altos, and smaller cumulus that were taking advantage of the last rays of sunshine.
All in all, the rather tedious day of driving turned out to be the best date that the atmosphere, my girlfriend, and I have had in a long time. I'm now back on board with the Cloud Appreciation Society's motto, "Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds!"