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The Other News Round-Up: Talking about the Weather

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the lesser-reported happenings from South Africa and elsewhere. This week: there’s something in the weather.

Something has happened in South Africa, and elsewhere for that matter. You no longer risk being the party’s walking snooze-fest if you start talking about the weather. Suddenly everybody’s talking about it. There are even people dreaming about it. The other night I had a nightmare that I ran a bath, for crying out loud. A friend’s mum dreamt she drained the pool and thought about filling it up (gasp). This is what Capetonians are reduced to now.

And it’s not just us. Droughts, hurricanes, floods, El Niño, La Niña and all their little bambinos, whatever they may be. Weather is competing with dirty politicians for a place at the dinner table. In my humble opinion, it’s in with a shot.

It’s taken a while for the mainstream population to catch up. There has been a small, serious population of – how shall we put this – undeniably brave but incomprehensible storm chasers documenting extreme weather for yonks. If you’ve ever dived into the underbelly of trash TV you may have seen the dramatic intro jingle of Storm Chasers, but honestly, reality TV doesn’t do these folks justice. Celebrated storm chaser and engineer Tim Samaras died in a record-breaking tornado in 2013, alongside several colleagues, prompting AccuWeather’s Mike Smith to write in the New York Times, “Storm chasing is a noble pursuit that has yielded tremendous benefits to American society.”

I got a bad feeling in my stomach. Disasters only reveal a portion of their damage in real time,” wrote meteorologist Jesse Ferrell of the night Samaras died. “You know what I hope, though? I hope that we find out that Tim Samaras left a dozen of his Tornado Probes in the path of the El Reno twister, and it tracked over every one of them. And that they provide researchers and meteorologists with an epic collection of videos and data, helping us to finally crack the mystery of why tornadoes form, ushering in a new era of longer-range tornado forecasting that allows for lives to be saved.” Even South Africa has its own community of extreme weather watchers and photographers.

New Scientist’s Michael Marshall, interviewing rainfall pattern scholar Frank Marks, writes: “Marks is part of a disparate community of researchers who specialise in extreme weather and its effects on society. Thanks to human-made climate change, events like storms, heat waves and floods are on the rise, and there is growing demand for people who understand these phenomena and can advise the rest of us on how to handle them.” The need for them, in other words, is growing. We’re looking for people to help us talk about the weather.

So what exactly is all this whacky weather? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got droughts, floods and hurricanes coming out of my ears (especially droughts) and yet there are still reams of odd details that sometimes make headlines, and other times simply disappear into the universal file of miscellaneous oddities. For example: last week’s red sun, which had our more gullible cousins in the UK declaring a rapture or the next Star Wars instalment (one’s never quite sure), was really an after-effect of Ophelia, with dust and tropical air originating somewhere near the Sahara being dragged along by hurricane-force winds and sucked high into the atmosphere. Because the dust was so high up, light from the sun was scattered in longer wavelengths – more the red part of the spectrum – and so appearing red to the eye. Snaps to the weather watchers for clearing that one up.

Or lenticular clouds, nicknamed UFO clouds for the number of times they are mistaken for spaceships by over-excited earth-dwellers. (Thanks again.)

A year or two back, National Geographic reported on what it poetically called “birth of a blob”, namely a strange warming of a stretch of water in the Indian Pacific. The publication linked what it termed “a lot of weirdness” that researchers had yet to explain: the California drought, the mass death of baby sea lions washing up on shores unexplained, the appearance of tropical fish in Alaska. Researchers at that time were not convinced climate change was the culprit. (Provisional thanks. We’ll reserve judgement until there’s something a bit more specific than “blob”, maybe.)

By far my favourite: animal rain, although to be fair probably less fun for the animals. Turns out when it rains fish, frogs or insects, it may be every bit as dramatic as in Fargo but slightly less hazardous. Some of said animals may even survive and can be rescued and rehabilitated after tornadoes and waterspouts suck them up and drop them to earth again (lesson in resilience). In 1957, thousands of fish, frogs and crayfish fell from the sky during an Alabama rainstorm, and the no doubt rather surprised survivors were placed in ponds and swimming pools. (Now you know.)

But aside from wonder at what this constantly surprising world will deliver next, what niggles is the disquieting idea that it’s not always the dramatic storms bringing the biggest disaster. And this is where we need the wisdom of those diverse yet equally valuable weather interpreters the most, because some of the things not getting the most airtime may turn out to be pretty important. For example: droughts are bad for some animals and good for others. Livestock dying and national park animals being killed is one side of the coin. The other is pests breeding like crazy. Poor sanitation? Problem.

Again looking at drought: there’s the fact that a lot of animals get just plain thirsty. Earlier in 2017, Professor Michael Samways, from the insect conservation unit at Stellenbosch University, pointed out that people may spot more cockroaches in the home. He noted (bless him) that roaches and other pests could be getting respite from the heat and moisture from crumbs or particles of food. “The banana peel is a lovely pool of water and they can take up moisture from it,” he said sympathetically.

Perhaps more worrisome than the humble cockroach is the prospect of snakes, spiders, rodents or feral cats (I’m a dog person. The prospect of hundreds more yowling, murderous fuzzballs in the neighbourhood does nothing for me. Judge me, I dare you.) During California’s severe recent drought, CBS News reported that a Sacramento man who ran a rattlesnake-removal business took 72 rattlesnakes out of private homes in a week. At the time, reports stated that with fewer water sources, rodents are drawn to homes, luring carnivorous snakes. Similar reports added that spiders, including poisonous ones, will be looking for shelter more than usual in the hot, dry weather. And did we mention rodents? Although – if this report is correct – perhaps an upsurge in feral cats due to hot weather will also balance the rodent population. (Fingers crossed.) Adding to the grim list was a warning to take precautions against an increased risk of rabies.

So consider this a salute to those strange, wonderful souls who dedicate their lives to explaining these phenomena. Never mind the weather? Ha. DM


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