Wonderful Weather

Posted by Arlo on Jul 16, 2004 under Life of Arlo

A smoky haze in the distanceWhat’s up with me? The weather outside is stunning and I haven’t been aprovechandolo for my ‘blog writing. I’ve been respectfully busy since getting back from my vacation, but not that busy. I don’t know what it is. I really would rather be outside on days like this, but for some reason it just feels like it would be taxing…

Maybe it’s because of the smoky haze. Mike and I were talking about it the other day and he mentioned that even though it was sunny and warm, he was having a hard time thinking about it as such. Truthfully, at the height of the Yukon fires, it did seem rather overcast all day. Me? I kinda liked it. Funny that it took a firestorm to remind me how clear the air is up here, too. On a normal day in Southeast Alaska you can see all the way to the horizon (if you can find a view without a mountain in the way). Florida? Too humid/hazy. Los Angeles? Nice sunsets, but oh, so brown! During this brief week, the combination of sunny weather and ash-ridden air has shown us all how wonderfully depthful a mountain range can be when its distant peaks are desaturated into grey.

I heard on the news today that we could be in for another thunderstorm!

That may not be all that exciting to most people, but I really love thunderstorms. Apparently when I was a young ‘un, they terrified me. But my grandmother resolved to teach me the beauty inherent in nature’s storms and whenever a thunderstorm began to roll in, she would take me out on the porch and we’d watch right up until the first raindrops fell. To this day, whenever I see those first flashes or hear the sharp crack of thunder, I drop what I’m doing and go outside. I’ve lived in Juneau for 10 years and I can count the number of times that’s happened here on two fingers.

This summer, in North Carolina, I got to sit out on the porch and watch at least one storm roll by. Nothing fancy, just one of those thunderheads that build over the farmlands on a hot, still day and then quickly roll out to sea in the evening. The only thing worth noting was that a particularly large bolt of lightning split the sky, perhaps only a quarter mile away from us, and struck the ocean. A house blocked our view of the impact point, but my grandfather, my cousin, and I all happened to be looking just in the right direction. A single pillar lanced downward, pulsed in and out of existence for perhaps a full second, then disappeared. In its wake, for the barest instant (but more than enough time to fix your eyes upon it), we saw hundreds of paisley worms of burning light, coiling and writhing in the vacuum left behind the bolt’s vertical path.

The thunder was loud and immediate, but because we happened to be looking right at the nearby lightning bolt, it didn’t especially startle us. I get a thrill seeing lightning that close, one that’s rarely motivated by fear. I wish my grandmother had forced me to play with spiders.

After North Carolina, I spent a week in Florida and witnessed even more thunderstorms. I remember well the summer storms that occurred each afternoon from years that I lived in Ft. Lauderdale. Daytona Beach is still within “Lightning Alley” and I was fortunate enough to see four more good storms in the seven days that I spent there. One in particular stands out from the others, perhaps because we watched its massive thunderhead roll over the inland waterway from a restaurant at the top of a 20-story building. Later that evening, as the black clouds boiled out to sea, Oksana and I watched the last strokes of lightning pierce the ocean waves from the dry safety of our condo’s floor-to-ceiling window.

When we came back to Juneau at the end of June, I expected that would be the last thunderstorm I’d see for another year or so, at least. Southeast Alaska never seems to get the right combination of clashing weather fronts that produce all that static electricity. Then again, we don’t usually get temperatures in the mid-80s for two weeks in a row, either.

I had picked up a hint or two about the current heat wave via e-mail while on vacation, but I didn’t think much about it (except to lament that it was yet another reason our vacation was planned at the exact wrong time). When we came in, the weather at the Juneau airport was nothing out of the ordinary – definitely not sunny. We were even forced to abort our first landing attempt on account of some low-hanging clouds. It wasn’t raining that Sunday afternoon, but the sun and heat that everyone had been raving about was certainly gone.

That night, jet-lagged about as much as you might expect, we went to bed rather early –- only to be jolted awake at midnight by a deafening boom followed by a rattling vibration running through our apartment. Perhaps because I had just spent two weeks gawking at thunderstorms, the possibility of an earthquake never even entered my mind.

I sat up quickly, and the vibrations kept going on long enough for Oksana to experience them after I woke her up. As the clattering of our miscellaneous household items died down and our heart beats settled back to normal rhythms, we decided to get up, get dressed, and go watch from the porch.

Oksana made it front door before I did and opened it just in time to see a bolt of lightning split the sky over Auke Bay. Thunder rumbled, echoing off the mountains, and three out of our four neighbors joined us on the deck. In the next half hour, we saw witnessed a few flashes of lightning and listened to the booms echoing endless through the mountains around us. As Oksana (and our neighbors) gave into exhaustion and went back to bed, I found myself alone on the porch wondering how close that first strike must have hit for it to have been so loud.

As the storm rapidly moved away to the west, I resolved to stay out until I got to see at least one more big bolt light up the sky. Half an hour after the first one woke me, I got my wish: Five miles or so away, a huge burst of blue light radiated out from a thick, jagged line. It was far away, but it was a good one. I expected to hear a modest amount of thunder rumbling in the seconds afterwards.

When it finally reached our apartment, its force surprised me. Again, the sound was loud enough to have physical strength – I felt the floor underneath me shake and I heard, if anything, even more items shaking in our home. I had been much, much closer to the lightning strike in North Carolina and, while loud, it was nothing in comparison this one!

My first thought was that it much be the mountains. But that doesn’t make sense – how could the initial sound have been amplified by the reverberations off the mountains lining the bay? It’s obvious that they account for the seemingly endless echoes (very cool!), but I couldn’t think of any sound reason why that would increase the volume of the thunder in the first place. Perhaps it has something to do with the air; Juneau’s is far less humid than North Carolina’s… I could imagine that that, combined with wind direction, perhaps, contributed to the difference in decibels. It’s still a mystery (to me), but it sure does make me wish we would get thunderstorms more often than once every five years!

As I write this entry, perched across two chairs in the middle of our campus’ grassy courtyard, I scan the sky for any indication of the forecasted thundershowers. In all directions, 360 degrees, there’s only a perfect, unbroken blue. This spring we had almost two solid months of sunny weather, a veritable heat wave in June, and a fine, albeit smoky week that’s culminated in the 85 degree air surrounding me now. I predict that this will be one of those years that, for the next decade, the people of Juneau will refer to in sentences that start out: “Remember that summer when…” Like most folks up here, I would never pray for an end to the sunshine, but that doesn’t stop me from harboring a secret desire to see another storm.

Look at me, talking about the weather when I have a backlog of important things I want to write about! What is this, the online equivalent of small talk? Man, it’s like a conversation in an elevator… except that I’m the only one along for the ride. And don’t think I don’t know who farted, either!