Evolution of a weather watcher

‘The times, they are a-changin’ ‘

Hickory Lake Scrub Preserve is in Polk County. Photo by Fran Palmeri

Yesterday, I woke up determined to get back on the road after weeks of hunkering down in air conditioning. Scrub morning glory was calling — it blooms this time of year at Hickory Lake Scrub in Polk County.

So after checking the weather in Frostproof, I arrived there after 97 miles of uneventful driving.

First thing every morning, I check the forecast on my cell phone — though I could just step outside to see what is happening. Old habits die hard. Before cell phones, there was the TV weather guy or girl, and before that, you could dial it up on your phone (WE6-1212) or hear the forecast on the radio.

Both scrub morning glory and sandlace are endangered Florida wildflowers. Photo by Fran Palmeri

In the ’60s, when I worked for the Washington Star, Hardin and Weaver on WMAL radio got sleepyheads like me off to work with their banter about weather and traffic (lots of accidents on the newly opened Washington Beltway), along with a five-minute science segment that served up “facts” such as “Spring travels north about 50 miles a day.” Every year I still picture “Spring” in filmy garments, casting flowers right and left as she makes her way north.

These days, wunderground.com is my source of information. In addition to its 10-day forecasts, I get radar, an almanac, air temperatures and water temperatures all over the state. Using the astronomical information, I can experience sunset (or sunrise) in all four stages: sunset, civil twilight, nautical twilight and astronomical twilight over the space of an hour-and-a-quarter. Phases of the moon are listed, so I hardly ever miss full moonrise through the pines at Oscar Scherer State Park.

I knew it would be hot at Hickory Lake, so I drank two large glasses of water before setting out on my walk, a trick I learned from living in the tropics. A little way into this small tract of desert-like habitat, I saw the morning glory spread out over burning sands. The blooms were just a tad wilted even though it was past noon. I only lasted an hour. When I got back to the van, the temperature gage read 108 degrees.

A cloudless sulfur butterfly nectars on scrub morning glory. Photo by Fran Palmeri

Florida cooks in summer, but it is definitely getting hotter. Drought is more common. Last winter, I watered plants in my yard to help them survive eight months of no rain and hot weather — in January it was 84 degrees. By May, the Myakka River had shrunk so much that wading birds were barely up to their knees, and in some places the alligators were in dry dock.

In June the rains — and flooding — started. I mostly stayed home. Thunderstorms, I once faced with aplomb, but twice last summer, I got caught in “weather events,” one under blue skies after Hermine passed by in the Gulf. A microburst — a torrential downpour with heavy wind and pinecones threatening to break the windshield — lifted the van off the ground. And then, lucky for me, set it back down again.

I have seen evidence of microbursts where they stripped bare and set fire to a patch of pines. Afterwards, I remembered weatherman Bob Harrigan’s warning: Blue skies after a tropical storm can be deceptive.

The second event: a horrendous hailstorm I was warned about and kept on going.

Summers are getting hotter in Florida. Photo by Fran Palmeri

Which brings me to Jeff Masters and Jim Henson. Their blog on wunderground.com reports up-to-the minute information about what is happening in the Atlantic Basin, where — in summer — tropical storms march west across the ocean. This duo also covers weather events countrywide and globally and places the information in context. Are rising temps part of a worldwide trend? What about drought, fire and floods? More important, these two scientists differentiate between weather events and climate change.

The Myakka River shrank to shallow pools in May. Photo by Fran Palmeri

This past year at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, Dr. Richard Jackson — who once headed up the National Center for Environmental Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — emphasized the expanded role weather forecasters play. “Meteorologists must show true diligence … We need them to be big picture thinkers who forecast as the Navy admirals do, way beyond the bow. “

Wildflowers — in this case, tickseed — bloom in the Myakka’s floodplain. Photo by Fran Palmeri

He ended his presentation with this question: “Will our grandchildren, and all grandchildren, berate us: ‘You should have known we were in grave danger; why didn’t you act in time to protect us?’”

“Protect not only ourselves but the whole of the planet” is what I am thinking as I photograph the scrub morning glory, so rare it is found in only a few places in Florida.

‘Gaping’ is a way to cool off.  Photo by Fran Palmeri
Storm clouds loom over the pine flatwoods. Photo by Fran Palmeri
Can we hold the Gulf back? Photo by Fran Palmeri

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