The United States Geological Service maintains an official rain gauge a couple hundred yards behind my house, which means that whenever it rains or snows, I don’t have to wonder how much we got: I can go online and find out.
In June, as New Mexico continued to be the droughtiest state in the nation and those predicted “scattered thunderstorms” missed our house entirely, I spent warm mornings raking up sad little piles of yellowed leaves from the cottonwood trees in our yard.
Still, I couldn’t stop going to the website to query our precipitation total. The answer again and again was 0.00 inch. I asked my USGS computer pal to calculate our personal rain total for the past six months: 1.5 inches.
Then the summer rains that we charitably call the monsoon began. The TV weather maps showed ponderous blobs of red and yellow lurking over the state day after day. All around town, the grass greened up. There were reports of flooding. We got mud puddles, mosquitoes and weeds. Moods began to rise along with the humidity.
Except at my house. And maybe at yours. Rain in New Mexico is a fickle friend. The sky has a way of getting our hopes up, rewarding some of us and leaving others dry.
And then, just around midnight on a day that will live in magnanimity, the weather show set up shop over my house and erupted in thunder and lightning. And for a glorious, sleepless couple of hours, it poured.
Just like that, we got a little more than 1.2 inches of rain and joined the ranks of happy New Mexicans. Less than 24 hours later, the storm dubbed the Burquecane and Hurricane Green Chile (even though it wasn’t a hurricane at all) struck all over town. Another 1.2 inches at my house. Our six-month total has now crept over 4 inches.
So it’s all good, right?
No. It’s still all bad.
In this summer of no rain, then lots of rain, I’ve been reading “Dust Bowl,” Donald Worster’s prize-winning chronicle of the 1930s in the Great Plains, and found some sobering comparisons to how 70 years later we deal with the dry times and the wet times.
The Dust Bowl wasn’t really a weather event; it was caused when dry weather occurred, but the dust clouds and sand hills happened because farmers had changed the plains landscape by plowing under grasslands that could have withstood drought and wind.
“Americans,” Worster writes, “blazed their way across a richly endowed continent with a ruthless, devastating efficiency unmatched by any people anywhere.”
He also makes the point that the farming country where the Dust Bowl settled in – Kansas, Colorado, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, and a slice of eastern New Mexico – is “next year” country. People stayed as conditions worsened because, however bad the weather, the crops, the economy or your health this year, the faith is that better days are around the corner.
The “next year” mentality comes in handy in challenging territory; perhaps it is born as a mechanism to survive. Like the Dust Bowl farmers, we manipulate the land with our gardens and lawns, and expect the weather to accommodate our desires. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, we set out the sprinklers and excite ourselves with the anomalies while relying on the promise of a future when things will get back to “normal.”
But does anyone know what normal is anymore?
I asked Kerry Jones of the National Weather Service in Albuquerque to put that wet, windy July 26 – the Friday that started with thunder and lightning and driving rain, and ended with wind and driving rain – in perspective for me.
The wind gust at the Albuquerque Sunport was 89 mph that day, the highest ever recorded there.
The amount of rain recorded in that 24 hours at the airport was 1.36 inches, a pittance compared with some parts of the Heights that got more than 5 inches, but also a record for that day. It helped to make this July the ninth wettest on record.
The lightning? It’s hard to measure and compare, but sensors detected about 1,000 lightning strikes in just a few hours. A weather service veteran said he’d never seen anything like it, and I think most of us who were awake would agree.
Exceptional drought, exceptional rain, exceptional wind and exceptional lightning. I asked Jones whether the weather is getting more intense, here and across the globe.
“I think there’s general agreement in a large body of peer-reviewed literature that we’re having more extreme events and extreme events are becoming more extreme,” he said.
Waiting for things to get back to “normal” in the era of global weirding could be a long wait.