The Daily: 23 March 23

Summer Finding: an Exercise in Speculative History

I have a note in my weather journal that March 23rd was observed in early Medieval Norse lands as Summer Finding. There is a corresponding Winter Finding as well, though it is moved further from the Autumn Equinox and deeper into winter. I can find no modern Pagans who lay claim to these calendar dates, so I can’t find much about them. Nor can I figure out where I found this reference. I suspect it was in a history book rather than a calendrical book, because I can’t look up 23 March in any of my references and find Summer Finding. (For the record, I have a shelf full of Norse and Viking history books and have read even more from the library. So… needle in a haystack, there…)

In my weather journal, I’ve called it the day that the summer season began. Norse peoples only had two seasons, summer and winter. I looked up day-length data for Norway and Sweden and discovered that the true vernal equinox — the spring 12-hour day — falls about now, but the changes are so rapid up north that the first day with at least 13 hours of sunlight happens before the end of March. So around the solar Vernal Equinox, the Nordic lands warm up very quickly, and setting the beginning of summer to this time seems logical. You could probably watch the rivers break up from one day to the next. In fact, I’ve read many fictional accounts of this happening and never completely grasped just how fast summer comes on up there!

So, if Summer Finding was a thing at all, it might have meant the meeting or gathering, the fundr, that took place at the beginning of summer. Think of it as a planning session before the planting — and viking — season. The old Nordic peoples were big into meetings. They held Things — ‘citizen’ gatherings and voting sessions — regularly for everything from deciding to create a new colony to complaining about Olaf’s wandering pigs. Findings might have been a bit less contentious, involving less debate and more rubber stamping whatever the planning committee cooked up, but Findings were probably larger and spread over a broader community than Things. I suspect that these two Finding days were the equivalent of Town Meeting days here in Vermont. If that’s true then there would be a Finding in each community and some effort would be made to coordinate all the results on a regional or national level.

If all this is true, then it makes sense that the Winter Finding is also the session that confirms plans for the upcoming winter. These plans would have included such things as how to divide up and store the harvest — and viking plunder, I suppose — and what animals needed to be slaughtered going into the dark season. It also makes sense that it happens a bit further from the equinox than the summer meeting. The change to darkness is just as rapid, but it always takes longer to cool down than to warm up. So the raiding and growing seasons might have continued until the fjords froze and there was not enough light to grow barley, oats and cabbages. So, closer to the 10-hour day mark — which is about when it happened.

I suspect both Finding dates also served to keep the Viking calendar in line with the seasons. They used a luni-solar calendar like the Celts. Most modern anthropologists and archeologists point out that there is little difference between ancient ‘Germanic’ and ‘Celtic’ peoples, so it was likely a very similar calendar. As it was customary to declare the beginning of the month whenever the moon’s crescent was first seen on the western horizon, so it is likely that the seasons were declared to begin when some distinguishing seasonal event happened. Perhaps it was the length of day; perhaps it was the thaw and freeze of crucial waterways. Maybe it was as simple as the sun rising over some marker like a mountain or a standing stone. Some person or committee had the task of watching for the event and declaring the change of seasons.

The Findings might have confirmed and coordinated these event sightings, a meeting to declare the summer season officially opened. If the Norse were like the Celts (who generally kept better notes on things, at least down south where they were Romanized), then the days leading up to the season’s beginning might have been a string of intercalary days that varied from year to year depending on how far the moon had taken them from sun-time. This time out of time served as a correction between the two forms of time-keeping, but it also usually served as party time. One doesn’t want to do anything critical in those eldritch liminal days; might as well spend them in the mead hall. After which, you can sober up (sort of) and cast your Finding vote without even the hassle of travel in slushy fjords and increasingly muddy roads. An excellent way to tend to community business…

The Significance of Weather Stats

I used to own a small business and got into the habit of dividing the year into quarters that I can analyze. This is not too different from the way American calendars use seasons, though the start and end dates are shifted to fit months and not solar events.

I sat down and did a bit of first quarter analysis on 2023 Vermont weather this past weekend. Nothing strenuous. I looked at historical averages (here: 1991-2021) and the recorded history for 2023 at the Burlington airport weather station (here). I am sure that if you live anywhere in the US and probably much of the world, there is some equivalent data for your region. It’s a good idea to keep track of these things, so you may want to go find that information. You can also keep records and tally up your own averages, but if someone else is doing the work already, might as well use it. Anyway, you still need to find historical averages for comparison.

(An aside on units: I grew up using °F and therefore think in °F much easier than °C. I also feel that for weather, as opposed for lab work, °F is superior. It is a finer scale and shows important details that get lost in the fractions of °C — particularly true of temperatures far from freezing either way. Your body perceives a large difference between 90°F and 100°F and that scale makes it look like a larger difference than the equivalent 32°C and 37°C. So I use °F. Those who make a fetish of their units will sneer, but it works better for me… and apparently for most weather forecasters, given that few use metric scales.)

What I learned of the first quarter is that 2023 is starting out hot! Our monthly averages are 10-15°F above historical monthly averages. Also, in spite of all my grumbling about snow, we’re still about a quarter inch of precipitation under the year-to-date historical average. We had an above-average January, but with almost all of it falling in the last week. We had a drier February than normal with most of that snowfall coming in just a few big storms. And March is on track to finish up below average, though we do have rain in the forecast for nearly every day of the next ten. So maybe we’ll make up the shortfall.

I should note that these recorded 2023 data are for Burlington which is lower elevation and sitting on the lovely heat sink that is Lake Champlain. So that region does run a bit milder than my home town, but precipitation is about the same. Also the historical averages are theoretically for my town, but I’m not sure who would have been compiling that information. So that may just be Burlington also.

This year there have been several storms that buried central Vermont in snow and barely dusted Burlington. And, indeed, when I look at what I’ve recorded in my weather journal, it seems like we have had more snow than what is recorded for Burlington — though ‘snow depth’ is really hard to convert to ‘precipitation’ and I don’t do it. A few inches of snow is negligible precipitation, and there is no set conversion factor. An inch of precipitation may be about a foot of snow, but snow depth depends on the temperature and other factors besides just what falls from the sky. We’ve had wet storms and dry storms. In fact, this winter we’ve had more snow fall in dry storms with such low temperatures that the flakes were almost like fog. Obviously, those piles are going to be smaller than a snowfall with flakes the size of marbles.

Still, it seems that 2023 is off to an ahistorical start relative to long-term record keeping. On the other hand, it is fitting well into recent trend-lines which have seen increasingly warmer and drier winters for a couple decades now. There have been a few winters like 2022 in which temperatures were below recent normals, but there are no years that are colder than historical averages. The upward curve may have a few jagged peaks and troughs, but even the troughs remain above those long-term averages.

What is more disturbing is that it also may be true that troughs are followed by really big increases. Last year temperatures were lower than they’ve been in the last decade. This year we blew past that: it’s two times warmer than average this year than it was colder than average last year, twice as far above the average line this year than it was below the average line last year. That’s a big jump. And it seems to have happened in 2014 after the ridiculous polar vortex year of 2013 also. (In the winter of 2013, I had authors flocking down south to my Albuquerque bookstore from the Northeast wearing ‘Flee the Polar Vortex’ shirts.)

I have no idea what would cause such a rebound. And Google has come up blank also. This is mildly alarming, but I suppose there are many things that we just don’t understand about climate chaos. Another black swan to add to the bevy… I will say that this may be what ‘termination shock’ would feel like, because I suspect these unusual cold winters are masking a continual warming trend. Perhaps last winter there were more episodes of mixing between the circumpolar flow and the mid-latitude flow that normally flows over the US. These deep freezes drew the average temperature for last year downwards. This year we didn’t have as many polar vortex encounters (not since Christmas anyway), and we ‘rejoined’ the ‘normal’ upward curve. It seems like it cooled off last winter and then jumped up, but in reality the overall upward trajectory kept climbing and was masked by these few extreme events — which are themselves caused by warming, by the way.

I find this disturbing because this is similar to what will likely happen if we decide to try to mask the increasing heat caused by increasing emissions without removing carbon from the atmosphere. We could cool off the planet for a while with cloud-cover or mirrors, but if the carbon is still there (and it will be for hundreds of years), then the planet’s temperature could suddenly rebound. In a very short time, it could snap back to that upward trending curve, perhaps even higher than when we started the geo-engineering project if atmospheric carbon has continued increasing. So this much warmer winter in Vermont may have different causation, but the quick jump upwards is perhaps something that needs to be studied and understood before starting any sort of masking projects.

Now… the decrease in precipitation is even more complicated. Warmer air both speeds up evaporation and holds more moisture. So as it warms it should get wetter, right? But this is not what happened here in Vermont in 2023. Why?

First, this region has largely been stuck just northwest of the jet stream. For months, flow over North America has dipped far down to about New Orleans and then turned northeast, hugging the eastern coastline before heading off to the Atlantic. Vermont has been either under this flow (our few high pressure sunny days) or just to the northwest of that flow (all these dark days of nothing). The jet stream is blocking us off from our main source of moisture — the Atlantic Ocean. When the jet stream is just east of here, the little precipitation that falls on us is coming all the way across the continent before it gets here. Think of this like pushing water out of a sponge by squeezing it from one end to the other. Most is going to come out when you start squeezing; not much is left at the end. When air is moving over mostly frozen land masses, it can’t pick up moisture through evaporation (hence winter always has less precipitation than summer). So that sponge can’t recharge itself. By the time it gets here it’s dry.

As global temperatures rise, the jet stream will become more curvy because when there is less difference in temperature between the poles and the equator there is less constraint on air flow. Our jet stream is freer to wander when the Arctic isn’t as cold. But a curvy flow over this part of the world increases the length of the stream that flows over land. Air spends much more time being squeezed dry and is much further from its recharging moisture source when it flows in a curvy pattern over North America. And so we in the Northeast will likely see increasingly dry winters. Just like this one.

Vermont has mostly been under a dry sponge in 2023 — but for a few notable exceptions. On some of these exceptional days, the jet stream shifted just a little bit and allowed energetic air masses to suck up the Atlantic and toss it on New England. (This is how we normally get storms in the Northeast.) On some of the scarier exceptional days, the jet stream carried atmospheric rivers all the way across the continent, dumping precipitation the whole way. I’m not sure how this works. It seems to be much like our New England storms, but on a continental scale. If that is the case, these are some very energetic air masses, able to continue pulling recharge from the Pacific Ocean while the front of the storm is already halfway across the continent.

In any case, here in Vermont we’ve had weeks of dry weather punctuated by a few days of Very Wet weather, and this has kept total precipitation just a bit below the historical average. I would say that this is going to be a ‘normal’ winter pattern as heat is increased globally. Most of the time, Vermont is going to be both warmer — because everywhere is warming — and dryer than Vermont used to be. (Will it still be Vermont?) Now and then, Vermont will shake off the jet stream and get Atlantic storms (our usual nor’easters). Now and then, Vermont will join the rest of the continent under a river of wet weather. These atmospheric rivers will become more frequent as global temperatures rise and create more energetic air flow. But the warming trend may also trigger more frequent interactions with circumpolar flow, so there may be winters that have a colder average temperature due to these events. But the overall temperature trend will still be upward. I suspect that if I put all my weather data into Excel and then looked at last year with those few extreme cold events removed from the average, that average would then fall on the ‘normal’ upward trend line.

I guess all this is to say that keeping records is important right now. We don’t have a stable ‘normal’ that we can reference in forecasting. It’s all change. And it’s changing in ways that we’ve never experienced before, so it’s very hard to see how it’s changing while we’re in the middle of it. I’m a numbers nerd, I’ll admit, and so weather is naturally how I try to wrap my head around the change. But there are other ways to see it, like keeping careful records of bloom times or movements of species. Even just a continual record of first and last frost dates is important information wherever you are. Because those historical average dates that we rely upon for food production are no longer accurate, and the only way to determine what is accurate is for someone to write down the new information. There is much need for citizen science right now.

And that’s just climate… there are many other ways that our planet is experiencing rapid change… all of which need good local record keeping. So choose your disaster…

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

1 thought on “The Daily: 23 March 23”

  1. We have been keeping records of the rainfall in our town for over thirty years now. They provide an interesting indication of trends and historical patterns of wet and dry cycles – which vary considerably in terms of months.

    Liked by 1 person

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