Relishing snow and ice — for now

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Last week’s storm was a relief in a few ways, not the least of which was a change of scenery.

After the clouds had spent themselves, what remained was a drapery of snow over every exposed surface. Visually, it was a relief to see the dead dull ground brightly shrouded. White might be the color of mourning in other countries, but in this instance the snow will eventually melt and re-nourish the earth. Come spring, we’ll have splendor in the grass…for a time.

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Meanwhile, it was refreshing to walk about that night. The only sounds to be heard were the distant roar of road crews (God bless ’em) periodically scraping the streets, feet crunching through the snow, and cold air amplifying frosted breaths.

Soon after the sun arose the next day and warmed the air a little, the snow began melting and then creating another treat: ice and icicles that glitter continuously in any light.

Temperatures have settled below freezing for awhile; so long as this side effect lingers we have to tread more carefully by car and foot. Losing your balance is bad enough if you slip and fall, but a sub-dermal hematoma or broken tailboneare other risks best avoided.

We understand that another similar storm is forecast for this Thursday, but that will be believed when we see and feel it. The functionality of meteorologists is often uncertain because they are essentially speculating with even the best information. Consider that 4 inches to 6 inches were expected for Suffolk. What did we get? About 1-1/2 inches at best. Don’t take that as a complaint; I’ll tire of this stuff like everyone else.

A Wednesday night program on PBS (&uot;Secrets of the Dead: Tragedy at the Pole&uot;) featured the story of Captain Robert F. Scott, who began in 1910 to stake the first claim at the South Pole. Included in his team was George Simpson. His studies of Antarctic meteorology were so thorough that Scott understandably relied heavily on the man’s reports to help get him to and from the goal before winter set in.

As you will recall from history books, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen earned the claim. Adding injury to insult was that the weather veered sharply from Simpson’s forecasts. Sometimes the winds pushed the temperatures down to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe it was centrifugal force and the gradually tilting planet that suddenly shifted the air currents to blizzard strength; who knows? Ultimately, this unexpected and severe change not merely slowed Scott and his team, it chiefly contributed to their deaths on March 29, 1912 – 11 miles from a depot of shelter and food.

Simpson was not with that team, but was shocked by the eventual news of the team’s demise. His only possible consolation could be found in a final letter by Scott absolving him.

Truth willed out in Simpson’s case.

Featured in the program was Dr. Susan Solomon who had studied the matter for about 15 years, and published her findings in August 2001 (&uot;The Coldest March&uot;). Using extensive and long-term contemporary scientific data, she discovered that Simpson’s projections were accurate as possible for now as then. But that little bit of bad luck – not sloppy research – was just enough to defeat Scott and his comrades.

Incidentally, Solomon was among the scientists in 1986 who proved that man-made chlorofluorocarbons are linked to the hole in the ozone over the Antarctic.

There are two seemingly contradictory lessons to be gleaned from both the recent snowstorm and Scott’s expedition. First, don’t put all your faith in science, especially meteorology; like Tarot cards, it can only forecast what might happen approximately. Second, at the same time don’t dismiss completely the work of scientists; they can offer more visible and logical proof for their claims than a fortuneteller. Stephen H. Cowles is the managing editor and a columnist for the News-Herald. He’s rethinking that future trip to Finland, and will instead aim for Honduras.