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Part I Four Centuries Of Surprises
We talk about it constantly and we arrange our lives around it. So did our parents; and so did the very first colonists. But it took Americans a long time to understand their weather—and we still have trouble getting it right.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Weather makes news headlines almost every day in some community in the United States. “The weather is always doing something,” said Mark Twain, “always getting up new designs and trying them on people to see how they will go.” On any day of the year, two or three weather systems are in action, dividing the country into distinct weather zones and producing what Twain called a “sumptuous variety” of conditions. A northeaster may be racing up along the Atlantic seaboard with gales and drenching rains, menacing ships and planes. At the same time, a stable high-pressure system might cause crop-threatening heat and drought in the Mississippi Valley. And a Pacific storm might be driving huge waves onto the fragile shoreline and hillsides of the West Coast, bringing flash floods and mudslides. Variety and violence are the usual fare offered by our weather.
Each daily weather change makes news, and that news is big business. USA Today devotes a full page of every issue to colorful weather maps and data. Radio stations broadcast weather reports throughout the day—often in a shrill and ominous manner. The “wind-chill factor” is a concept so misunderstood and so misused that an unthinking listener might hesitate to go abroad on a moderately cool spring evening. Television stations employ their own weather analysts or subscribe to a commercial service for forecasts; on cable the Weather Channel carries twenty-four-hour programming devoted exclusively to meteorological items. The National Weather Service, a government organization with five thousand employees, maintains several satellites in space to give global coverage of the weather every minute of the day and night. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the parent of the National Weather Service) is coordinating a weather-forecasting system that should revolutionize weather prediction by the 1990s and provide more information than ever for weather addicts. They, meaning we, can’t get enough of it.
At the opening of the seventeenth century, however, the French and English who first established settlements in North America had little advance information about the geography or climate of their new country. Jacques Cartier had spent a brief winter at Quebec in 153536, and explorers and fishermen had sailed along the coast in summertime, but what extremes of heat and cold might be encountered remained a mystery. Many myths were to arise about the weather, particularly of the interior, and these were to influence the flow of settlers westward.
The first misconception about the American climate grew out of the belief then prevalent in Europe that temperatures along the same parallel of latitude were equal the world over. Since the angle of the sun’s rays was supposed to be the only governing factor, Europeans assumed that the climate of Newfoundland would be like that of southern England, and that Virginia and the Carolinas would enjoy Mediterranean weather. The experiences of the first colonists quickly disproved this notion. After enduring the severe winter of 1607-8, the members of Maine’s pioneer colony, Sagadahoc, at the mouth of the Kennebec River, gave up and returned to England. The settlers at Jamestown also suffered from what Capt. John Smith called the “extreme frost of 1607 … the extremity of the bitter cold.” After all but 32 of the original 105 colonists had died, the survivors embarked for home, only to be met near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay by supply ships arriving from England. Not long after, the explorer Samuel de Champlain complained of the lands to the north, “There are six months of winter in that country.”
This emerging awareness of what the American climate was really like did not spread immediately, thanks to the lies of propagandists for the colonial trading companies. Even with firsthand experience to the contrary, John Smith declared in 1614 that New England was a “most excellent place, both for health and fertility.” A nameless pamphleteer wrote in 1622 that the country “seemeth to hold the golden mean … the clime is found to be so temperate, so delicate, so healthful, both by reason and experience.” Actual conditions, however, soon gave rise to a harsher description: a rule of thumb stated that if a colonist could survive a full year in the New World, he was “seasoned” and should live for many more.
Some settlers kept diaries and entered a few words describing each day’s weather. Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony kept a log of winds and weather on the long voyage from England in 1630, and in his massive journal he described the outstanding weather events during the first twenty years of the colony. By 1631 Winthrop was able to generalize about the Boston climate: ”… when the wind blows twelve hours in any part of the east, it brings rain or snow in great abundance.”
Two prominent Bostonians maintained diaries during the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the first quarter of the next. Judge Samuel Sewall and the Reverend Cotton Mather mentioned outstanding windstorms, snowfalls, and periods of unusual cold or heat; these included the “terriblest winter” of 169798, the “Great Snow” of 1717, and the “High Tide and Flood” of 1723.