TALES OF OUR TIMES: Value Variable Weather, Politics

By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Value Variable Weather, Politics

People wander among natural joys – sun, food, shelter, canyons, the night sky, ripples of ideas, sand dunes, and getting your way some of the time. Keeping your own list is part of the fun.      

A gem that gets overlooked is the variety of weather. The plum is not “weather,” but “variety.” Everyone likes sun. Everyone wants rain. Snow has fans and critics. Nature’s variability is its virtue.

Imagine a “weatherstat” that you set to your favorite weather. You dial in what you like: exact temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, sun angle, cloud cover, wind speed, wind direction, requisite rainfall per hour and schedule, everything. Now set the lock to maintain your ideal weather day after day without fail.

How long before the triumph spreads dismay, poverty and strife through the land? While crops may profit from rain, the harvest may not. The circus won’t be happy. Mountainside resorts that sell skiing by the day, golf in the sun and gambling in off hours will shrivel in time.

On occasions New Mexico enjoys a decent day-long rain over most of the state. Just for sport, try to figure the dollar value of the all-day soaker. My guess is as crude as yours, but it’s fun to play. How many million dollars’ benefit are added to the farm produce of the state – corn, peanuts, fruit, cotton, pecans, chile? How many tons of grass does the rain grow, which saves ranchers how much to buy and haul cattle feed? Maybe $1 million? Maybe five … fifty?

How many wildfires are stopped, which saves how much in damages and how many more millions for fire fighting? Relief fills every arroyo. Another calculation comes to mind. At what cost could the same water be purchased and spread evenly over the same area by the best human designs? How many $100 millions? Or billions.

So we can state the exact value of a rainy day is $50 million to $5 billion. Well … if we take “exact” in its tabloid sense. Think about locking the miraculous weatherstat. The news would soon burst with the woes of locoweed, ranch roads in bottomless mud and lost jobs for hay-growers and wildfire-fighters.

Try again. Set a wind from the west at an incessant 26 mph. Like fanning your face, the fresh breeze is quick to dry up crops and cropland. It means lost revenue for theme parks and flea markets. And pure gold for wind farms.

Trouble comes as well at the gentler end. Motionless air, a constant zero wind speed, brings its own ills. In 1948, Donora was an industrial town of 14,000 population near Pittsburgh. For five straight days in late October, Donora’s air stood dead still. Industry’s air pollutants built up in the river valley. Before a blessed turn in weather moved out the thickening air, it killed 20 to 70 residents and sickened 7,000, many for life.

Air pollution no longer sends half a town’s population to the sickbed in five days. But shifting air flow still has much to say about air quality. Air rules use complex calculations to characterize stagnant air or varying winds that let pollutants build up or disperse and govern the travel of smoke and flames. Decisions change with conditions. 

This column speaks of the weather and its larger lessons. All are true. Take from them what you like. Maybe you hear the old maxim: Be careful what you wish for. You might get it. Imagine the world’s troubles if figs, olives and fish were the universal foods. Imagine the warring if we learn how to set the weatherstat.

Or consider analogous fates whose effects would be just as bad: suppose a way were perfected to win every seat in every election. As with weather-on-command, the flaws of perfection would swiftly be more obvious to all. 

Look hard at the wealth of variation.

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