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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Meteorology vs. Astronomy: Is It Spring Yet?

Advancing clocks an hour ahead to Daylight Savings Time conveniently announces itself as the easy-to-remember Spring Forward. Advancing democracy in the Middle East in the early years of the 2010s proclaimed to the world the Arab Spring. Advancing global warming foretells earlier springs encroaching on softened winters. Even as spring blooms in the sights of the popular press, the media quite stunningly often stumbles over when the season begins. The groundhog is no help, differing from year to year on whether spring begins four or six weeks from February 2nd. Astonishingly—and in no small measure my impetus in writing here out of no less than dumbfounded curiosity—even television meteorologists play to the popular ignorance, willingly succumbing to the common practice of taking astronomical “spring” as meteorological spring too. The “professionals’” declaratory tone alone reveals just how certain human beings can be even of presumed knowledge lacking any real foundation.  Sadly, this mentality of assertion, having become so widespread, or ubiquitous, in modern society, is virtually invisible to us; and yet, the shrill of the epistemological missionary zeal reverberates from no less than modernity’s default: faith in one’s own use of reason. In this essay, I present the first day of spring as a case in point rather than make the entire argument.

Sometime during the first week of March 2014, as yet another front of frigid Arctic air charged southward through North America, various weather personalities on television newscasts relished in the apparently startling fact that spring was just two weeks away. Viewers looking out at snow-covered landskips as far south as Kansas City could marvel at the return of nature’s colors and smells so soon. Most years, the grass is green there by the Ives of March.

Even as the popularly broadcast juxtaposition made for good copy, meteorological spring in the Northern Hemisphere had already come—that is to say, with regard to weather and climate. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “(m)eteorologists and climatologists break the seasons down into groupings of three months based on the annual temperature cycle as well as our calendar. . . . Meteorological spring includes March, April, and May; meteorological summer includes June, July, and August; meteorological fall includes September, October, and November; and meteorological winter includes December, January and February.”[1] Therefore, by the first week of March 2014, spring had already arrived as far as the weather is concerned even as television meteorologists were publicly pointing to March 20th as the first day. 

Even calling so much attention to the first day, as if suddenly the northern climes of the contiguous United States would suddenly return their fauna and flora to their other half-lives on that day, is horribly misleading. Assuming that the meteorologists were well aware that spring weather data begins on March 1st of each year in the U.S., the next-most plausible explanation may be found in the lazy assumption that it is easier to go with popular misconceptions than expend the effort to stare one in the face and overcome its stolid inertia head-on (the excuse being not wanting to cause confusion).

As a result, Americans are left with the incredibly incongruent “expert” assertion that summer begins not with Memorial Day, but just a couple of weeks before July 4th on June 21st of each year. Essentially, we are to believe that summer begins in the middle of summer! That such a logical and experiential absurdity can long endure in spite of evidence to the contrary is itself evidence of just how much cognitive dissidence human beings are willing to endure in the face of declarations from perceived expertise. In other words, an erroneous or outdated status-quo societal default has tremendous hold even in the age of (rationalist) Enlightenment (i.e., from the fifteenth-century Renaissance period).

Lest it be said that the enabled popular misconception came spontaneous out of nothing ex nihilo, the basis of the confusion lies in the rather stupid decision to apply the names of the meteorological seasons (i.e., fall, winter, spring, and summer) to the four quadrants of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Whereas the meteorological seasons are based on the annual temperature cycle applied to the calendar, “astronomical seasons are based on the position of the Earth in relation to the sun.”[2] Due to the tilt of the planet, solar energy is maximized in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in different parts of the planet’s orbit. To label a certain interval of space as “spring” is not just highly misleading; the label is a category mistake, for the climatic seasons on Earth do not exist in the void of space.[3]

Astronomy is distinct from weather, even though the two are related (i.e., not disparate).
(Image source: NASA)

Put another way, astronomical “spring” in the Northern Hemisphere refers to the portion of the Earth’s orbit from the point at which the vertical rays from the Sun hit the Earth on its equator (on the “Spring” Equinox, usually on March 21st) to point when the vertical rays are on the Tropic of Capricorn (the furthest north the vertical rays go, on the “Summer” Solstice, usually on June 21st). In fact, Summer Solstice is better translated as the highpoint rather than beginning of summer. That is to say, the sun reaches its highest arc in the Northern sky on June 21st, which is neither the pinnacle nor beginning of summer in terms of temperatures.[4]
In short, the piercing pronouncements on the public air-waves of the beginning of spring (and then three months later of summer) ring hollow. Nevertheless, the meteorologists who trumpet the good news do so year after year, as if deer caught in a car’s headlights (or speaking to such deer!). Perhaps the fix is as simple as changing the names of the Earth’s orbit’s four parts so they are not likened to climatic seasons. The puzzle would doubtless still present itself as to how it is that nonsensical claims can long endure as a societal (or even global) default, taken for granted in a way that strangely wards off reason’s piercing rays and those of our own experience. Something is oddly off in how human beings are hard-wired.

[1] National Climatic Data Center, “Meteorological Versus Astronomical Summer—What’s the Difference?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, June 21, 2013 (accessed March 9, 2014).
[2] Ibid., italics added.
[3] As another example of a mislabeling that should have been known to trigger much confusion and even false claims, the three law instructors from Harvard who founded the law school at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century should have known better than to replace the name of the bachelors in law, the L.L.B. (i.e., bachelors in the letters of law), with a name implying a doctorate (the J.D., or juris doctor). The actual (professional and academic) doctorate in Law is the J.S.D., the doctorate in juridical science, of which the LL.B., or J.D., along with the LL.M. (masters), is a prerequisite and thus not possibly a doctorate in itself. A doctoral degree must be the terminal degree in a school of knowledge, have comprehensive exams in a discipline of said knowledge (graded by professors rather than an industry regulatory body), and include a significant work of original research (i.e., a book-length study, except in a quantitative or scientific field) that the candidate defends before a committee of faculty. Yet how many Americans correct an American lawyer who declares himself to be a doctor?  The same goes for the M.D. as well (a program of survey-courses followed by a couple years of seminars—the typical substance of a bachelors program), and yet how many physicians and surgeons presume themselves entitled to use the doctoral title (Dr.) even as they dismiss the valid appellations that holders of the Ph.D., J.S.D., D.Sci.M. (Doctorate in the Science of Medicine), D.B.A. (business), D.D. (divinity/theology), and D. Ed. (education) use as per the rights and privileges of these doctoral degrees?  Meanwhile, the general public goes on grazing as if the snow were green grass.
[4] The word solstice in English comes from the Latin word, solstitium, which combines sol (sun) and stit (from sistere, to make stand).  In other words, the sun is made to stand (highest) in the Northern Hemisphere on June 21st of each year. Nothing is thus implied about any beginning; rather, the implication is that of a pinnacle or high point. Yet even in this sense, meteorological summer is different, for its high point in terms of temperature comes in mid to late July.