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No year is normal

MONDAY AUGUST 16, 2010

No year is normal

We had a wet summer last year. This autumn has been cold. This year, if my predictions are correct, we are looking at a cold but dryish winter in S Canterbury and a cool, cloudy spring, wettest in September. 

I am purposely avoiding the word average. The norm and averages are not numerically real. They are just an idea of average. Take for incidence all the phone numbers in the Ashburton directory. Add them up to get a total and divide by the number. Is what you have reached the average phone number of the town? Will dialing it find typically average Mr/Mrs Ashburtonian?  If it were so, how much easier it would be to compile annual consensus surveys. Simply employ that family to answer all the questions.

Suppose the average height of NZ males is 5’10’’, the average weight is 100kg and the average age 22yrs.  Further suppose you set out to find all the 5’ 10’’ 22-yr old male NZers who weigh 100kg. Chances are you may find a few, out of 2 million NZ males. That is with 3 parameters. The numbers swiftly reduce with more. Statistically, 6 parameters do not occur together, meaning there would not exist even one NZ male who, in one package, measures up to average age, height, weight, eye colour, nationality and religious persuasion.

Temperatures that cannot be quantified as an average. Temperature is an idea, a variation from a starting point. It is not a quantity, like 3 apples. 3°C is a number on the side of a glass tube. You cannot see 3° like you can see 3 apples. You can only feel 3° when it falls to that from 5° or warms to it from 0°. What gets to be called the day’s temperature average is the day’s maximum plus minimum divided by two, over the 24-hr day preceding 9am. If all night the minimum was  -4°C and it reached  -5°C at 8.59am, and all the previous day temperatures registered a pleasant 25°C the average would be 10°C. But if it blew a blistering NW reached 25°C for just 2 minutes at 3pm and after a freezing day, and was followed by a very warm night of a constant 20°C, cooling to -5°C for one minute as a southerly whizzed through at 8.59am, the average would still be 10°C but which would in no way reflect the true temperature of the day for future historians. And what if a month of 29 days was like that? And what if a year?

And what of the globe itself? Around June the hottest place on the planet is Death Valley, at 47°C. The coldest is Vostock Station at the S Pole, where it reaches -90°C. Does that make the average global temperature -21°C? If so, then the S pole would be the average place to stand in the world. Average means nothing useful here.

Neither can you see a year - it doesn’t happen except as a handy measuring device to keep track of seasons. El Nino and la Niña are also intended to be rough yardsticks. Of the two, the la Niña is the normal situation. Trade winds flow strongly from the east to west in the Pacific and warmer waters are carried westward.  La Niña is not a 'condition', anymore than the rotation of the earth is a condition. All things come to a point of change and the prevaling E-W flow is unsustainable because of the build-up of sealevels, just like the pushing of water one way in a bath. About every 3 years, when the sea-level difference is about 62cms equatorial water flows east as ‘El Nino’ and warm water and air arrive at Peru. It only does so after the previous pattern reaches a peak. That peak is the 'la Niña episode'. El Nino is the restoration back to balance and is about 1.5 years. Imagine the time taken for a hand pushing the bathwater vs. allowing the water to fall back. At the moment we have El Nino finishing, as normal rain patterns return. La Niña may become evident after next January, but not before.

So why call it anything? To say 'la Niña is forming', which you will read about in current news reports, is as misleading as saying normality is forming, because normality is not something that forms - just the opposite - patterns depart from the idea of normal. And while NIWA proclaims this winter is warmer than average, at the same time no one defines what this mythical average is supposed to be. Meanwhile we are told that everything is now anomalous, and there is no norm, only a succession of imaginary mysterious departures, which is what they say is climate change.

And yet presumably they know it is a regular pattern because they still use the word average when it suits – perhaps so they can continue to be recipients of funding to sort it. Sorry lads, you cannot have both the notion of climate change and the notion of average. A changing baseline is no longer a baseline, unless two-bob watches are now considered reliable.  Scientists have just discovered that the peak hour of tornado occurrence is 5 pm. It does not mean that at 5pm you should expect a tornado, nor that a tornado will only appear then. It only informs us, in case we forgot, that afternoons are warmer than mornings.

A farming year is a bit like that. Many of the recommendations and much of the advice pertaining to farming is based on what happens in a normal year. What is a normal year depends on who is asking the question, just as two people can disagree on whether a room is cold or hot depending on clothes, age and girth. Even more pertaining, it often depends on why they are asking. We all use averages in different ways. Scientists convert them into real numbers that enable politicians to create policies to their advantage. Averages can’t be precisely quantified, and they are nearly always politically applied.

So will next year be a ‘normal’ year? Last year was different to this one and perhaps the past 4-5 years were not normal years either. 2011 will equally vary from 2010. The 2011 almanac is being released in a week’s time in all bookshops. I suggest South Canterbury farmers may be smiling next April and May but tearing their hair out from July through to September.
You could say their reactions will be normal.

© Ken Ring 2010


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