IT WAS AN innocent enough remark. "Looks like rain," he'd said, gesturing toward the bank of clouds looming over the city.
"No way," I said, shaking my head.
"Well, those clouds look pretty threatening to me."
"Those are not rain-bearing clouds," I insisted. "It's a common mistake to assume that because a cloud has a darkish tinge to it that it will result in precipitation but this is not necessarily the case."
"Well, they said showers on the weather report this morning," he went on. He wasn't giving in without a fight. Have you ever met a taxi driver who didn't like to argue?
"They say showers because they have to cover their arses in case there is even the slightest spit," I said, frustrated. "And the media interprets that as rain because no one knows anything about meteorology. But I can assure you that those clouds will not result in any precipitation and that, in fact, it probably won't rain until the day after tomorrow when an inland trough moves across the south-east quarter and out to sea."
He grunted and turned the radio up – John Laws, of course – by way of punishment.
LITTLE DID HE know that I was no ordinary passenger, however; that I was not the sort of person you could just indulge in idle chitchat with about what goes on in the heavens. For I am a weather nut, a member of a worldwide fraternity for whom the weather holds a fascination that is beyond the ken of others. We are the trainspotters of meteorology, the geeks of the elements.
As a weather nut, I follow, with dutiful dedication, all daily weather reports in the major print and electronic media and I constantly monitor the Australian Bureau of Metrology's website – the BOM as we in the trade like to call it – to keep constantly abreast of matters meteorological. When you hear someone say: "I've just been on the BOM", you'll be able to identify him or her as one of us: an obsessive weirdo – a weather nut.
As far as we are concerned, the intriguing nuances of weather, infinite in variety and constantly evolving, are unparalleled by any other phenomenon in the natural or technological world. Climate change is as alarming for us as it is for anyone else but that alarm is tinged with excitement as we draw closer to a new frontier of weather. The Day After Tomorrow may have chilled most of you but we were on the edge of our seats with anticipation as the new ice age ensued. Just a bit of weather, really, and the more weather the better.
As a weather nut, I'm concerned about climate change but there's a part of me that yearns for its extremes. As I wait and watch, I keep abreast of the trends through various weather websites and particularly through the excellent support programs of The Weather Channel on Foxtel. Here I can check rainfall – last twenty-four hours, since 9am, since 3pm – monitor dam levels, check rain forecasts a month ahead and generally track systems as they develop all over the continent and around the globe, for that matter. As soon as my wife leaves the room I change channels like some furtive porn watcher, quickly channel-surfing for the latest conditions and to see if there have been any changes in the forecast in the past hour or so. It's a big wide world of weather out there and if there's none in your own neighbourhood, as there often isn't in my home state of Queensland – beautiful-one-day-perfect-thenext land – there's sure to be something happening somewhere so I can get my vicarious kicks. When some boring high-pressure system hovers over the continent, banishing the colour and movement a weather nut desires, there may at least be a typhoon bearing down on Honshu or even a few tornadoes tearing their way through the heart of America. We understand your pain, dear residents of Kansas, but please let us tarry with you awhile and share the drama of your latest twister. We have no shame, no conscience, when it comes to meteorological matters and, well, we like to watch.
OF COURSE, ONE isn't born a weather nut. I became one by degrees, inching towards my compulsion over decades, without even my dearest friends and relatives recognising the slide. It began when we moved to the Gold Coast when I was thirteen. My memory of arrival is largely littoral and meteorological. I recall we were staying at a motel in Surfers Paradise until my father sorted out a rental property and I remember sitting on the beach watching the surf. It was, if I recall correctly, a relatively temperate day, say hovering around the late teens (temperate for that part of the world) and a mackerel sky (small cirrocumulus and altocumulus clouds giving a scaly effect, like a mackerel's epidermis) spread above me. The wind was light – say five knots out of the south-west – and a low groundswell pushed in from the south-east, no doubt the result of a loose gradient low slipping down into the Tasman Sea.
After renting a house on the Isle of Capri for a time, we moved into a purpose-built mansion at Cypress Gardens on the Nerang River, a few kilo-metres inland from Broadbeach. As a student at Miami State High School, I realised that acceptance and even survival required me to become a surfer and, as any devotee will tell you, surfers need to know about weather. We depend on shifting sands and oceans swells and, we hanker for the offshore winds that hold them up as they march to their inevitable doom across the continental shelf. Any keen surfer develops skill as a weather watcher and can feel an impending south-easterly change in their blood, can forecast change in the hooked stratus clouds that precede one, can tell from the tightly coiled isobars on a weather map that there is a groundswell on the way.
As well as surfing, I was a bit of a fisherman in my teens and I also came to know the ways of moon and tide, when the bream would bite or the whiting might nibble. I spent my days studying the sky like some pagan seer, looking for telltale signs in the heavens.
LATER, MY WEATHER ways fell into disuse for some years as I followed the ways of the flesh, oblivious of the seasons and cycles of the natural world. Enmeshed in work and the sorts of escapism the concrete jungle provides a young man, I became estranged from my former intuitive grasp of the elements. But by the good graces of the goddess Gaia, and with a little help from the surf god Huey, I returned again in the early 1990s when we moved to, of all places, Melbourne. Inspired rather than depressed by the four-seasons-inone-day realm in which I found myself, my passion for weather returned to me anew. I pored over the weather in the daily newspaper once again, divining meaning from the synoptic charts trying to predict the weekend weather and surf, checking in with the BOM occasionally (you can ring these guys if you want breaking weather info – one weather nut to another) or the guru of weather for surfers, Mike Perry on the Gold Coast. His Surf Alert service tracks weather all over the globe for surfers who need to know.
Most Queenslanders shiver in the southern winter and yearn for the heat and humidity of home but I developed a love of the long, overcast months of the Melbourne winter, the drizzling days and the drama of the southerly busters that cross Port Phillip Bay with such intent. I was in weather heaven.
By the time we moved back to Queensland, I was hooked again and was worshipping the elements with élan, like some druid. At work, I spent my days tracking the various weather systems for my colleagues, warning of impending storms and whether or not they bore hail and damaging winds as well as heavy rain. I was dubbed Punxatawney Phil, after the Pennsylvanian weather-forecasting groundhog of the same name – a great honour. You'll know about Phil (the seer of seers, sage of sages, prognosticator of prognosticators and weather prophet extraordinaire) if you've seen the movie Groundhog Day. Each February 2 in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania, United States, tradition dictates that a groundhog is held aloft and if it casts a shadow it is an omen of bad weather to come but if the day is cloudy, and hence shadow-less, it is taken as a sign of an early spring. It is an ancient tradition that goes back to the Romans, who used hedgehogs apparently, which just goes to show how long weather nuts have been around.
"Will it rain today, Punxatawney?" a colleague would ask and I would shake my head in disgust.
"No, it will not rain today. Didn't you listen to the weather forecast this morning?" I despair of the ignorance of people when it comes to weather. It takes the impending doom of climate change for them to even notice the weather at all. I marvel at the unconsciousness of my fellow humans who foolishly plan huge public events in storm season and are so surprised when they are washed out. I know photographers who plan elaborate fashion shoots with no regard for the weather. I've heard them making plans and had to intervene.
"You're not really planning a fashion shoot for Friday?" I'd ask.
"Well, yes, the model and stylist are all booked."
"Are you aware that there is a rain event expected?" I say.
"A rain event? What's that?"
"It means it's going to piss down." A rain event is a significant confluence of elements, which result in considerable rainfall – not just a measly five or ten millimetres. We're talking soaking rain, the sort we weather nuts live for.
A rain event is something to look forward to, of course, but it can't beat a storm. Tracking a storm cell on the BOM site, watching it tick across your computer screen like an angry amoeba, is very heaven for any weather nut. The beauty and colour of a storm's topography from the weather satellite ... those wonderful blues and greens, the intense yellows or the angry reds at the epicentre, where hail and wind and lightning live. Ah, me, no one but a weather nut understands the emotions this can evoke.
A WEATHER NUT likes to share the passion and pass on the craft. (What is that poem by Dylan Thomas? 'In My Craft or Sullen Art?' He could have been talking about weather forecasting just as easily as poetry.) So it was one afternoon this past summer that I felt the urge to begin the succession to my five-year-old son, Hamish.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and I was disporting myself on the couch, resplendent in grubby King Gee shorts and little else, watching the cricket. A rivulet of sweat ran down my face, dripped into the thicket of hair on my chest (greying hair, sadly) and proceeded to run down my modest paunch. This signified humidity. I noticed there was little wind outside and, though it had been brilliant and unbearably sunny that morning, a darkening outside suggested clouds at last. Rousing myself, I left the cricket to its own devices, shook off the torpor that settles inside a weatherboard Queenslander on such a day, took my son by the hand, despite his protests that he hadn't finished building his Lego plane, and led him out into the front yard and on to the meagre verge of grass that serves as a buffer between us and the bitumen.
"What are we doing?" he asked quite reasonably. I could have said: "If you can snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper, you are ready to leave the temple and go out into the world" but instead I raised a hand, gestured towards the south and said, with gravitas: "Look there, my boy."
Beyond the poincianas and frangipanis, above the railway fence at the end of the street and beyond the hunched city, a bank of cumulus clouds was billowing like a vast, fluffy mountain of cotton wool and shaving cream. In the middle of this mass of cloud, one was well on its way to morphing into that grandest of all collections of droplets, the cumulonimbus, a head of cloud full of lightning and hail. The westernmost edge of this magnificent summer system had already caught up with and swallowed the westering sun, and birds, sensing the coming fury, had already begun winging their way north.
"Look," I said again, challenging the lad to regard the majesty of nature and silently exhorting him to tremble with anticipation before it as I did. It was a grand sight to watch that meteorological symphony working itself into an overture that would soon split the afternoon asunder in a crescendo of driving wind and rain, a quenching deluge that would be brief but decisive and would completely change the complexion of the day.
Afterwards, the evening would be cool, the garden would drip in all its subtropical fecundity and we would sleep easy, relieved of the ennui that had engulfed us.
And as I stood there inspiring wee Hamish to behold the wonder of nature with me and revel in its glory, too, he did look up, shielding his eyes with a hand at first. I thought I detected words of wonder trembling on his lips but he refrained from speech, shrugged his shoulders and looked at me quizzically.
"It's just a storm," he said then, turning and walking back down the path and up the stairs into the house, leaving me stranded in the face of the oncoming tempest. I stood there like Lear out on the heath, forsaken, the storm bearing down. It's lonely, sometimes, when you're a weather nut.