A bright, bristly weather-chart spied on the research-laboratory wall at the St. Jones Reserve, on National Estuaries Day 2016, cried out for revisiting. Because a pirate’s best friend just may be the weather, or possibly a good chart, an irresistible combination of the two caused this would-be pirate to return recently to the Reserve for a special interview with Dr. Kari St.Laurent.
Kari joined DNERR in April 2016, and according to the announcement posted on this blog, she:
“…holds a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography where she studied black carbon and persistent organic pollutants in the subtropical Atlantic Ocean. Before that, she received a B.S. in Environmental Science and a B.A. in Environmental Chemistry from Roger Williams University where she did research on oyster restoration, bay scallop diets, and estuarine hypoxia.”
Impressive! She has also been a contributor in her own right to DNERR’s blog. We now welcome the chance to hear from her some more. Why? Because apart from all of the aforementioned, meteorology is her superpower! As that earlier blog goes on to state:
“After completing her Ph.D., Kari worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on a project investigating climate variability and extreme change in Chesapeake Bay and its implications to environmental issues, such as submerged aquatic vegetation dieback events.”
Sounds intimidating, right? Well, that’s where the knowledgeable, but very approachable, Kari comes in — with a bright smile and a ready explanation that informs even the most weather-challenged audience member. She is accustomed to explaining scientific data in everyday terms, and she especially enjoys when she can correlate the weather to a visitor’s own, personal experience. This became readily apparent when she worked that very magic on this guest‑blogger…but we’ll get to that in a few moments. First things first:
MLC: OK, what’s with the spikey chart?
KStL: The chart came out of my post-doctoral work and my inquiries into weather patterns in the Chesapeake Bay Region, including Delaware. The chart is a printout of the rainfall data from Dover Air Force Base. It came about when we wanted to display the data at an Open House at the University of Maryland, two years ago: a “family fun” day.
At that event, I would have visitors write, on sticky notes, the month and year they were born and then put them on the corresponding spot on the chart. People found their birthdays often correlated to, or were close to, a big weather event. The chart also helped people recall a weather event from when they were a child or from when they were an adult.
We had people who remembered the big storms of the 1930s — such as grandparents who recalled when they were 4 or 5 years old and the power went out for a week. They wrapped potatoes in aluminum foil and threw them into the fireplace so they could have a meal. That’s just one example of illustrating how weather affects our everyday lives.
We have been using that same sticky-note method on this chart here at DNERR, for our own outreach events such as National Estuaries Day. We are trying to relate WEATHER and PEOPLE ‑‑ as opposed to simply stating the expected rate of climate change, which has seemingly less of a personal connection.
It was at that point that I covertly eyeballed the chart for my own birth year and noticed a particular spike. Yup, a significant weather event connected to me, too! I had heard some mention of it before, in family lore, but there it was in black and white–or should I say, in blue, yellow, red, and green.
MLC: The chart is certainly eye-catching, not to mention powerful! After all, it levitated me back to the St. Jones Reserve several weeks after the event at which I first spotted it.
KStL: The chart actually illustrates the total rain by month, from about 1920 to the first half of 2016. Instead of listing the rainfall day-by-day, it’s streamlined by using the greatest single-day precipitation event each month. Converting the display from 365 bars down to 12 bars per year makes it much more manageable.
You will see the months are color-coded by season. Blue spikes are winter months, green spikes represent the spring, summer is red, and fall is yellow. Do you notice anything about the patterns?
MLC [with a chuckle]: You are asking me a question? No problem. Let me take a closer look. Well…the most significant spikes, over the years, appear to be either red or yellow. There is only one relatively large green spike, and it was back in the 1940s.
KStL: Yes, the rainiest times of the year tend to be the summer and fall, though there are occasional exceptions. Do you notice anything else?
MLC: Uhhh…the biggest spike, located in the mid-1970s, is labeled simply “severe thunderstorm.” It’s a spike even bigger than all the hurricanes named on the chart; and no hurricane-names at all appear on the left half of the chart. Obviously that’s not because there were no hurricanes prior to the mid-1900s.
KStL: That’s correct. Named storms really only started in the 1950s. Before that, weather events were called “Hurricane 1,” “Hurricane 2,” etc. Some storms have been named in hindsight, like Ocean City’s “Great Storm of 1933,” “The Mother’s Day Storm” [of May 12, 2008], etc.
As for that big “severe thunderstorm” spike you see, I had to do some research in order to determine whether a specific rain event was associated with it. The daily values underlying these monthly totals can represent a trickle of precipitation over time or a single popup thunderstorm.
This chart is just a snapshot at one location that matters to us, as residents of the Dover area. Everyone is impacted by the weather. The storms that people remember are because they were directly affected by that event, or because they saw on the news that it caused a lot of damage. For scientists, we monitor these things because they also can suddenly affect or disturb the ecosystem, particularly at a place like DNERR. Disturbances we find in the ecosystem could have come from a storm surge, for instance, because not everything [in an estuary] is salt tolerant.
Scientists are always aware of these effects and are always on the lookout for long-term changes. Weather is dynamic!
MLC: And so are you, Dr. Kari St.Laurent! Thank you for your time and for your thought-provoking insights!
Text and photos by M.L. Christmas
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M.L. Christmas, MSM, is a freelance writer/editor living in the Dover area. She is a longtime member of Delaware Press Association and the National Federation of Press Women.