Talk about the Weather Transcript

Jul 26, 2018

Back to the Talk about the Weather episode.

Roger Hill: If you live in Vermont, you have a license to complain. Sometimes the weather stays too long and we have endless days of precipitation or gray skies. But it’s interesting. It’s the yin and the yang.

Mark Twain once said “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait five minutes.”

Roger Hill: I can look out every day and see a gorgeous view one day, and, of course, a gray sky the next, and maybe in six hours the weather will change.

Vermonters love weather. They love bragging about it, complaining about it, hiding inside from it, and playing outside in it. It’s a topic of conversation almost anywhere you go.

Roger Hill: People like to compare notes. How much snow did you get? Well, I got 16 inches on the hill and only 10 inches fell in the valley. You get a lot of that. It’s a matter of pride.

We wanted to know just why people are so fascinated by Vermont’s weather, so we went to visit a man who’s devoted his entire life to studying it.

Roger Hill: I’m Roger R. Hill, and I run Weathering Heights and most people know me from Radio Vermont, and I also work with the state utility’s hazardous weather forecaster.

Roger knows Vermont weather like very few other people in the world. He’s been tracking it for decades. And he says there’s a reason the weather here is constantly changing.

Roger Hill: That’s due to the fact that we are close to 45 north latitude, which is halfway between the tropics and the poles. So at this latitude, our being on the eastern side of North America continent, this is where our storm tracks tend to come out of North America. A lot of folks have said that on the bad side of it is we’re sort of the tailpipe of the rest of the country. So what’s upstream unfortunately comes through Vermont.

That means things can go sideways — fast.

Roger: Weather can be pretty extreme. There’s a sort of normalcy bias that we all have that we carry with us. We don’t realize that it can be really off the charts extreme.

Today we’ll hear about moments when Vermont’s weather got really weird. And we’ll talk about why being obsessed with the weather feels like part of what it means to be a Vermonter.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Humanities Council. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Eileen Corcoran: We have this briefcase, which does not contain what you might think a briefcase would contain.

Today, we’re with Eileen Corcoran and Amanda Gustin inside the Vermont Historical Society’s new exhibition about auto racing.

Amanda Gustin: What we’re actually looking at is called a weather station. It is a briefcase. And we’re in an exhibit about automobile racing, so couple of different, weird things going on there.

The weather station belonged to a man named John Keefer.

Amanda Gustin: He just had a mechanical mind and he loved cars. So, he got into racing cars. He started off drag racing and then he got involved with a Vermont driver named Bobby Dragon.

John is an engineer, and he has that engineer mind. He wants to measure everything and then he wants to improve on those things based on his measurements. So, John realized and understood, as pretty much no one else in Vermont did at that time — and by that time we’re talking about the mid to late 1960s — that the weather actually changed the way Bobby’s car was racing.

Most of us think about weather and driving only when it’s snowing or raining – or maybe when your air conditioner breaks in the summer.

Amanda Gustin: Basically, John would take this kit to a racetrack at the exact day and time when they were racing, and he would take out these tools and he would start to measure things. And what information he got back determined what adjustments he would make to the engine.

Eileen Corcoran: I think sort of what’s really interesting as you’re talking about the idea of precision, especially in the 1960s, and sort of some ways how we think, even, about weather and how it affects, and how we’ve gotten to this more precise idea about weather, or wanting to be really precise about weather, but we still are not able to be precise about weather.

Amanda Gustin: That’s one of the reasons this is a portable kit, right? Because it’s one thing to check the weather before you drive to the track and think, oh yeah, it’s probably gonna be about this temperature and it’s probably gonna be about this humidity. And it’s another thing entirely to get there and actually measure what it’s actually like at that spot. And John is part of a wave of people who are trying to get more precise and more data driven about the ways in which they race their cars, and weather was hugely important in that effort.

There’s only so much you can change and control, though. Weather always wins.

One of Vermont’s worst weather events took place in 1938. It was the only hurricane to ever directly hit the state.

Steve Long: I bought this land, my wife and I bought it, in 1988, which was exactly 50 years after the hurricane, and I was told that this had blown down in the ’38 hurricane. I thought, “Wow. How could that be?”

This is Steve Long. He’s lived in Corinth for 30 years.

Steve Long: Because the trees are a pretty good size and it seemed like a perfectly mature forest to me. It had a full canopy. I just didn’t understand how that could possibly be true. That’s how I really got interested in the subject was just to try to understand what had happened on my land. I dug deep not the land records and I learned how to read the landscape and just kept going and going and was able to really piece together what happened here.

The Hurricane of 1938 remains one of the deadliest and most destructive storms in American history. It made landfall on Long Island on the afternoon of September 21st as a Category 3 storm.

Steve Long: It was moving so quickly that one of the nicknames that it was given was the Long Island Express.

The storm was moving an estimated 57 miles per hour. It reached the southern border of Vermont at 6pm.

Steve Long: By the time it got here it was late in the day…the hurricane here was a late afternoon and evening phenomenon. The papers referred to it as last night’s storm. A lot of it happened after dark.

The flooding was catastrophic – but so was the wind. As the storm traveled from Massachusetts to the Canadian border, it blew 100 mile per hour winds for two and a half hours. In Montpelier, people found salt spray on their windows. And it blew down trees across the state — including on Steve’s property.

Steve Long: This forest has grown up since the 1938 hurricane. If you go back and you think of what it looked like then, it was probably about like this. All of these saplings and seedlings in the understory were what became the forest today.

Steve said in 1938, Vermont was about half forested and half open. There were hundreds of acres of woodlots, sugarbushes, and dense backwoods that were vulnerable to the incredible force of the storm.

Steve Long: Big trees blew down, and the smaller trees that were more supple did not blow down, and they then capitalized on the incredible bath of new light that was available with a high canopy gone, and they became the new forest. These trees are 80 years old plus. They were saplings when the hurricane came through. They were in place. They were either an inch or maybe they were four inches, but they were small and they were survivors.

Some smaller trees were permanently warped by the wind. The top of the tree was no longer facing the light – but maybe one of its branches was. That branch would become the new tree trunk. It’s like the tree zigged and zagged its way back to being straight.

Steve Long: That’s the way that softwoods do it. Hardwoods, you will end up with that boomerang shape. Softwoods like this hemlock will come back to…it’ll just be a gentle sweep that brings it back to plumb. They’re always trying to get to plumb. Geotropism.

So the small trees adapted, but the big trees blew down.

Steve Long: … what happens is at some point, that because it’s a big tree, the trunk is a really, really good lever. It’s tall. The wind high up is stronger. If you go up 60 feet to where the crown of this tree was, you’ve got a really, really serious force on that tree. It’s swaying in the wind, swaying in the wind, until finally it just can’t take it anymore. It’s not that the trunk breaks. What happens is it’s the roots that aren’t strong enough to hold it. The tree is uprooted.

When a huge tree falls and its roots pull up from the ground, it creates a pit.

Steve Long: It’s like an excavator came, dug out a hole here, piled it right next to it.

Then next to that pit is a mound.

Steve Long: The mound is where all of the dirt and rock that was attached to the really huge root system got deposited.

Put enough of these together, and you get a pretty distinctive look.

Steve Long: If any woods in Vermont that has this kind of topography where you’re just looking, it looks like moguls. If you’re a skier it looks like moguls. It’s just one after the other after the other.

In many forested parts of Vermont today, you can still see what happened during the storm. Instead of reading a history book, you can read the landscape.

Steve Long: If your woods look like that, you can pretty much guarantee it was from the hurricane.

Fifty years earlier, the state saw a different extreme: a punishing blizzard that took hundreds of lives. It might have been the worst combination of snowfall, cold temperatures, and high winds that the state has ever seen. Over two days, it hit every single part of Vermont.

Lucy Freeman West: Monday, March 12, 1888

At zero tonight – very windy and snowed hard and drifted all day – so I did not wash.

In 1888, one in four people in the United States lived between Washington, DC and Maine. The blizzard that year paralyzed the entire region.

Lucy Freeman West and Erastus Hebard wrote about the storm in their diaries.

Fred and the boys went up with the steers this morning. They got a postal from J. M. Alford saying they were coming Wednesday. So I made and frosted two loaves of fruit cake this PM and we churned. The snow blows in everywhere it can and great drifts are on the piazza.

A light snow began on Sunday, March 11. In Woodstock, it started around noon; in Burlington, around eight pm.

Overnight, the storm got stuck: a high-pressure area to the south was sending it north towards Vermont, but it was blocked by another high-pressure area over the Atlantic provinces of Canada. The storm center stalled just south of Long Island, picking up moisture and spinning faster and faster. The barometer began to drop.

Erastus Hebard: Monday, March 12, 1888

What a day. Stormy with a strong wind, from the north with everything being blockaded. All we could possibly do was to water our stock.

No better at dark.

It grew bitterly cold overnight that Monday, plunging into the low single digits, and now the snow fell faster – and heavier.

Lucy Freeman West: Blew all night and till about ten. I think I never saw it drifted quite so deep here. It was within three feet of the eaves of the piazza. Fred and Black drove through to Dimmick’s and to Unionville this PM but it was very hard work. The snow was most to the horse’s backs. West has been in his element. I made ten pies, cleaned up around the chamber stairs.

The wind averaged 40 miles per hour in Manchester, and 62 miles per hour in Brattleboro. And it wasn’t just snowing – the snow was blowing sideways, piling up into drifts up to twenty feet high. It buried entire houses.

Erastus Hebard: Tuesday, March 13, 1888

Throughout the Northeast, hundreds of people were killed. Their ships sank, or they were caught in drifts or flooding, or their houses collapsed. People were stuck where they had been when the storm started: on trains, in theaters, visiting friends, or on their own farms.

Erastus Hebard: No better. Barn and stable doors all blocked up. Biggest drifts in front of the house I ever saw. Frank Wyman and Leat Blodgett call on us. No words or any sign of any hard winter and no signs of any ending.

The snow continued through Thursday, but by the end of Tuesday, the worst of it was over. Every town in Vermont got at least a foot of snow. Bennington got 48 inches.

Back then, there was no infrastructure for plowing roads. Nothing moved. Trains were derailed, or just stuck. Horses and oxen couldn’t break through. It was up to humans with shovels to dig out.

Erastus Hebard: Wednesday, March 14, 1888

Shoveling roads all through the country. The New England states have had a terrible storm. Julius shoveled all day and I done the chores.

So the next time you’re out shoveling, think about the blizzard of 1888. It could be worse.

The blizzard and the hurricane both blew up from around Long Island. But Vermont’s extreme weather can come from even farther afield. In 1816, farmers here started to notice some unseasonable frosts. And they didn’t know what to make of them.

Larry Coffin: They thought maybe it was God. In those days, the feeling was that God manifested his will through nature, and so therefore perhaps God was angry with the society.

Larry Coffin is a local historian from Bradford.

Larry Coffin: Or maybe it was earthquakes in the Mississippi River Valley, or the use of too many lightning rods, or perhaps too much deforestation. They just really weren’t sure what was happening.

In April 1815, a volcano erupted in Indonesia. Not just any volcano: a super-volcano named Mount Tambora.

Larry Coffin: and when it blew up, it blew millions of tons of ash, and soot, and vapors into the air, and those circulated.

The ash traveled up into the atmosphere, where it drifted to cover most of the Northern Hemisphere. The ash blocked the sunlight.

Larry says that Vermonters began to see the effects just a few months later.

Larry Coffin: For instance, in the very early part of the fall of 1815, Vermonters began to see really red sunsets, caused by the dust and the vapors in the air.

The winter was mild, but then spring never really came. Then June brought twelve inches of snow.

Larry Coffin: The crops froze. Brick layers in the area, for example, couldn’t continue, because their water would freeze.

It got worse.

Larry Coffin: By August there was a general fear of famine, despite the fact that in some towns rye did pretty well, and in some towns wheat continued, but corn was definitely out….So some farmers by then were pretty desperate and would build fires around their fields, trying to keep the crops in order, but that didn’t really work.

Larry says he couldn’t find evidence of any Vermonters dying of famine, but some had to go to extremes to survive.

Larry Coffin: A lot of people survived by foraging for things like nettles or even an occasional hedgehog, and they began to trade maple syrup for mackerel from the Atlantic coast, so sometimes the year is called the year of the mackerel.

Most of us call it the Year Without A Summer. Some farms never recovered. Families lost everything when their crops failed, and they saw leaving as their only option.

Larry Coffin: Well, I think perhaps one of the real impacts of this was that people gave into Ohio fever and moved. They figured maybe this was done for Northern New England.

Among the families that left Vermont to seek opportunity elsewhere was the Smith family of Sharon. Joseph and Lucy Smith moved their growing family, including eleven year old son Joseph, to Palmyra, New York, after their crops failed. The family’s move placed them square in the heart of the Second Great Awakening, a new wave of religious enthusiasm. Joseph Jr. would grow up to found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Larry Coffin: I think that there’s a certain degree of stubbornness. In what I know about my own ancestors, all of whom are Vermonters and have been here since Vermont was a state, they were stubborn, and they had to be. It’s difficult to live on farms, and you have to be solid in your approach to it, the way that life is, and take it as it goes.

Vermonters who stayed worried in some of the same ways we worry today. They worried that the best and brightest were leaving the state, and there wouldn’t be enough people left behind to support the economy. They worried that Vermont would never look the same. They weren’t entirely wrong. One volcano, almost ten thousand miles away, had changed Vermont forever.

Larry Coffin: I think the one thing we’ve come to realize in modern times is that our local weather can be impacted by events thousands of miles away. So for example, my garden — we’ve planted the same garden for almost fifty years. And we have had probably ten days on each end of the growing season that we never had when we moved into that house. And that’s obviously being affected by climatic change all around the world.

But I’m not sure that they realized it then.

We’re realizing now that global events are once again changing Vermont’s weather and way of life.

Roger Hill: Variability is on the increase. The old days of following the calendar like we used to have in New England…those days are gone.

We asked Roger Hill what the weather in Vermont will look like as climate change continues. In the short term, we’ll get more precipitation – so more snow. But the pendulum could swing the other way, too.

Roger Hill: We’re sitting here with beautiful green lush vegetation right now. But if we were to have a really bad drought, just imagine what birch bark does. Just imagine the kind of fire we could have.

He thinks in fifty years, it might snow only on the mountaintops. And as things heat up, the solitary hurricane of 1938 might begin to look tame.

Roger Hill: As you heat up the oceans, which is where a lot of the warming is taking place right now, those sea surface temperatures may mean that we have a hurricane alley that comes up into New England, kind of like what North Carolina experiences and maybe down in Florida.

We may be looking to our history of extreme weather for lessons more often than we’d like – and in fifty years, our experiences now will be history to Vermonters in a place that we might not even recognize.

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. This episode was produced by Mike Dougherty, Amanda Gustin, and Eileen Corcoran. Thanks to our guests, Roger Hill, Steve Long, and Larry Coffin. Grace Olney and Josh Muse read the diaries of Lucy West and Erastus Hebard. Additional audio courtesy WDEV Radio. Music by Michael Chapman and the Woodpiles, Blue Dot Sessions, Lee Rosevere, and Chris Zabriskie.