We entered December 2021 in a drought, with a new local plea for water conservation. Then we had rainfall in December that broke several Southern California records.
The announcement that we’d get no water from our purchased State Water Project supplies was followed by the announcement of record snowfall in the Sierras. (Snow is essentially a giant water reservoir.) We closed the year with tornados on the ground for over 200 miles (a huge deal, speaking as someone who grew up in “tornado alley”) in the south-central U.S. and fires in the decidedly non-forested Denver suburbs.
These things were all newsworthy. They were not normal. Not expected. But, obviously, not impossible.
Ah, expectations. If we expect things to always be the same, we will be disappointed. The term “the new normal” is used so often that we think “normal” is a regular occurrence. A goal. A dot on a chart.
With weather and climate, hitting at that line on the graph known as “average” is highly unlikely. There are highs and lows. There is variance (also known as standard deviation) which gives an indication of how realistic an average is.
For instance, if you average 0, 0, 100 and 100, you get an average of 50. Similarly, if you average 49, 50, 50 and 51, you also get 50. The spread on the former set of numbers is much different than the latter set. Both sets of numbers tell a different story, and yet they have the same average. On both a personal and policy note, acting as if average is a good planning tool while ignoring variance is a mistake.
When packing for a trip, if you only bring clothes for the average temperature, you’ll be too hot or too cold a good portion of the time.
When planning for water supply, it would be a mistake to plan for the average year without accounting for the highs and lows in precipitation.
With childhood education, parents want services for the entire range of children, not just the average child. We don’t design planes to only stay aloft in “average” weather. Our flood control channels aren’t built for average rainfall.
Realistically not everything can be built for the extremes but ignoring the range of possibilities in favor of averages will fail us.
Our household has been streaming a few amazing shows on the National Geographic Channel, including the “One Strange Rock” and “Welcome to Earth” series, both narrated by Will Smith. The former includes eye-opening insight from astronauts, and the latter includes explorers of all types.
The simplified takeaway? The planet is huge and magical and we are but a tiny part of it. Are we being arrogant for wishing it be a certain way? Would we be better served understanding, adapting, and yes, enjoying the bigger forces around us? As a cyclist and outdoorsperson, I’ve long loved the quote, “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.”
I remember childhood camping trips, when Dad warned us to not camp on low ground, especially in a canyon. Several years ago our family had an idyllic trip to Zion National Park, which is full of canyons. We visited during a drought year with record heat, yet did OK by hiking early and soaking in a little waist-deep stream in our campground during the hot afternoons.
In 2021, the same campground was hit with a destructive summer flash flood in the same month as we previously suffered through a heatwave. We realistically must anticipate and prepare for the extremes, not the averages.
Author Maggie Shipstead wrote in Outside Magazine (December 2021) about an Alaskan backpacking trip: “Conquering. Slaying. Bagging. Of course, that is all hubristic nonsense…. A landform has no capacity to yield, to admit surrender, to be anything but indifferent to our little footprints. It takes a deeply silly species to frame its relationship to its environment in terms of combat. The best we can hope for is to go safely into the wilderness and come out again — just to be there and pass through.”
It may have taken a pandemic to remind us that “normal” is temporary. Weather reminds us that “average” exists only on a calculator. Some find this upsetting or frustrating. I’ve learned to bring both bug spray and a winter coat to the mountains.
“Normal” shall forevermore exist with quotes around it, but that shouldn’t keep us from living. Eyes wide open, yes, but living, adapting and hopefully thriving.
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner and mom living in Santa Clarita.