Watching the weather in California

  • Photo illustration: (c) Getty, Paul & Lindamarie Ambrose


At 15, I waited for storms. I wanted drama in my placid life. But when I finally got one -- the 1991 Oakland firestorm -- it destroyed a few thousand houses, including ours. Afterwards, my dad sank into a depression, my younger brother started climbing out of windows and into trouble, and for years, I felt a lingering instability that took over at unexpected moments -- on airplanes and ski lifts, even idling at red lights. Even so, a small part of me felt that, at long last, something interesting had happened to me -- that now I had a story to tell.

Years later, during the last weeks of pregnancy, I again felt the weight of waiting. Enormous and exhausted, I'd rest my chin on the table during dinner. All my hormone-blurred mind could focus on was the weather.

One sleepless night, I found that the National Weather Service was looking for volunteers to send in eyewitness storm reports. I flipped through a slideshow with photos of tempests overlaid with storm facts, then took an online test. Within 15 minutes, I was a weather spotter.

The NWS SKYWARN program started in the 1960s, and now, 122 offices around the country have networks of volunteer weather spotters on the lookout for everything from thick fog to thunderstorms. Official papers -- a business card, field manuals, a placard for the car in case I had to stop suddenly to observe a tornado -- arrived in the mail.

To me, weather spotting sounded like a chance for some badly needed adventure. I imagined the baby and me wrapped in slickers and rainboots, facing down a storm from the seaside bluffs.

I ordered a small weather station. The anemometer went on the peak of the roof, where it could whirl away like the propeller on a boy's cap. The rain gauge sat on top of the carport, tipping out its tiny bucket as raindrops filled it, one-hundredth of an inch at a time.

Before a real storm could come, my son was born. The only memory I have of the weather that day is an overcast haze, where daylight and darkness smeared together until at last he appeared.

I kept waiting. Together, the baby and I sat in the rocking chair, watching the bird feeder and the unchanging blue winter sky. The days and nights were sweet, magical -- and still. I was torn between reveling in the quiet and wondering when the adventure would begin.

I woke up one February night when the dog jumped on the bed. Thunder filled the room. I checked the clock: 2 a.m. I was about to turn over when the baby woke, too. I sat up and watched the readout on the weather station while he nursed.

During the next half-hour, it rained .17 inches. Not enough. Then, at 2:32, the cadence quickened. On the roof, the rain gauge's bucket kept bailing -- nearly a half an inch in 10 minutes, much more than the inch-an-hour minimum required for a report.

I called the NWS hotline, and to my surprise, a real person answered. I gave my report, finding it hard to breathe and talk at the same time -- I felt like something exciting was about to happen. When my voice faded, the meteorologist asked, "Anything else?" I felt like I should explain why I was awake -- the dog, the thunder, the baby -- but I said nothing. "Are you near the Tea Fire?" he asked, talking about a fire that had swept through Santa Barbara's mountains a few months earlier.

I wasn't. I hung up, feeling defeated. If I had only been near the fire, perhaps I could have been more helpful, could have watched for the mudslides he was worried about.

The rest of the winter passed and I had nothing to report. The wind got stronger, but never reached the minimum 25-mph gust. Gentle rain came and went. Eventually, I put the weather station's monitor away.

As winter approached this year, I found the monitor in a closet. This time, instead of plugging it in and sitting, expectantly, in front of it, I called our local NWS district office to find out if it mattered that I watched at all.

Even though our climate is mild, the spotter program's coordinator told me, local spotters have warned of mudslides, inch-and-a-quarter hailstones, even the over-water tornadoes known as water spouts. And storms don't stay put: Rain in one place can augur distant snowstorms, icy roads.

I should have known this. After all, when I lived hundreds of miles away, in the snow-hungry Sierra, I used to watch for the bright green patches of coastal rain on the TV weather map. But over the years, my life had become more circumscribed. By the time I had my son, the only weather I watched was what was happening outside the window. I didn't think about where it came from, or where it might be going.

Maybe what I was searching for the night I became a weather spotter wasn't adventure, but safety. I'm fascinated by the wildness of weather, and yet I want to know what's coming next. But now I know I don't have to face down storms alone. I want to go back and tell the girl I once was that she didn't have to watch out for disaster at every stoplight, that others were checking rain gauges, counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder that rumbled through her bones.

I want to tell my son, too. Because now he's big enough for rainboots. In one video I have of him, he splashes through a puddle, his face washed with pure delight. When he emerges on the far side, he moves the tips of his fingers together, the sign for more.

What is there to do with a force of nature? Only measure this storm in inches and time, only record what I think I have seen as the weather passes through. My son's fingers meet, over and over. Come on, storms, we're as ready as we'll ever be.

Cameron Walker writes from California.

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