'That Wondrous Second Wind'

Poets and meteorologists can tell you: Indian summer is not all that rare. But after the weird weather year we've had, it's a breath of fresh air.

November 04, 2003|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Do not be troubled.

You are not being toasted by a solar flare.

You are not standing in the path of El Nino.

You are not trapped in the nightmare of global warming.

Yesterday's tender, warm breezes, powder-blue skies and diaphanous daylight hours were as normal, natural and regular as an October pumpkin patch.

Hard to believe, but in a year when foul weather patterns brought record snow, extreme rain and a lashing tropical storm, Mother Nature has suddenly turned charitable. Like silver linings, double rainbows and January thaws, the unexpected appearance in Maryland of a certifiable Indian summer is noteworthy indeed.

Kenneth E. Pickering, the state's climatologist, dug out his Glossary of Meteorology yesterday to see if the term "Indian summer" actually appeared among the harder facets of his science.

"Yeah, here it is," he said. "The official definition: A period in mid- or late-autumn ... abnormally warm ... clear skies ... hazy days, cool nights ... extends back to at least 1778 ..."

Weather historians know the 1778 reference points directly to J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, an early American essayist and itinerant surveyor. Crevecoeur's classic Letters From An American Farmer included a singular observation about "an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer [characterized by] a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness."

The phenomenon has long been such a natural part of East Coast weather patterns that Pickering's glossary modestly acknowledged the unknown origins of the phrase, speculating only that it may refer to the way Native Americans once took advantage of the event "to increase winter [food] storage."

Nonetheless, the term has been famously enshrined in literature by American poets from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in "The Song of Hiawatha" (From his pipe the smoke ascending/filled the sky with haze and vapor/filled the air with dreamy softness/ gave a twinkle to the water ... brought the tender Indian Summer) to Walt Whitman (that wondrous second wind, the Indian summer, attains its amplitude and heavenly perfection ... the sunny haze; the mellow, rich, delicate, almost flavoured air.)

It is enough to send any bespectacled weather geek into flights of fancy.

"I think of it the way some people think of a bottle of wine - an Indian summer vintage," said Keith Heidorn, a meteorologist and weather writer from Victoria, British Columbia. Heidorn is no Whitman, but he also refers to it, poetically, as "the relaxing of winter's first major bite."

`Southerly air flow'

"It starts out as a polar continental air mass that's dry and cool that moves off the Atlantic coast," he said, "and then is replaced by a subtropical Bermuda high. What you get is a warm, humid, southerly air flow that can lock in for days."

Although its historic origins are hard to pin down, the weather pattern itself is easily sketched, Heidorn said.

The Indian summer air mass typically follows a large, cold air mass that slides down into mid-Atlantic states from north-central Canada in October, bringing the first frosts.

As the cold air system moves off into the Atlantic, it breaks up storm cycles and gives way to the impressive, warm "Indian summer" air mass. Extending high into the atmosphere, the warm air alters the polar jet stream by nudging it ever farther north.

In the higher elevations, the air sinks, warms further and creates something called a "subsidence inversion" that inhibits clouds from forming. The result: clear, richly blue skies. When the Earth's surface cools rapidly after sunset, a surface inversion layer creates the beautiful foggy or "smoky" appearance that makes poets (and some meteorologists) swoon.

Weather systems like the Indian summer also occur in other parts of the world, Heidorn said.

In some regions of Europe it is called an "old wive's summer" or "second summer." In Poland, it's "God's gift to Poland." In Central Europe, "halcyon days."

`Extreme ... is normal'

While some may look with awe at its apparent steady regularity across the centuries, and others may marvel at the sudden burst of good fortune that surely foreshadows winter on our heels, Pickering seemed decidedly less impressed than Heidorn yesterday.

"In October and November, the normal or mean temperature is often made up of a lot of variability - hot and cold - so it's just not that unusual. You could say the extreme case is normal at this time of year."

To which one might only add: Ahh, extreme normalcy, at last!

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