We've heard lots of talk recently about global warming, with terrible consequences being visited upon us because of the emission of greenhouse gases. I take that very seriously, but still, the most dire effects are some years away. Of more immediate concern to me and my family is the weather this coming weekend. Ironically, we can put off finding a solution to the earth changing consequences of global warming for another day, but a threat to my plans for the weekend stirs an immediate reaction!
So I ask you, why does it always seem to rain on the weekend? Is this a baseless illusion? Or, if the impression rests upon some solid facts, and it does actually rain more often on weekends, interrupting our leisure time activity, is God punishing us for some reason? Or is the rainy weekend phenomenon the result of natural causes?
I read with interest recently the results of research done at Arizona State University (ASU), showing a correlation between air pollution and weekend weather along the US Atlantic coast. The study, published in the prestigious journal, Nature, suggests that rain is most likely to occur on the weekend and the weather is most likely to be better during the week ... Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, being the best days. One probable cause of the pattern is the "cloud-seeding effect" created by the massive drift of East Coast pollution, which also follows a well defined weekly cycle.
ASU climatologists Randall Cerveny and Robert Balling, Jr. examined and compared three different data sets - daily carbon monoxide and ozone measurements from a Canadian monitoring station on Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, daily satellite-derived rainfall data for the Atlantic Ocean, and databases of coastal Atlantic hurricanes. In each case, when the two ASU scientists examined the data, they found a seven-day cycle.
In examining precipitation in the Atlantic, they found no daily variation when looking at the ocean as a whole, but a pronounced variation for the coastal areas, with average daily precipitation rising on Thursday and into the weekend and then dipping from Sunday through the middle of the week. Balling notes that when the team analyzed satellite data for areas a little further away from the coast, they found the same pattern, time-shifted in accordance with the rate of pollution drift.
A comparable fluctuation in the levels of East Coast air pollution points to an obvious connection.
That's the bad news; now for the good news
Coastal hurricane intensity data taken from 1945 to 1996 follows a similar pattern. While pollution makes for more rainy weekends, it also apparently reduces the intensity of hurricanes that hit over the weekend, such that weekend hurricanes tend to be much weaker than, say, Tuesday storms. "Hurricanes are the biggest storms that we have on this planet, in terms of energy and precipitation," noted Cerveny. "And what we've found is that we're having an impact on them. It's a little daunting, when you start to think about it."
"The fact that pollution can affect rainfall is actually well understood," said Balling. "We just had to look for the evidence in the right place. The hurricane data, though, surprised the heck out of me."
So if you're headed off to the coast or the country this weekend and the forecast is bleak, don't assume that God is punishing you for bad behavior this work week ... your misfortune may result from our collective failure to get a grip on air pollution. And that's a problem that we should all be addressing out of an interest in survival, if not for the larger religious and moral imperatives.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.