7 Geeky Weather Facts for Your Next Trivia Night

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Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who served the U.S. Supreme Court from 1972 through his death in 2005, was also a weather observer for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Photo: U.S. Department of Justice

May I introduce this list of fun, trivia-game-worthy facts that you might only hear from a meteorologist. Impress your friends at parties! Inspire your kids! There’s no end to the fun here! These facts are in no particular order, just the order they popped into my head. Nor are they adherent to any particular theme in weather history or meteorology. Enjoy!

  1. Former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Honorable William Rehnquist was a weather man! He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 and served as a weather observer at bases throughout the western U.S. and North Africa before taking his GI Bill and heading to Stanford University (where he would later earn his bachelors, masters and law degrees). He particularly enjoyed his time at Cazes Air Base, Casablanca, Morocco (just after the war ended). After all, the Humphrey Bogart film Casablanca had just come out a year or so prior and it was one of his favorite films.
  2. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. had a weatherman for a big brother. Many Americans have heard of the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Many of have read his World War II satire, Slaughterhouse Five, at some point, right? Slaughterhouse Five is but one of Vonnegut’s 14 full novels. One of his earlier works, Cat’s Cradle, gives props to his older brother’s research area. Another wartime satire, Cat’s Cradle explores the uses of science and technology not for good, but for evil. Bernard Vonnegut is known in meteorology circles as the individual who discovered that a silver iodide solution could be used to seed clouds, a technique that has been used widely to help relieve drought, divert tornadoes and attempt to win wars.
  3. Speaking of cloud seeding, did you know that the American military seeded clouds during the Vietnam War in an attempt to flood the Ho Chi Minh trail and part of Laos?  Operation Popeye employed U.S. Air Force aircraft to fly “weather reconnaissance” missions that dispersed silver iodide over target areas. Quantitatively, it wasn’t known whether the cloud-seeding itself produced the desired effect, but qualitatively, the trail did experience more flooding conditions and more rain than normal was measured in summer 1967. Cloud seeding is a double-edged sword, however. Increased rainy conditions may have resulted in some movements of American POWs from Son Tay prison, and a subsequent failure of a prisoner rescue attempt.
  4. Raindrops are not shaped like raindrops. What? Wait, wait, just hear me out, okay? Most artists are inclined to depict a raindrop like a teardrop. But rain doesn’t fall this way. Follow this tutorial by one of my favorite professors, Dr. Alastair Fraser, about how air pressure and surface tension tends to make a raindrop form into more of a hamburger-bun-like shape. Want to see for yourself? Try making this “raindrop machine” with these instructions from About.com.
  5. Speaking of raindrops, the fastest a raindrop can fall is 18 mph. Why can’t it fall any faster? Because if a drop gets any larger than about 4 mm radius the friction of the air passing the drop will shear it into smaller droplets. So when you’re standing outside in a tropical deluge, you think those huge drops are hurting you, and your friends think you’re a wuss, just postulate to your friends what it might feel like if a car hit you going 18 mph. The guys over at The Naked Science Forum offer some weblinks for further explanations of this.
  6. The first mathematical weather forecast, which was a six-hour forecast, took over six weeks to calculate. Throughout history, weather forecasting has been more of an art than a science. But prior to computers, satellites and radars, more intuitive methods prevailed. Humans relied on observations — from farmers and sailors, mostly — to make predictions. For example, if a farmer received three inches of rain on his farm every July, the farmer can forecast three inches of rain this coming July. It wasn’t until Lewis Fry Richardson attempted calculations in 1920 by solving the “primitive equations” that govern atmospheric motion that a more quantitative approach was taken. But six weeks for a six-hour forecast simply wasn’t practical. This exercise was tabled until the 1940s development of the ENIAC supercomputer, which made timely numerical weather forecasting reality. Learn more about the history of “numerical weather prediction” at Wikipedia.
  7. Some of those weather old wives’ tales are true!  Has anyone ever told you that the frequency of cricket chirps is actually related to the temperature? It’s true! (Number of chirps in 15 seconds) + 37 = air temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. How about deciduous tree leaves showing their undersides just before a thunderstorm? This is true as well: The updrafts that help the humid air rise, condense and precipitate also blows the leaves upward. What about cows sitting down before it rains? Folks aren’t so sure about that one; there have been no scientific collaborations to my knowledge (but feel free to leave a comment if you know of a study). The most intelligent explanation I’ve encountered (from Argonne National Laboratory’s “Ask a Scientist” segment) suggests that the cows are sitting down anticipating the ground cooling off when the rain hits it. What do you think?
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