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Weather Watch: After the First Frost

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Posted on October 13, 2011 | Blog Category:
By Charlie Hohn



the final harvest of the year

Last week I undertook a yearly ritual known to many in Vermont. I went out to the garden and harvested anything that looked even remotely edible. Green tomatoes, underripe peppers, tiny baby greens, and undersized corn cobs all ended up in my bucket. The reason for my garden purge, of course, was the forecast of frost the following evening.

The experience was almost surreal in its 'fall-ness'. As I walked out to the garden, under a darkening, cloudless sky, dry leaves crunched underfoot. The driveway was littered with sugar maple seeds. At first, there were no bird sounds to be heard, but as I harvested, I heard faint, familiar calls - Canada geese, high above. The calls grew louder as the geese flew directly overhead in an irregular 'V' shape, heading due south.

Yet, nothing was a stronger sign of the changes of the season than the smell in the air. It SMELLED like frost. I don't know how else to describe it, but anyone who has lived in Vermont for any significant amount of time knows the smell. This, above anything else, told me I was making the right decision as I pillaged the last of the garden. There was going to be a frost.

The next morning I woke up before the sun rose above Mt. Moosalamoo and headed outside. The thermometer read 31 degrees. The cars parked outside were patterned with feathery frost and the grass was frosted white and crunched underfoot. The cucumber leaves did not yet look damaged, but later in the day they would turn brown and wilt. Smoke from a nearby chimney lay low, held in the pooled cold air in the valley (called a temperature inversion) and unable to rise much higher than the roofs of the houses. I talked to my neighbor, who lives up the street. He told me that the coldest temperature experienced by his garden (which is on a hill above the valley inversion layer) was 36 degrees. I wondered if, on Wednesday night, the smell of frost hung over his home too, or if that phenomena phenomenon was truly restricted to the areas due to drop below freezing.

One of the most remarkable things about Vermont is its variability in weather and climate - within a day, week, month, year, and from year to year. Several times I have asked long-time Vermonters if a weather pattern was 'normal' only to be told there is no normal - every winter brings a different mix of snow, frigid nights, and thaws, and every summer thunderstorm reacts differently when it reaches the base of the mountains. To be sure, there are patterns - my neighbor tells me he often gets several extra frost-free weeks at his house than people living in the valley nearby - but there are no guarantees, and no periods of stagnation. Sometimes people ask me if I miss southern California weather, but heading into my third Vermont winter, I still do not. Who would prefer a guarantee of smog and dry heat over a day that dawns with almost anything possible? Indeed, in mid October, anAddison County resident could experience anything from a snow flurry to an 80 degree sunny day.

The last seven days offered a true taste of this variability. After cold rains and a frost, the temperatures over the weekend rose to summer-like levels. Burlington set a record high temperature of 80 degrees on Sunday and the Middlebury College weather station reported a high temperature of 79.5 degrees. As the week passes, we can expect cooling daytime temperatures and a few waves of rain through Saturday night. Beyond this, no further heat waves are expected, and one run of one weather model even indicated a chance of light snow in about two weeks. Of course, long range forecasts - and even short range forecasts - are quite prone to error in Vermont. So in truth, we could experience almost anything.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Charlie Hohn is a recent graduate of the UVM Field Naturalist graduate program. He has been closely watching the weather ever since he was a child in southern California. Charlie will be posting occasional blog posts here about Addison County weather. He also blogs about water at slowwatermovement.blogspot.com.

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