A Jury of Slimy Philosophical Counselors

It’s been a crazy couple of days here in the Greater St. Louis area as historic flash flooding has overwhelmed roadways, swamped cars, and caused a lot of damage to homes and businesses. By historic, I mean this was the biggest rain event this region has ever seen since records of such things exist starting in 1874.

According to the National Weather Service, in just six hours, the rainfall total surpassed the previous record set in a 24-hour period in 1915. To put it in a slightly different perspective, the St. Louis area received approximately 25% of its normal annual rainfall total in something like twelve hours, and closer to a third in some areas. It’s a hot mess.

This is one of the interstates we travel daily. A friend sent me this picture and I don’t know whose it is originally. I will gladly give credit or remove as requested.

Now, let me reassure you that though my suburban town did receive impressive rain totals and is in some places dealing with damage from the flood waters, my personal home is relatively elevated and has remained dry. I’m certainly very grateful for that. Other than having to alter schedules and commutes, my family hasn’t been particularly affected by the downpour.

Prior to the deluge, we St. Louisans had been experiencing a stretch of drought and we needed the rain, so we were more or less delighted when Monday brought us cloudy skies and occasional drizzles with the promise of a nice overnight thunderstorm. We just hadn’t anticipated so much rain so quickly.

It’s not that our weather forecasters hadn’t mentioned the possibility of a lot of precipitation and maybe even some flash flooding. We all accepted, I think, that it wasn’t going to be an ideal night to tent camp in a creek bed. But it’s not easy to anticipate an event that, to the best of our knowledge, has never happened before.

Dr. Merryweather chose to use 12 leeches so his prognosticators wouldn’t feel “the affliction of solitary confinement,” which I admit is far more consideration that I have ever given to a leech. Image by István Asztalos from Pixabay

Even with all their university degrees, computer models, and fancy greenscreen maps, meteorologists have a pretty tough audience to try to reach. It’s just that they deal in probabilities and sometimes, the most probable thing that might happen, isn’t the thing that happens. The last highly anticipated St. Louis snow-pocalypse, for example, yielded less than an inch of light dusting. A little flash flood warning wasn’t going to scare us much.

Now if the meteorologists had run their prognostication by a “jury of philosophical counselors” consisting of at least twelve leeches, then that might’ve caught our attention. And if 19th century English physician and leech enthusiast George Merryweather had gotten his way, that might’ve been what happened.

As a practicing physician in the era of physicians not always knowing what they were doing, Dr. Merryweather spent a lot more time than the average non-physician thinking about leeches. One thing he observed was that their behavior tended to change with the weather. He wasn’t the first to realize this. For a long time, people who had nothing better to do had noted that leeches rise out of the water when a storm is coming and roll themselves into a ball when the storm is at hand.

But amazingly, Dr. Merryweather was the first to design a leech-powered weather predicting device. He called it the “Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, Conducted by Animal Instinct,” which he then shortened to the “Tempest Prognosticator.”

You can see a replica of
Merryweather’s fancy contraption,
minus the leeches, in the Whitby Museum in the UK. I have no doubt it’s worth the trip. Badobadop, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creative
commons.org
/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was an impressive apparatus, consisting of a circle of twelve glass jars arranged around a large metal ball. Each jar contained a little bit of rain water, a leech, and a whale bone striker at the top, which when bumped by a leech climbing into the bottleneck in anticipation of a coming storm, would strike the metal ball and give a warning of impending inclement weather. When enough of Merryweather’s slimy little philosophical counselors sounded the alarm, he knew a storm was on its way.

The really weird part is that it worked, kind of. Or at least it worked as well as other weather predicting equipment of its day. It had limitations, of course. The leeches, who aren’t known to be great communicators, weren’t forthcoming with the direction of a storm, and to be honest, probably wouldn’t have predicted record-breaking flash flooding any better than today’s computer models could.

In the end, Dr. Merryweather’s invention was not adopted as the gold standard of weather prediction he believed it would be. The tempest prognosticator was expensive and required some upkeep as water needed to be changed every week and the jury wanted feeding once in a while. Also, outside of the 19th century medical profession, most people agree leeches are slimy and gross.

But I’m picturing the article headline that might have been: “Leeches Predict Historic St. Louis Rain-Pocalypse.” Something like that would have lit up everyone’s social media feeds and gotten a fair number of clicks, I bet.

Not a Bear. Not a worm. Not a meteorologist.

This week saw the official beginning of autumn on September 23, and the accompanying loss of productivity that results from

I sure hope you like pumpkin! photo credit: JeepersMedia via photopin cc
I sure hope you like pumpkin! photo credit: JeepersMedia via photopin cc

an adorable Google doodle to mark it. I love this season, as the weather begins to cool, the leaves take on the rich hues of the season, and everything starts to smell (and taste) like pumpkin spice.

It’s been especially beautiful in my corner of the world this week with crisp clear mornings that shake off the chill and settle into pleasant sunny afternoons. And there’s a sense of urgency to soak up every bit of the beauty because before too long the jack-o-lanterns will rot on the front porch and we’ll all have had our fill of apples, raking, and, yes, maybe even those pumpkin-spiced lattes.

Then the long, dark, cold months of winter will settle in. According to some weather “experts” we Midwesterners should indeed be bracing for a long, dark, cold, winter. And by “experts,” of course, I mean the woolly worms.

If you’re in another part of the US you may call these critters “wooly bear” or “fuzzy bear” caterpillars even though they are maybe two inches long and not generally (ever) classified as bears. As they are also not technically worms, I won’t argue with you, but this is my blog post so I’ll be referring to them as “wooly worms.” Because that’s what they’re called.photo credit: mattnis via photopin cc
If you’re in another part of the US you may call these critters “woolly bear” or “fuzzy bear” caterpillars even though they are maybe two inches long and not generally (ever) classified as bears. As they are also not technically worms, I won’t argue with you, but this is my blog post so I’ll be referring to them as “woolly worms.” Because that’s what they’re called.photo credit: mattnis via photopin cc

That these fuzzy little critters can predict the degree of severity of the coming winter has been known since at least as early as the 1600’s, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1948 that the phenomenon was (kind of) formally studied. This was the year Dr. Howard Curran, then curator of entomology at the American Museum of Natural History took some friends, including a New York Herald Tribune reporter, their wives, and presumably a picnic with a few bottles of pumpkin spice ale and headed to Bear Mountain State Park to examine the woolly worms.

What he hoped to test was the folklore assertion that the wider the orange/brown band in the middle of the woolly worm’s stripe pattern, the milder the winter, and that collecting and examining woolly worms would be a fun way to spend a day with Mrs. Curran and their friends. Evidence suggests that the latter assertion is absolutely true because the group continued their “research” tradition for the next eight years.

As to whether or not the woolly worm can accurately predict the severity of the coming winter, well, Curran’s evidence did seem to jive with the old wives tale and his results were published in the New York Herald Tribune, sparking renewed interest in the tale that has led to woolly worm festivals and celebrations in Ohio, North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and even recently in Lion’s Head, Ontario, which just goes to show you that searching out woolly worms really is a fun way to spend a Saturday.

Still, Dr. Curran was careful to note that his sample sizes were small, his technique imprecise, and his results, though delightful, were somewhat suspicious. More recent studies have shown that there really isn’t a correlation between the coloration of woolly worms and the weather pattern of the coming winter.

Definitely not a bear. Rod Allday [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of 260 species of Tiger Moth. Definitely not a bear. Rod Allday [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The stripes instead tell us something of the woolly worm’s age, how long it’s been eating, and which of 260 species of tiger moth (the grown up version of the woolly worm) it might belong to. Entomologists do admit that given all that, the coloration may tell us something about the weather patterns of the previous winter, but then even meteorologists can tell us that information with at least some degree of accuracy, so it really isn’t that impressive.

I wonder which side the woolly worms are nestled on. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc
I wonder which side the woolly worms are nestled on. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc

Still, I admit that on a recent family bike ride, we noted the coloration of the droves of woolly worms that crossed the bike path. To our untrained eyes, they seemed to indicate a harsh winter ahead. And a lot of meteorologists agree, citing such prediction tools as statistical analysis and computer generated weather models. Seems to me like it would be easier just to grab a few friends and head out on the bike trail or take a picnic up to Bear Mountain and enjoy a nice slice of pumpkin pie, if for no other reason than to soak up the beauty of these autumn days.