Madison Monday: the microclimate of downtown

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The heat in Madison has finally and blessedly broken for now.  Over the weekend, we had highs that didn’t climb out of the 70s, and nighttime lows that made it almost chilly at night if you opened your windows.  My husband says the weather has restored his hope in the world.  It certainly has been the kind of summer to suck much of the life out of people as well as all the plants.

This summer has been characterized by some particularly infuriating weather patterns.  There have been many times when I’ve looked at The Weather Channel on my smartphone and the background indicates that it’s supposed to be raining…right now.  But it is not.  I have heard the sound of thunder, and still we’ve gotten no rain.  I’ve watched on the satellite map as long lines of rain seem to break apart just as they reach Madison.  It’s hard not to take these things personally.

These are largely random glitches in the weather, as annoying as they might be.  Less random are the weather phenomenon connected to living in a river valley and the little microclimate that’s created here.

What might or might not be a cloudy day

A microclimate is simply an atmospheric zone where the climate differs from the surrounding area.  It can be as small as a garden bed or as large as a city.  They can be caused by tree cover, bodies of water, exposure to sunlight, elevation or the predominance of paved land in urban areas.

I’m no meteorologist, so let me say at the outset that I have no idea exactly what causes the little microclimate in downtown Madison.  I suspect it has to do with the river as a body of water and the sheltering effects of being in a valley.  I don’t know if it extends up and down the length of the river, or if it’s just in this particular little part.  What I know is that the weather is a little different down here.  Here’s my (very unscientific) evidence:

1.  My flowers bloom before your flowers.  As someone who gardens (if haphazardly at times), I pay attention to when various plants bloom.  This is especially true in the spring when you’re desperate for any sign of life.  I have a friend who is also an avid gardener (and much less haphazard about it than I am) and she lives outside of the river valley, but just 6 miles away.  Thus, we can compare notes on the timing of when various flowers bloom in the spring.  Sometimes, when a flower blooms is contingent on when you planted them.  But for other flowers it’s all about the temperature.  And year after year, my daffodils, as well as various other spring plants, bloom well before my friend’s.

2.  Did it snow?  Downtowners cannot depend on looking outside to assess the seriousness of any given winter storm.  When I first moved downtown and would wake up in the morning to no snow, only to drive up to campus to find a generous dusting, I thought it was just a random thing.  When this happened over and over again, with frost as well as snow, I began to suspect some temperature differences at play.  In the late spring, my gardening friend will be in danger of frosts that don’t happen down here.  Generally, these differences seem to make it slightly warmer downtown than it is outside of the valley.  So, less snow, or sometimes, no snow at all.  Sometimes during the winter, I wish we could all just stay downtown.

3.  What will the weather be today?  Another realization I gradually reached living downtown has to do with the morning weather.  If you live downtown, almost every morning at first appears like it will be cloudy.  You wake up, look out the window, and the light looks overcast.  But this is not an accurate prediction of what the actual weather will be like for the rest of the day.  Sometimes this cloudiness is very clearly fog…you can see it lying low along the river and then burning off.  But sometimes it doesn’t look like fog at all.  It just looks like clouds.  And yet, by about 9 in the morning, it’s gone and sunny as can be.  The only other place I’ve been that was like this is an island off the coast of Florida.

The magnolia next door

4.  The magnolias.  This is perhaps my least convincing bit of evidence, but I have to throw it in.  Magnolias are something I associate with the deep South…Mississippi and Alabama.  Maybe that’s just cultural…Southerners like magnolias more so they plant more of them.  My mother tried for years to grow a rhododendron, another southern plant that’s sensitive to temperature.  It always got fried by frost in the winter.  There is a kind of hardy magnolia you can buy to plant in colder climates, but that is not the kind of magnolia that you see thriving all over downtown Madison.  And I mean, thriving.  These are not piddling little magnolia trees.  They are big and tall and vigorous.  I’ve seen a few outside of downtown, including a couple on the Hanover campus, but they’re sheltered between buildings.  It would be interesting to know what other kinds of plants folks have tried downtown.  Every now and then I see a banana tree.  I think perhaps you’d have better luck with a fig down here than you would up on the hill.  At the very least, it bodes well if we ever want to plant a peach tree in the backyard.

That’s the sum total of my microclimate evidence, most of it based in a mild obsession with weather and growing things.  I’ve got no problem with living in a place with weather that’s just a teeny bit milder than the area around us.  Other microclimate cities…San Francisco.

Or maybe I just want the weather to be different downtown…

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