Opinion

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Reporter's Notebook

Outlier Obsessions

As a hopeless numbers obsessive, weather is a treasure trove

The National Weather Service issued a rare winter fire warning over the weekend for areas in northern and central Montana. Temperatures hit the mid-60s and wind gusts exceeded 70 miles per hour, even reaching 106 mph in Glacier County on Saturday. Humidity was low. Cars driving down my street kicked up dust. Fortunately, there were no fires, but the warning itself was newsworthy. It’s February.

Locally, trees falling during a windstorm on Saturday downed power lines and caused widespread power outages, while gusts flipped a semi-truck near Stevensville, blocking all four highway lanes. Temperatures in the Flathead were in the 50s, not quite the tropical balminess felt east of the Continental Divide but jarringly toasty nonetheless.

On Sunday, my 3-year-old son, seeing the streets cleared of snow by the previous day’s wind and warmth, decided to take his Power Wheels out for a spin. He squealed, “Yay, it’s summer!” Monday morning’s frigid air was a rude awakening.

The unseasonable weather was all the more noteworthy for its sharp contrast to last February, when snow and temperature records were widely broken across the state. The Washington Post wrote a story in March headlined, “Montana just endured one of the nation’s most exceptional cold spells on record.” The article noted that parts of the state “averaged 27 to 28 degrees below normal” in February, “the most extreme departures in the Lower 48 for a full month since January 1969.”

The temperature in Great Falls only surpassed freezing one day in February and remained frigid in March, breaking the city’s all-time record for consecutive days below freezing with 32, regularly plummeting double digits in the negative. Meanwhile, it was 64 in Great Falls on Saturday.

I could happily cite such figures all day. As a hopeless numbers obsessive, weather is a treasure trove. I spend far more time than is healthy analyzing temperature records, snowpack figures and stream flows, even shooting off sporadic emails to National Weather Service staff to obtain figures that could ostensibly be used in a story but are mostly just to quench a thirst that is as insatiable as it is inexplicable.

This admittedly strange, perhaps concerning, behavior is a continuation of my lifelong fascination with examining statistics, which began when I was a young boy and would study sports box scores in the newspaper each morning, for no apparent reason other than to enjoy the language of math and commit useless numbers to memory.

To this day, I find myself working through multi-stepped math problems in my head to pass time, and will randomly recall, say, Chuck Knoblauch’s .341 batting average for the Minnesota Twins in 1996. Other than trivia and banter among fellow sports fans, this knowledge serves no discernible purpose, but it’s there, filed away in the dark recesses of my brain among an ever-growing database of other similarly pointless figures.

I suppose the ability to solve math problems and navigate data has usefulness for my job, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career 28,307 field-goal attempts will never pass any practicality test. My sons will be thrilled the day I bestow that knowledge upon them.

But I can’t help myself. Like most people, I will be watching the weather throughout February, but unlike most people, planning activities will only be a fraction of the reason. What the ultimate purpose for stockpiling that information is, I can’t say.