Muffling the Statistics

A teen-ager of our acquaintance, who usually spends his winters fending off even light sweaters, was discovered rummaging in the hall closet for gloves the other morning. This being Southern California, he had to peel away any number of tennis hats, Frisbees, swim fins, backpacks and other subtropical paraphernalia before he came upon two gloves--both for the right hand. Figuring that he was lucky to find any , he took one and kept his left hand in his pocket.

We had liberated a muffler from the same pile a few days earlier, worrying that it was one of those early concessions to age that leads directly to a rocking chair. To our pleasant surprise, we counted several mufflers on downtown streets that day. We are still counting. Not enough to supply the cast of "A Christmas Carol," but more than we remember in winters past, and enough to stop worrying about the rocking chair.

Chilled teen-agers and muffler counts are not very scientific ways to measure discomfort, so we turned for guidance to the National Weather Service's Wilshire Boulevard office. Statistics, it turns out, don't tell the whole story. The average temperature at the Civic Center for the past 30 years has been 57.2 degrees. For January of this year it was 57.5. But, as forecaster Bill Hoffer told us on the phone, that does not take into account the lower lows, particularly in the valley areas, made possible by the drier-than-usual air that allows heat to escape into the atmosphere overnight. Moister air traps more heat close to the ground.

The culprit, Hoffer explained, is a series of cold air masses moving out of the Gulf of Alaska. Normally, high-pressure systems north of California turn that cold air directly east. This time the pressures are not high enough, and too much cold air is leaking south.

Our telephone call also reminded us that forecasters sometimes go by things like muffler counts and odd gloves to measure weather--the same way the rest of us do. "I've only been here since 1977," Hoffer said, "but I don't remember anything quite like this."

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