Sky Blue Sharpie

Some states are better at getting attention than others. Alabama is probably one of the better ones in this regard, owing in recent years to their football team and their state legislature. But unless you reside beneath a stone, you’re probably aware of the newest story, which as far as I can tell was not initiated by anyone in the state of Alabama: their already near-legendary flirtation with a hurricane. Or not.

Now let’s be completely fair here: it is indeed possible for a hurricane to endanger the good people of Alabama (and the bad folks as well). Alabama has some coastline on the Gulf of Mexico, which means the storm surge (often the most damaging part of a hurricane) can hit it directly, as has happened a handful of times in the past. And even land locked states can feel the effects of a hurricane once it moves inland (although it typically loses steam rather quickly in that scenario).

Of course, the debate of the past couple of weeks has centered around whether this particular hurricane (Dorian) ever threatened Alabama. And again, to be fair, we are always trying to get better at predicting the tracks of these storms. Even for an individual storm, the predicted track can and does change in the days leading up to landfall. And yet, on balance, we’ve become remarkably good at it. Even 14 years ago, the forecasters pretty much nailed what Katrina was going to do.

In my career, I have had the good fortune to get to know, and become friends with, a number of people in the National Weather Service. You will be hard pressed to find a group of people more dedicated to their mission, because above all else, their job is to protect your life and property. You will also therefore be hard pressed to find a better bargain as an American taxpayer. That is all I’m going to say about their motivations in this political storm that has sadly overtaken the real storm. A storm which, by the way, destroyed a significant part of an entire nation (the Bahamas), and that has even more sadly become a footnote in American discourse.

People far more eloquent than me (meaning all people) have already described what went wrong here. But I will ineloquently focus on one fundamental issue: the art of delegation. Anyone who has run a successful business, or a successful government, or a successful military campaign, or a successful sports franchise, knows the value of naming the right people to make the right decisions that the top dog simply doesn’t have time to make. The President of the United States is (or at least should be) the most extreme example one could possibly conjure. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service spends a great deal of effort not just on predicting the weather, but also on determining the best way to warn us about it. Telling people a deadly storm is coming has enormous consequences. If that warning is wrong, the economic impact is significant, and it could even cause fatalities during the resulting evacuation. If you’re wrong too often, people will also stop listening to the warnings altogether. The science of predicting how people respond to weather warnings is as challenging as the science of predicting the weather itself.

It’s a fundamental truth that none of us has enough time to become an expert at everything. I’m still searching for one thing myself. But most of us have a job of some sort, and that job entails knowing more about certain things than other people know. When I need to present something that my team has done, I try to make sure that my team members are there to speak for their part. Not just because they deserve credit (which they do), but because they know far more about what they do and what they did than I ever will. On the flip side, how often do you enjoy watching your boss usurp or take credit for the job you were hired to do? Letting your people do their jobs frees you up to do what you need to do as a leader, and it makes your people future leaders at the same time. So when your people were trained their whole lives and specifically hired to make sure the right people are being warned about the right storms at the right time, it’s probably a good idea not to issue the warnings yourself. #failuretodelegate #business101

But actually, everything I’ve said to this point has been a digression from what I originally intended to discuss. A buddy of mine joked that Alabama would now need to be warned by default about all impending disasters wherever they may be. I responded that it would make more sense to remind all Alabamans that they live “where the skies are so blue”. And then I started thinking, hey, what’s up with that?

The implication from the Meteorology Department at Lynyrd Skynyrd Technical Institute is that Alabama has bluer skies than the other states. Meanwhile, in my home state of Colorado, we often remind folks that we have 300 days of sunshine a year. We’re just kidding by the way. Colorado has one day of sunshine a year, and it’s on a bad ozone day. Our restaurants and museums and parks and general quality of life are the worst on Earth, so please please PLEASE stop moving here!

That said, just how blue are the skies of Alabama? There are two ways to tackle that question: how often are the skies clear, and how blue is it when they are? Let’s hit the latter first: Alabama is humid. I’ve been to Tuscaloosa, and Denver was never as sloppy wet in broad daylight. And when it’s more humid, it generally tends to be hazier, meaning on a sunny day, Alabama’s skies are whiter and Colorado’s skies are bluer. Please don’t let that detract from my earlier statement: a bluer sky can’t even come close to rescuing Colorado from its comprehensive unpleasantness. Please please PLEASE stop moving here!

Now let’s get to that other question: how often is it clear in Alabama? So – again – I was in Tuscaloosa for a few days a few years ago. Far as I can remember, it was sunny the whole time. Two things about that: 1) I can’t remember where I left my phone a few minutes ago; 2) whatever I experienced for those few days in Tuscaloosa was weather; how often it is clear in Tuscaloosa is climate. Climatology, to be more exact: the study of what conditions are generally more prevalent over time in a given spot on our Earth. Not on any given day; but on average over thousands of days.

So, if I were to do this right, I would go to another part of NOAA: the National Center for Environmental Information. I have friends there too, and they take their jobs very seriously as well. If you want to understand what’s happening today, you need to understand what happened in the past. These folks are charged with making sure those records are accurate, and that whatever new information we obtain can be compared apples-to-apples. But doing this right would require the kind of time and money that would come with a grant, and I’m not going to get one of those. So I opted for the next best (no, not anywhere near next best) thing: Googling “days of sunshine a year by state”.

The top hit was a site called “”. I have no idea how reliable this site is, but they only give a number for one city per state. For Alabama, it’s Birmingham, and they are reported to have 99 clear days a year. Grand Junction, Colorado, has 136. 136 days of otherwise abject misery: please please PLEASE stop moving here! Arizona unsurprisingly wins with 193. Washington unsurprisingly brings up the rear with 58, but they’re actually tied with Vermont. I suspect we will soon see maple syrup used more frequently in cloud seeding.

The Washington Post ran an article a few years ago that was ultimately based on data from NASA. The Southwest won again there, but it looks like that little tip of Alabama on the Gulf Coast can hold its own. NerdWallet went to the trouble I apparently wasn’t willing to, and checked out some data from NOAA, resulting in a list of the sunniest cities. Arizona has four in the top ten. Colorado’s top entry is Pueblo at #13. Birmingham comes in at #97.

And so, aside from respecting the hard-working folks at NOAA and appreciating the value of delegation, I want you to remember three key things here:

  1. Colorado is a cesspool and you should totally stop moving here
  2. “Sweet Home Alabama” should have been named “Sweet Home Arizona”
  3. Regardless of (2), I know from the bottom of my heart that Ronnie Van Zant and friends were so confident his song would become a hit that he would have written it in sky blue Sharpie, had such a fantabulous color existed at the time.
A Southern man don’t need clouds anyhow.

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