So what is an Indian Summer? The first thing to point out is that it's nothing to do with India, as I once thought. It's not because people in 1800 happened to look on their iPhone weather app and said "Oh it's sunny and the temperature here in London today is the same as it is in Bombay. Let's call this an Indian Summer!" Nope, it's the other Indians: the "Red Indians" of the cowboy movies - or more properly the Native American "Indians" in the eastern part of the New World. The phrase was already kicking around in the 1780s, but it's clear it was in common usage by colonial settlers already by then. The phenomenon is expressly and inextricably linked to the Native Indians after whom it's named. It probably refers to the fact the warm, dry weather allowed them to continue hunting.
|It's definitely nothing to do with this India|
The US National Weather Service definition for an Indian Summer is a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather, occurring after the end of summer. Conditions are sunny and clear, with temperatures above 70°F. The phenomenon follows a brief early period of wintry weather that occurs in the autumn (a "Squaw Winter") during which there has been the first sharp frost (and possibly snow). This usually occurs, for obvious reasons, in November or December.
Here's an exact description of the phenomenon in terms of the winds, air pressure and locations involved:
Right. I could stop this blog right here. But I shan't, because I really quite enjoy needlessly labouring an unimportant point."A typical weather map that reflects Indian Summer weather involves a large area of high pressure along or just off the East Coast. Occasionally, it will be this same high pressure that produced the frost/freeze conditions only a few nights before, as it moved out of Canada across the Plains, Midwest and Great Lakes and then finally, to the East Coast. Much warmer temperatures, from the deep South and Southwest, are then pulled north on southerly breezes resulting from the clockwise rotation of wind around the high pressure. It is characteristic for these conditions to last for at least a few days to well over a week and there may be several cases before winter sets in. Such a mild spell is usually broken when a strong low pressure system and attending cold front pushes across the region. This dramatic change results from a sharp shift in the upper winds or "jet stream" from the south or southwest to northwest or north. Of course, there can be some modifications to the above weather map scenario, but for simplicity and common occurrence sake, this is the general weather map."
|New England, where this glorious weather phenomenon actually exists|
Applying the Definition
Let's get these key pointers listed in no particular order:
- High pressure off the East Coast of North America
- Occurs after early wintry weather and the first sharp frost
- After the end of summer
- Unseasonably warm and dry weather
- Temperatures above 70F (that's 21C in proper money)
Well, last time I checked, I live in East Anglia, and that's several thousand miles from North America. It's like saying a monsoon or a sub-tropical cyclone happened in Ipswich. No, this is actually a weather phenomenon that's linked geographically to a particular place. Indian Summers happen in New England. That's why it's expressly named after the Native Indians from there. Answer to 1 = FAIL.
However, if we have to continue... did we have a sharp frost and snow last weekend? Must've missed it. Answer to 2 = FAIL.
Was it even after the end of summer? Well, there are two different definitions used for when the seasons run. The first is the one used by the Met Office. It uses the months, and according to it Autumn begins on 1 September. Autumn runs through the whole of September, October and November. Winter begins on 1 December; Spring begins on 1 March; Summer begins on 1 June.
The second, more traditional, definition focuses on the Earth's journey round the Sun. It uses the solstices and equinoxes, and is the one I was taught at school when I was but a wee pedant. According to this, Autumn begins on the Autumnal Equinox, 21 September. Winter begins on the Winter Solistice of 21 December; Spring begins on the Vernal Equinox of 21 March; Summer begins on the Summer Solstice on 21 June.
According to this, the beautiful season of Autumn, the transition season between summer and winter, which is characterised by the changing colour of leaves and the bringing in of the harvest, began just today. I prefer this definition. The leaves really are still mainly green on the trees and are still partly on the trees well into December. If we get any snow it comes in January and February, never in December. On 1 March it often still feels like Winter, whereas by 21 March the flowers are out, the frosts are going and it's warming up.
Therefore by one widely accepted definition we were still in Summer until today. Answer to 3 = FAIL.
|THIS is autumn. Look outside: autumn has barely begun.|
Was it unseasonably warm and dry last week? Well September certainly has been dry this year in many parts of Britain (though 1997 and 2003 were drier in England). But was it unseasonably warm? Was it bollocks. September is one of the warmest months of the year. I always tell my German relatives it's the best month to come and visit. Temperatures have actually hit an amazing 35.6C in September before, and even 29.9C in October (the latter was in 2011 in Gravesend). Looking at recorded temperatures for London, they've been a bit warmer some days than the historic average, but there's no freakish deviation from the norm. August was crap this year, September has been nice. One isolated day of 26C is hardly a record-breaker. Unseasonable means what it says on the packet. Answer to 4 = FAIL.
So, by my reckoning we've fulfilled one of the five tests I've set out. It was indeed 21C on several days. STOP THE HEADLINES.
Oh yes, I'm not joking. The Press loves this shit. As I've noted before, we're just obsessed by the weather. A quick Google search shows that the Daily Express has been running an Indian Summer related article at least once every year in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and surprise (!) they even did one this year too. How exactly can this be called unseasonal weather when they call any sunshine in September an "Indian Summer" every single year? If it happens annually at the same time every year it can't be an unseasonable phenomenon.
While we're at it, every noticed the formula they use when we have a warm day? Someone looks at world holiday destinations on the internet and tries to find a place that is having an off-day. For example, Sharm-el-Sheikh will be 32C, Majorca 29C, Bahamas 34 C, Cancun 31C, Malta 31C, Crete 30C and somewhere that's usually really, really warm is having a milder day. BINGO, FOUND IT: it's "only" 24C on the Costa del Sol. Prepare the headlines..
It makes me want to torture cute little innocent fluffy animals. Every paper, every year. Never mind that this is happening on one isolated day, and the weather in Spain is far warmer and sunnier 99% of the rest of the time. "Oooooh Ethel, did you see? I read it's warmer here than in Marbella?" "Ooooh, I know! Bit too hot for me." Even quality papers like the bloody Daily Telegraph and The Guardian do it routinely.
The Met Definition
Some smart arse will be reading this and will already have looked up what the Met Office's definition of an Indian Summer is. It was first published in 1916 and is "a warm, calm spell of weather occurring in autumn, especially in October and November." The Met Office mentions it here as being a warm, calm spell from the end of September to the middle of November.
There's no mention of the fact that strictly speaking it's only really a North American weather phenomenon, and there's no mention of it coming after wintery weather and a frost, which is one of the key points in the original definition. However what's clear is that calling warm weather in the first week of September an "Indian Summer" is just wrong even by the Met's definition. Really, really, really wrong. Helena Kealey of the Daily Telegraph, I refer you to the portrait of Homer by Edvard Mvnch above for my views on your article.
Now I'm enough of a linguist to realise that if enough people go round calling an orange a "banana", the accepted word to describe the orange will change to banana. That doesn't make it accurate. It doesn't make it right. It doesn't make it clever. But it will happen eventually. That is what happening with the definition of Indian Summer - thanks in part to the Met Office and thanks in part to our beloved Press.
If YOU object to oranges being called bananas, now is the time to start taking a stand. When it's warm and sunny in September for a couple of days, that's because it's just late summer and every single year it's warm and sunny for a couple of days at this time of year. I'm a liberal man, but there are limits. I refer you, dear reader, to the suggestion in parentheses in the title of this piece.