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Rain check: The lessons of July’s weather

One had to slow down and learn to truly be on vacation. But the turbulent weather also offered a darker lesson on the reality of climate change.

A resident of Oakville Street in Lynn moved cones to try to dissuade cars from driving through flooding on July 9 after Tropical Storm Elsa hit the area.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

The dampest, dreariest July on record in much of Massachusetts is, blessedly coming to an end. But before we return to our regularly scheduled summer, let’s reflect on what we have learned from this month’s unrelenting rain.

The perkiest Pollyanna would be hard-pressed to find the bright side of such persistent precipitation. Starting on July 1, it rained for 13 days straight in Boston. Worcester broke its record for the wettest July ever on the 19th, with 12 days in the month still to go. The deluge from Tropical Storm Elsa — the earliest fifth-named storm ever in the Atlantic hurricane season — flooded subways, roadways, and basements. Across the globe, the rains this month turned deadly, from Germany’s Rhineland to central China.


Boston, MA - 7/1/2020: The Harborwalk in the Seaport District of Boston, July 01.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Closer to home, it’s been a cascade of woes: mushrooms in the lawn, fungus or blight on the roses and tomatoes, every day a bad hair day. Sewage overflows into the Charles, Merrimack, and other rivers this month made swimming inadvisable even on 90-degree days. The churn of sediments turned normally gin-clear waters the color of strong tea. Kayak paddles and bike helmets stood forlorn at the cabin door.

Still, the rain was not without its compensations, even for people renting a pricey beach house this month. The rain slows things down, so a person can be on vacation rather than feel compelled to do on vacation. Gee, looks like we can’t have that round of mini-golf or shop the flea market after all. Reading, napping, working a jigsaw puzzle, watching the tides and the fog — that’s plenty of activity for now.

Freed from the tyranny of overscheduling, the mind relaxes and the senses open. You see the way the mist pearls up on an insect web as if for the first time. Were the blooming echinacea ever quite so purple in other years, the hydrangeas quite so blue? Sitting quietly in nature, its pleasures slowly open: a dragonfly lighting on the milkweed; a waft of lavender on the air; at dusk, the far distant call of a whip-poor-will. If you wait for it, nature comes to you.


The Public Garden in Boston, July 08.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Another lesson of July 2021 is that external conditions are beyond our control. Nothing says “impermanence” like a New England forecast. What with storms, winds, and record-breaking heat this summer, it’s not unusual to get three seasons of weather in one month. Or one day.

Like the old tale about the Inuit and their 50 names for snow, New Englanders this summer could create at least 50 words for our various forms of rain. Mizzle, for the precise moment a mist turns to drizzle. Or pluvious, for especially odious storms, like the wind-driven horizontal torrents that slice through the porch screens. Or how about dreich, the evocative Scots-English word for protracted gloomy weather. Invent your own!

The trouble with this whimsy is that our turbulent weather is linked to the much darker reality of climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tells us to prepare for more hot, wet summers: Boston’s summers will become more like Philadelphia’s, and Portland, Maine’s more like Boston’s. This is no accident or act of God: For centuries, we humans have been wantonly destroying the environment in our attempts to dominate it. And because we created this sickness, we can cure it. The list of actions we can take to shrink our personal carbon footprints — and advocate for more systemic change — is long, and waiting.


The climate crisis is real. It is here. We can’t deny it, and we can’t allow ourselves to get used to it. “Everyone complains about the weather,” the old joke goes, “but no one does anything about it.” It’s time for that to change.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.