The InterTropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) is a band of low pressure that circles the Earth, not unlike a belt, at the equator. Warm, moist air from the north and south of the equator meet, mix and mingle in this zone. This convergence of traveling wet air on a tropical vacation is not exactly an all night dance party in Cancun; instead it more like a week long stay with your elderly aunt Rita – the one who insists on watching Walker, Texas Ranger every afternoon at 4pm.
In the ITCZ there is almost no horizontal wind. Early sailors, whose spirits would drop when their ships' sails sagged after entering this zone, called it the Doldrums. The Doldrums were serious business; being trapped in the hot and muggy climate of this region could mean death when the only way home (or to that dance party in Cancun) was wind power.
The ITCZ continue to be avoided by sailors to this day. While there is no horizontal wind in the Doldrums, there are rain and storms. Regions in the ITCZ receive more than 200 days of precipitation a year. The hot equatorial sun bakes the water, causing the air to rise with moisture, which can produce violent and sudden storms. These storms can have gale force winds that blow almost vertically – strong enough to batter a ship, but not blowing in the right direction to get a sailing ship out of the Doldrums and into the Trade Winds and onto a fast track to somewhere else.
This psychological effect of this geographic zone has entered our common vocabularies. The American Heritage Dictionary defines doldrums as “a period of stagnation or slump; a period of depression or unhappy listlessness.” Think about that. How bad must a region be until its name is synonymous with all out depression and boredom. We don’t say a person is stuck in the North Dakotas after all.
So when Victoria emerged last week from a period in which it rained for 45 of the last 47 days, I realized just how little I’ve gotten outside the last month. It had seemed that the walls of my apartment somehow extended beyond Vancouver Island and rested on foundations built in the waters of that stagnating equatorial zone. The end of the rain changed that and this whole 7th grade Earth Science lesson is just a way to say how happy I was to feel a hint of spring in the air this past weekend. Going for a short hike in the sunshine and watching some otters play in a nearby harbor last Saturday, I felt the metaphorical sails of my psyche fill with air and I realized that the doldrum days of winter were behind me. Now I’m just glad I don’t have to visit any Aunt Ritas in North Dakota anytime soon.