Weather Forecasting

Although accurate, reliable weather forecasting has defied humans for eons, you can perform a crude form of it by learning to recognize multiple clues and patterns.

| August/September 1991

  • 127-weather-forecasting-00-pressure-map.jpg
    A map of high- and low- pressure areas is useful in weather forecasting. Air circulates away from higher-pressure areas in a clockwise direction. Air moving into a low pressure area circulates in a counterclockwise direction.
    ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 127-weather-forecasting-02-cumulonimbus.jpg
    Cumulonimbus: Towering, angry-looking, billowing cloud varying from white to dark gray. Weather: The severe weather cloud, which may bring high winds and thunderstorms.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-01-cumulus-congestus.jpg
    Cumulus congestus: Cumulus starting at low altitude, turning gray, billowing, and beginning to develop vertically. Weather: May produce precipitation immediately.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-04-cumulus.jpg
    Cumulus: Separated, fluffy, white clouds. Weather: Fair weather unless developing into other cumulus.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-05-cirrocumulus.jpg
    Cirrocumulus: High, white layer of puffy or rippled clouds. Weather: Precipitation in 15 to 20 hours if wind is from between northeast and south.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-03-stratus.jpg
    Stratus: Usually lighter gray, low-level, flat layers. Weather: Heavy precipitation if wind is from between northeast and south.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-06-cirrostratus.jpg
    Cirrostratus: High, transparent, white clouds that put a halo around the moon. Weather: Precipitation in 15 to 20 hours if wind is from northeast.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-08-nimbostratus.jpg
    Nimbostratus: Light to dark gray monotonal, low-level cloud layers that obscure the sun. Weather: Precipitation of long duration if wind is from between northeast and south.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-09-cirrus.jpg
    Cirrus: High, lacy, white ice cloud; often hairy appearance. Weather: Fair if lower-level wind is from west.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-07-stratocumulus.jpg
    Stratocumulus: Light-to dark gray, variable tone, low-level layers. Weather: Precipitation soon.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-10-altostratus.jpg
    Altostratus: Medium-height layer of gray, translucent clouds. Weather: Precipitation in 10 to 15 hours if wind is steady from between northeast and south; overcast for other winds.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
  • 127-weather-forecasting-11-altocumulus.jpg
    Altocumulus: Medium-height, white to light-gray layers. Weather: Precipitation in 10 to 15 hours if wind is steady from between northeast and south.
    NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION

  • 127-weather-forecasting-00-pressure-map.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-02-cumulonimbus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-01-cumulus-congestus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-04-cumulus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-05-cirrocumulus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-03-stratus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-06-cirrostratus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-08-nimbostratus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-09-cirrus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-07-stratocumulus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-10-altostratus.jpg
  • 127-weather-forecasting-11-altocumulus.jpg

When you walk in the woods or open country, where do your eyes play? If you're like me, you easily get wrapped up in plodding—figuring out where the next footfall will be—instead of observing. No wonder the weather catches us by surprise; we're just not paying attention. The sky, the greenery, the ground and their inhabitants provide a constant flow of clues about what the atmosphere holds in store. All we need to tap this 24-hour weather report is a sharp set of senses. Just look, listen, feel, and yes, even sniff.

For example, have you ever noticed that the odor of rotting wood (maybe mixed with the scent of mint) seems more pungent some days than others? There's a perfectly good explanation: When atmospheric pressure is high, odors are subdued—held in; when it drops, they waft into the air.

Weather forecasting without the meteorologist's arsenal of instrumentation is mostly a matter of charting changes. A onetime viewing of clouds, for instance, isn't nearly as sure as a comparison of the current situation with the type of clouds present a few hours, even a few days, ago. In fact, any single predictor mentioned in this article is of little value. Weather has defied such simplification for eons. So look for evidence from every source available, and hazard a guess only when the majority of the symptoms point to the same prognosis.

Regional Weather

Lay weather forecasters who've lived in an area for many years often become quite proficient, because they've learned from experience what a particular condition tells about the future weather. Even if you've lived in one place for only a year or two, you probably know from what direction the wind usually blows.



When you pack into a wilderness many hours (or days) from home, you start without the benefit of experience: You don't know what the prevailing wind is, what direction storms usually approach from, or how the topography affects the weather.

If you're heading into federally controlled backcountry, the regional ranger station may be able to offer a detailed weather history of the area. Perhaps locals—outfitters, itinerant fisherman, or even your friendly bartender—are willing to part with some of their accumulated weather wisdom. Barring the closer sources, the National Climatic Data Center is the repository for weather information. Two helpful publications they offer are Comparative Climatic Data for the United States and Climatic Atlas of the United States. You can order them for $4 and $15 respectively from NDCD.






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