What’s the Difference Between “Mostly Sunny” and “Partly Cloudy”?

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Reader Marcus from Louisville wrote in to ask, “What’s the difference between ‘mostly sunny’ and ‘partly cloudy’ (or for that matter, ‘mostly cloudy’ and ‘partly sunny’) in weather forecasts? Are any of those even specifically defined terms?”

The short answer: about 1 to 4 oktas.

What’s an okta? That’s a unit of measurement that meteorologists use when they’re forecasting cloud conditions, equal to 1/8 of the sky (though sometimes 1/10 is used). When the forecast is delivered, the number of oktas covered by opaque clouds (meaning that you can’t see through them, and the sun/moon/stars/sky are hidden) is described using “mostly sunny,” “partly cloudy” and other terms we’re used to hearing. Each of these is defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service in terms of oktas of cloud cover. The NWS Operations Manual breaks it down like this:

Daytime Forecast

Day or Nighttime Forecast

Cloud Conditions

Cloudy

Cloudy

8/8 opaque clouds

Mostly Cloudy 

Mostly Cloudy

6/8 - 7/8 opaque clouds

Partly Sunny

Partly Cloudy

3/8 - 5/8 opaque clouds

Mostly Sunny

Mostly Clear

1/8 - 2/8 opaque clouds

Sunny

Clear

0/8 opaque clouds

The difference in terms is a matter of how much cloud cover there is. Interestingly, partly sunny and partly cloudy mean the exact same thing—but partly cloudy is the correct term for nighttime conditions because you can’t see the sun. 

“Fair” skies is another cloud cover term that’s sometimes used. Technically, it means that less than three oktas are covered with opaque clouds, and that there’s “no precipitation, no extreme conditions of visibility, wind or temperature, and generally pleasant weather.” If you don’t know that definition, though, “fair” sounds pretty vague on its own, so the NWS discourages forecasters from using  it. 

A lot of terms used in precipitation forecasts are also precisely defined by the NWS and are less subjective than they sometimes sound. The qualifying terms that express uncertainty about rain and snow (like “chance of snow” or “scattered thunderstorms”) are laid out like this:

Chance of precipitation

Expression of uncertainty

Area Qualifier

0%

none

none

10%

Slight chance

Isolated, few

20%

Slight chance

Widely Scattered

30-50%

Chance

Scattered

60-70%

Likely

Numerous

80-100%

none

none

The area qualifiers are used when the chance of precipitation somewhere in the forecast area is very high, and correspond to the the expected coverage within the area (so “scattered thunderstorms” would mean that rain is very likely, but will affect only 30 to 50 percent of the area).

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

A Simple Trick for Defrosting Your Windshield in Less Than 60 Seconds

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iStock

As beautiful as a winter snowfall can be, the white stuff is certainly not without its irritations—especially if you have to get into your car and go somewhere. As if shoveling a path to the driver’s door wasn’t enough, then you’ve got a frozen windshield with which to contend. Everyone has his or her own tricks for warming up a car in record time—including appropriately-named meteorologist Ken Weathers, who works at WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A while back, Weathers shared a homemade trick for defrosting your windshield in less than 60 seconds: spray the glass with a simple solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. “The reason why this works,” according to Weathers, “is [that] rubbing alcohol has a freezing point of 128 degrees below freezing.”

Watch the spray in action below.

[h/t: Travel + Leisure]

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