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4 Ways to Become a Weather Forecaster From Your Backyard

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Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/AFP/Getty Images

Have you ever stared at your weather app in frustration because it’s showing current weather for somewhere dozens of miles from where you live? You’re not alone. Most of us live pretty far from official weather observing stations, which are usually located at airports or National Weather Service offices scattered around the country. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to become an amateur scientist using the smartphone in your pocket or dedicating a tiny part of your yard to science.

1. REPORT WHAT’S HAPPENING TO METEOROLOGISTS.

Snow and ice reports during a winter storm. Image Credit: mPing/NOAA

 
Weather radar is arguably the best piece of technology we have to predict bad storms, but even this advanced life-saving equipment has its limitations. The greatest restraint is that radar can’t see what precipitation reaches the ground. That’s because a radar dish sends out a beam of energy on a slight angle, and combined with the curvature of the earth, the beam climbs higher off the ground the farther away from the dish it travels.

Since the radar can only see what’s happening a few thousand feet above our heads, mPing is an app that lets you help meteorologists “see” what kind of weather is actually reaching the ground. This free app, available for Apple and Android, lets you use your phone’s location feature to report current conditions to meteorologists in real time. If it starts snowing, filing a report with your mPing app will tell meteorologists when snow showing up on the radar is actually reaching the streets. Alerting them if snow changes to freezing rain will help others by allowing scientists to adjust warnings and forecasts accordingly. You can even report tornadoes, hail, and wind damage.

One little app can let you help advance the science of meteorology, and your reports many even help save lives during a severe weather event. 

2. BECOME PART OF A NETWORK OF CITIZEN-RUN WEATHER STATIONS.

Rainfall totals for November 29, 2016, measured by participants in the CoCoRaHS network. Image Credit: CoCoRaHS

 
Having official weather reporting stations spaced out by dozens of miles across the country is fine for tracking temperature trends or overall wind patterns, but it’s not very useful when you want to keep track of heavy rain or heavy snow. Precipitation is extremely localized—we’ve all seen one of those thunderstorms where it’s raining down the street but bone dry where you’re standing. It helps to have lots of high-quality measuring stations to track storms like that.

That's where CoCoRaHS comes in. Short for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, CoCoRaHS is a network of thousands of citizen-run weather observing stations across the United States, Canada, and the Bahamas. Participants in the CoCoRaHS network use official rain gauges and snow rulers to measure precipitation right in their backyard. These gauges are immensely helpful for meteorologists trying to figure out how much snow fell in a certain town or how much rain has fallen over certain areas—a crucial factor in determining how prone an area is to flash flooding in future storms.

Participating in CoCoRaHS isn’t free—you have to purchase an official rain gauge, which costs about $30—but it’s worth it if you’re dedicated to keeping track of the weather for yourself and your neighbors.

3. SET UP A PERSONAL WEATHER STATION.

If you’re really interested in the weather, you can go one step further and purchase your own personal weather station to set up on your property. Most decent personal weather stations go for about $100 and can measure temperature, dew point, wind speed and direction, and automatically measure rainfall. Some personal weather stations allow you to upload the data to the internet in real-time, which is immensely helpful for networks run by organizations like Wunderground and Weatherbug.

The only catch is that you have to have a yard large enough to properly site a weather station. If the station is too close to a building, trees, or fencing, the obstructions will interfere with your measurements and the data won’t be accurate.

4. VOLUNTEER WITH SKYWARN.

If you’ve ever heard reports of severe weather on the news talking about a “trained spotter,” they’re talking about one of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have participated in official storm spotter training. SKYWARN is the official weather spotter training program run by the National Weather Service (NWS). The program is a short, free course run by local NWS offices several times every year. It teaches you the basics of spotting severe and hazardous weather, and properly reporting that weather back to the NWS.

SKYWARN spotters are a critical part of the early warning system in the United States. Accurate reports of tornadoes, damaging winds, hail, and flooding sent to the NWS by trained storm spotters have helped meteorologists issue severe weather warnings with enough time to save lives. The program is worth it even if you don’t plan to go out chasing storms on the Plains—severe weather can happen anywhere, and knowing the difference between a harmless cloud and a lethal tornado could save someone’s life.

If you want to participate in SKYWARN training, keep an eye out for announcements from your local NWS office for training days. You can also participate in free online SKYWARN training through the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which runs a treasure trove of online learning modules for everyone from weather enthusiasts to meteorologists brushing up on advanced topics.

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Bess Lovejoy
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Weird
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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Space
The Northern Lights Won’t Be This Bright Again Until 2025
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iStock

If you’ve ever camped out to see the northern lights, you know they can be elusive. They’re only visible on dark, clear nights up north when a solar flare or solar wind shoots particles toward Earth. Seeing the phenomenon live takes a bit of luck, but if spectators wish to boost their chances, now's the time. As Thrillist reports, the aurora borealis is at its peak—and won’t be this bright again until 2025.

The colorful lights that seem to bend in the sky over the Arctic Circle are the product of electrons from the Sun colliding with gases in the planet’s atmosphere. The lights are controlled by the Sun, and because solar activity goes through 11-year cycles, so does the aurora borealis.

The Sun is currently at the end of the maximum stage of its cycle. The increased solar activity makes for northern lights that are more frequent and visible farther south. As the Sun starts to move into its minimum phase of activity, the light show will be harder to see from parts of the world to the south of northern Russia, northern Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. The next part of the cycle will last about eight years, with solar activity starting to heat up again around 2025.

On rare occasions, the northern lights can be seen from some of the lower 48 states, like Maine, Michigan, and Washington. But to make sure you catch them in peak season, U.S. residents may have to travel north. Here are a few inexpensive trips you can take to get an eyeful of the spectacle.

[h/t Thrillist]

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