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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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science
The Coolest Meteorological Term You'll Learn This Week
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Two tropical cyclones orbiting around each other in the northwestern Pacific Ocean on July 25, 2017.
RAMMB/CIRA

What happens when two hurricanes start to invade each other's personal space? It's easy to picture the two hurricanes merging into one megastorm that tears across the ocean with twice the fury of a normal storm, but what really happens is less dramatic (although it is a beautiful sight to spy on with satellites). Two cyclones that get too close to one another start to feel the pull of a force called the Fujiwhara Effect, a term that's all the rage in weather news these days.

The Fujiwhara Effect occurs when two cyclones track close enough to each other that the storms begin orbiting around one another. The counterclockwise winds spiraling around each cyclone force them to participate in what amounts to the world's largest game of Ring Around the Rosie. The effect is named after Sakuhai Fujiwhara, a meteorologist who studied this phenomenon back in the early 1900s.

The extent to which storms are affected by the Fujiwhara Effect depends on the strength and size of each system. The effect will be more pronounced in storms of equal size and strength; when a large and small storm get too close, the bigger storm takes over and sometimes even absorbs its lesser counterpart. The effect can have a major impact on track forecasts for each cyclone. The future of a storm completely depends on its new track and the environment it suddenly finds itself swirling into once the storms break up and go their separate ways.

We've seen some pretty incredible examples of the Fujiwhara Effect over the years. Hurricane Sandy's unusual track was in large part the result of the Fujiwhara Effect; the hurricane was pulled west into New Jersey by a low-pressure system over the southeastern United States. The process is especially common in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, where typhoons fire up in rapid succession during the warmer months. We saw a great example of the effect just this summer when two tropical cyclones interacted with each other a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro pulled a fantastic animated loop of two tropical cyclones named Noru and Kulap swirling around each other at the end of July 2017 a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Typhoon Noru was a small but powerful storm that formed at about the same latitude as Kulap, a larger but much weaker storm off to Noru's east. While both storms were moving west in the general direction of Japan, Kulap moved much faster than Noru and eventually caught up with the latter storm. The Fujiwhara Effect caused Typhoon Noru to stop dead in its tracks, completely reverse its course and eventually perform a giant loop over the ocean. Typhoon Noru quickly strengthened and became the dominant cyclone; the storm absorbed Kulap and went on to become a super typhoon with maximum winds equivalent to a category 5 hurricane.

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Kelly Gorham
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Space
Balloon Cams Will Offer Unparalleled Views of the Total Solar Eclipse
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Kelly Gorham

The August 2017 total solar eclipse should be visible to some degree from just about everywhere in the continental United States—that is, if the weather cooperates. But now, even if it doesn't, everyone will be able to watch along, thanks to livestreamed video from balloon cams drifting miles above the Earth.

Astrophysicist Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University (MSU) got the idea to monitor the magnificent cosmic event from the air after reading about an airplane pilot's flight through the path of a 2013 eclipse. She thought her students might enjoy the chance to get an up-close look for themselves.

But what started as a class project quickly, well, ballooned. At last count, teams from more than 50 other schools had joined the Eclipse Ballooning Project. The core of the work remains close to home; MSU students have designed, built, and tested the equipment, and even offered multi-day training for students from other schools. Undergrads in the computer science and engineering programs even created the software that air traffic controllers will use to track the balloons on the big day.

Students carry a large white weather balloon across a tarmac.
Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium

The next step was to get the balloon cam footage to a larger audience. Seeing no reason to think small, Des Jardins went straight to the source, inviting NASA and the website Stream to join the fun. The space agency is now beefing up its website in anticipation of 500 million livestream viewers.

And what a view it should be. The balloons will rise more than 80,000 feet—even higher than NASA's airplane-mounted telescopes.

"It's a space-like perspective," Des Jardins said in a press statement. "From that height you can see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space."

Online or outside, Des Jardins says viewers can expect a kind of "deep twilight, with basically a 360-degree sunset" during the eclipse.

She urges everyone to get outside if they can to see the event with their own eyes, but expects the balloon cams will deliver something really special.

"On the ground, an eclipse just kind of happens to you. It just gets dark," Des Jardins told New Scientist. "From the air, you can see it coming and going. I think that perspective is really profound."

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