Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/AFP/Getty Images
Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/AFP/Getty Images

4 Ways to Become a Weather Forecaster From Your Backyard

Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/AFP/Getty Images
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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.

The Northern Lights May Be Visible Over Parts of America Tonight

The Northern Lights are rarely visible in the continental U.S., but Americans living in the Upper Midwest and New England occasionally catch a glimpse. Tonight, March 14, may mark one such occasion, according to Thrillist.

Thanks to a mild geomagnetic storm on March 14 and 15, the aurora borealis could be visible as far south as Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine, the National Space Weather Prediction Center (SPWC) reports. The storm has been rated as a G1 geomagnetic storm, the weakest rating on a scale from G1 to G5, meaning it probably won’t disrupt power grids or satellites.

If you don’t live within the U.S.’s higher latitudes, you’ll have to be content with watching videos of the spectacular phenomenon.

If you do live along the country’s northern tier near the Canadian border, you can check the SPWC’s 30-minute aurora forecast to get a better sense of where the Northern Lights might appear in the sky in the near future.

[h/t Thrillist]

Nancy Rothhammer Dietrich
This Just In
Thanks to Winter Storms, a New Jersey Beach’s Famous ‘Ghost Tracks’ Have Reappeared
Nancy Rothhammer Dietrich
Nancy Rothhammer Dietrich

Powerful storms have a way of unearthing history in unexpected ways, from Civil War cannonballs—uncovered in South Carolina by Hurricane Matthew in 2016—to the oldest human footprints outside of Africa, found in England after storms in 2013. In New Jersey, recent nor'easters have revealed rarely seen railroad tracks dating back more than 100 years, as reports (and which you can see in the video below).

The so-called “ghost tracks” in the sand between Sunset Beach and Higbee Beach in southern New Jersey were originally used to carry sand and munitions in the early 1900s. One part of the track, built in 1905, transported sand from the beach and dunes to a nearby sorting facility for the Cape May Sand Company. During World War I, Bethlehem Steel Company used another part of the tracks to transport munitions down the beach to test their power, according to The Press of Atlantic City.

This isn’t the only not-too-distant time that storm-shifted sands have made the tracks visible to beachgoers. After eight decades under the sand, they first appeared in November 2014, but were soon buried again. A storm uncovered a section of track in November 2017, though it too disappeared within a few months.

The whole section of railroad isn’t usually visible at once. According to, the part of the tracks uncovered by recent storms are more intact and level than the parts unearthed in 2017. It’s likely that future storms and shifting tides will reveal portions of the railroad again, but it’s hard to say which lengths will be uncovered or how deteriorated they might be. You can be sure that local photographers will be on the lookout during the next storm, though.



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