Reading the Clouds: Weather Watching

In California, late autumn usually means the door to Pacific storms starts swinging wide open, bringing snow to the high country. Regardless of where you live, weather affects your daily life, but is especially important for people who spend time outdoors. Naturally, skiers and other winter-sports enthusiasts will be listening to the latest weather reports before they head to the high country. But once they are out gliding across the crystal blanket or hiking in potentially foul weather, they may not have a radio or television or reliable cell phone service available to check on that storm the forecasters said was coming.

However, approaching storms give hints of their impending arrival at least several hours ahead. The following aids can help decipher those clues:

“A Field Guide to the Atmosphere” by Vincent J. Shaefer and John A. Day (Houghton Mifflin).

As the title suggests, this book is about more than weather forecasting. As all the books in the Peterson Field Guide Series, its primary purpose is identification – in this case, clouds, rainbows, glories, haloes, and other atmospheric phenomena. For this, it has numerous drawings, plus 336 black-and-white and 32 color photographs.

Because the atmosphere isn’t just something to identify, but also is an ever-changing system to observe, the book devotes much space to discussing the processes at work in the ocean of air. It is as much for the skier who wonders how a high, icy cirrus cloud can give the sun a halo as it is for the backcountry snow camper who wants to know if he’ll have to dig his way out of his tent the next morning.

“Weathering the Wilderness” by William E. Reifsnyder (Sierra Club Books).

The subtitle to this book is “The Sierra Club Guide to Practical Meteorology.” It is written with the outdoor recreationist in mind. The first part of the book is a basic course in the whys and wherefores of winds and storms. Of particular interest to the would-be forecaster is a table that shows how different weather conditions – pressure (for which you’ll need an altimeter/barometer to measure) wind, clouds, precipitation, temperature, humidity, and visibility – change as frontal systems approach and pass. Incidentally the chapter on “Weather Hazards”, especially its discussion of wind chill, hypothermia, and avalanches should be of particular interest to the skier.

The second part concerns the general weather patterns of various regions across the United States and Canada, including the Sierra Nevada and it’s usually mild, wet winters that produce good skiing conditions.

Pocket Weather Trends (Weather Trends Inc.)

This device is the handiest of the three forecasting aids. It resembles a simple slide rule. A slide holder has 6 boxed areas on its face with photos and descriptions of different cloud types. Each box has eight compass directions. Each slide – one for each of several regions – has a black mark in the middle that is lined up next to the wind direction within the box that corresponds to the cloud type observed overhead. Then at two horizontal windows – one for November through April the other for May through October – the slide will show you the forecast for the next 12 – 36 hours.

These books are all available on Amazon.

In addition to books or charts, there are handheld weather instruments a recreationist can carry with them. Accurate measurements of weather conditions can take the guesswork out forecasting. Companies such as Kestrel, Ambient Weather, Speedtech, Weather Mate, and Davis Instruments make handheld devices that can measure temperature (current, maximum and minimum), pressure, elevation, wind speed, relative humidity, dew point, and other measures. Plus, they are all either water resistant or waterproof. These are available directly from the manufacturer, recreation stores, or online.

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