Sunday, August 18, 2013


Depends on the Weather...

Yep, amateur astronomy sure does, muchachos. When it’s cloudy you can play with astronomy software and do image processing on the computer, tinker with your telescope, and read about our avocation, but in order to practice it you need clear skies unless radio astronomy happens to be your bag.

Amateur astronomers do a lot of talking about the weather, but don’t do anything about it, to paraphrase Mr. Clemens. That’s still true, but not as true as it used to be. No, you can’t change the weather, not even if you have the HAARP array at your disposal, but at least you can have a better idea what it’s going to do than sprout Rod did back in the 60s.

Back in them dark ages, it was brief and not very detailed forecasts in the newspaper, on the farm report on TV at 6 a.m., or on the local news at 5 p.m. Today, we have tons of weather data available all the time from the cotton picking Internet and from 24-hour weather cable channels. There are even computer programs and websites for astronomy-specific weather forecasts.

You can either believe the weather forecasts these services will make for you, try to use the same data they do to make your own predictions, or you can do things the basic/old-fashioned way and observe the sky to come up with your own forecast. Given the fact that meteorology is still not an exact science, your weather predictions may be just as accurate as those fancy-schmantsy forecasts using satellites and a ton of expensive equipment. For your exact location, anyhow.

TWC (The Weather Channel)

Yeah, I know the weather channel ain’t quite what it used to be. The channel now runs reality shows, including one about truckers. Not that I have anything against the knights of the road, far from it, but reality shows don’t seem like a natural for a network supposedly intended to inform about weather. I fired off an email to them, but the response in so many words was a lame, “Hey! Truckers experience weather, and we’re the WEATHER Channel!” There’s also Al Roker’s hoo-haw in the morning, of course. But how does the weather you get on TWC stack up?

It’s standard stuff:  pretty girls (though not nearly as pretty as the ITV weather girls in the UK) and fancy touch-screen weather maps. It’s enough to give you an idea of what the weather will be for your general area without a lot of data and details. Where the TWC still shines is when there is a weather emergency like a hurricane. Their heavy hitter meteorologists do a bang up job, still, during those events.

What’s the most useful feature of the Weather Channel? Good, old Local on the 8s, the slide-presentation weather summary for your locale at 8-minutes after the hour, 18 after, 28 after, etc. This is usually sufficient to for determining whether the coming night will probably be good or probably be bad. Couple of caveats, though. Those reality shows I mentioned? Local on the 8s is off during them. In addition, if your motel has satellite TV (like the Chiefland Best Western) rather than cable, you will never get a real Local on the 8s, just regional/big city data at those times
The Weather Channel Online

TWC’s long-running weather site on the WWW,, is much the same as the cable channel these days:  there’s enough information to give you an idea how the weather will be on any given evening, but you have to drill down for it, and what you get is summaries, not hard data. And by “hard data,” I don’t mean esoteric things like historical weather readings. Hell, I can’t even find my current barometric pressure on the site. I did run across a splashy “lifestyles” page that didn't have pea-turkey to do with weather far as I could tell. I do like the site’s map system, and particularly the “future” animation function, which will give you a graphic display for several hours in advance of the current time.

The Weather Channel App

If The Weather Channel’s website is kinda basic and ho-hum, their smart phone app (I have an iPhone, but I am purty sure it’s available for Android, too) is fracking outstanding. Open the (free) app and you get all the current data that’s missing on the web page. Even barometric pressure, for god’s sake. Click for an hourly forecast, a 36-hour, and a 10-day. It’s easy to set up multiple locations and have your fave observing site just a swipe away.

There’s plenty more, too, including push notifications of severe weather. When Miss D. and I approached a bad storm on our way to Chiefland we got an alarm from the TWC app over our 4Runner’s Bluetooth audio system well before we got into the worst of the weather (How's that for a bad omen on an observing expedition?). The same excellent map system as on the web page has been squeezed into your phone, there’s video, and everything on the app is well designed and easily accessible. If you have just one weather app on your phone or tablet, TWC’s should probably be it.

Weather Underground (Wunderground)

Did you know there are more than a few amateur meteorologists? Not just the storm chasers you see on TWC and Discovery all the time, but folks who find the art and science of weather forecasting fascinating. Most of these people have their own weather stations, but when they need more than local data, they turn to the weather website for weather geeks, Weather Underground, “Wunderground.”

Wunderground has several things going for it if you are serious about weather. They give you much more data, raw data, than TWC. There’s even an astronomy section on the front page showing the times of civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight. Want more astronomy? A click takes you to an honest-to-god astro page with a tolerable star charting system (which appears to use the Distant Suns engine).

What else? There’s a weather map that is probably the best available to the public. The Wundermap is not as pretty and glitzy as the TWC map, but it shows far more data. I still like the Weather Channel chart when I want a quick read on what the night will bring, but if that leaves me puzzled as to whether I ought to head to the dark site or not, I turn to the Wundermap.

Is there a downside to the Wunderground site? Not really. The only thing that bothers me is that I now wonder how long it will last. Wunderground was recently purchased by The Weather Channel. While they've promised to keep the site focused on hard weather data, we've heard that sort of story before. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Wunderground sporting a CELEBRITY WATCH page or some such foolishness any day now. Don’t get me wrong, nothing like that has happened yet; Wunderground is still as good as it ever was—just color me “skeptical.”

Wunderground App

When it comes to apps for cell phones, TWC’s and Wunderground’s roles are reversed; the (free) Wunderground app just isn’t very well done. It doesn’t show much data, and is, frankly, not very informative. It does have a halfway decent map, but the one on the TWC app is better. Sadly, two thumbs down.

Howsomeever, Wunderground now has a second app: Weather Quickie. On the face of it, it is completely ridiculous, which is obvious as soon as you see the opening screen, a bunny-shaped cloud. The page that appears makes TWC’s web page look freaking data heavy. You have a couple of little weather symbols, and text that tells you whether it will be warmer or cooler tomorrow. There’s not even a display of current temperature. If that were all it did, there’d be no reason to fool with it, but it has a feature that makes it nearly as good as the TWC app.

Click on the little umbrella (or Mr. Sun, or whatever), or the “get the complete forecast from Weather Underground” text and your screen will flip and you will be taken to the mobile version of the Wunderground web page for your current location, which is everything the mobile app is not. There is complete weather data formatted for your phone, including Moon phase, and a version of the Wundermap that is considerably better than what is in the app. Sure, you can go to the mobile version of the Wunderground web page with your phone’s browser, but I find it easier to get there by going through Quickie. And who knows? They might improve Weather Quickie some day, maybe even adding temperature to its display, you never know.

Clear Sky Chart (Clock)

Clear Sky Chart used to be known as “Clear Sky Clock,” until this goober with a fraking clock business threatened to sue CSC proprietor and developer Attilla Danko. What CSC does is download forecast data from the Canadian Meteorological Center and put it in graphic form for you. The picture is composed of several graphs, with the most important for most of us being “Cloud Cover,” “Transparency,” and “Seeing.”

To the right of each category is a line of little blocks:  dark blue = “good,” white = “bad” with several color gradations in-between. The forecast range of CSC is 48-hours, which is usually plenty. How accurate? When talking “weather,” “accurate” is still a relative thing, and it’s possible to have white squares all down the line and have a great night. Still, used in combination with other weather data sources, CSC is purty reliable, just keep checking it for changes.

Clear Sky Chart has been the preeminent astronomy-centered weather program for years now. That’s because it is very good, but it is also because it has not had much competition. The rise of smart phones and tablets is changing that with several astro-centric weather apps having appeared in the last year or two. Some, like an iPhone app called Scope Nights, have taken the ball and run with it, and are threatening to eclipse CSC for amateur astronomers. How good are these new ones? I will tell you about ‘em some day soon.

Weather Radio

How did li’l Unk get most of his weather data back in the mid-1960s? Usually with my prized 6-transistor radio. Actually, it was Mama’s radio, but she let me listen to it once in a while. Fact is, radio is still a convenient way for amateurs to find out what the weather will be. Especially since some of the places we observe from are bereft of cable TV and may not even have wi-fi Internet or cell phone coverage (horrors).

You can still get weather on the AM and FM broadcast bands just like in The Old Days. There are some Weather Channel affiliate stations, but usually weather reports on the local country oldies stations (or whatever format you like) are sporadic and vary tremendously in quality. I still like to have an FM radio with me so I’ll have Miss Tammy Wynette to keep me company if I am observing alone, but broadcast radio ain’t a good way to get weather.

What is? NOAA Weather Radio. NOAA has enough radio stations (at VHF frequencies around 162 MHz) that there are few areas where you can’t hear excellent forecasts “read” by their computer “announcers.” Only caveat? If you live in a coastal area, you will have to sit through extensive marine reports before you get to landlubber weather.

So, how can you get NOAA Weather Radio? Walgreen’s, Walmart, and a bunch of other places sell weather alert radios. I like the ones from Midland, and especially their “alert” receiver. One of these may even save your life. Put one in your bedroom, put it in “standby,” and it will wake you with an alarm tone in the event of weather (or other) emergencies. You can get this receiver for 50-bucks or less, and that may be the best money you ever spent if you are in an area prone to tornadoes or hurricanes, or, like dadgum Possum Swamp, both.

Being a ham, an amateur radio operator, I have a little VHF/UHF handy-talkie that, in addition to transmitting on the ham 2-meter and 70-cm bands, receives FM broadcast and NOAA weather radio. If you are a ham and have an older HT that doesn't get weather radio, you might consider upgrading. The little Chinese dual-band jobs like the Baofengs work great, can be had for considerably less than 100 bucks now, and can provide you with some ham radio fun if the clouds do come and there are repeaters in the area. At home, I have an inexpensive Yaesu FT-1900 2-meter rig in the shack that puts out almost 60-watts and will check the NOAA weather radio for alert tones periodically while scanning and let me know if something bad is about to happen.

Roll Your Own

Being able to put together a detailed and accurate weather forecast requires not just high tech sensors, but years of training and experience. Just being able to make an educated guess about what the weather will do over the next few days requires weeks of training, like the military’s weather observer courses. Even so, by checking a few “indicators” you can get at least an idea of what’s going to happen over the next few hours or maybe even days. If the forecast you are getting from the professionals is for an area some distance from your exact location, your guesstimate may actually be more reliable for your site than NOAA’s predictions.
The indicators that will give you a good idea of whether you will be in deep sky heaven or skunk city? 

Clouds and wind. Clouds are your primary means of predicting the weather without a forecast. Cloud layers moving in different directions are usually an indication of bad weather on the way. That old wives’ tale about “mares' tails” (cirrus clouds) and “mackerel scales” (altocumulus clouds) in advance of rain? As Linus Van Pelt once said, some of those old wives were pretty sharp. Have the desert storm scope cover ready to go if you see either. Bad weather will arrive within 36-hours. If you see both mare’s tails and mackerel scales at the same time? You will be wet soon, likely sooner than 24-hours.

Also keep a sharp eye out for “towers” of cumulus clouds. Yes, patches of cumulus clouds are common on warm afternoons, but towering formations of them can indicate the possibility of severe weather. Need I say that if severe weather arrives you need to get yourself off the observing field and into a vehicle, at least, in a hurry?

More or less in the cloud category are rings around the Moon and Sun caused by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. An old saying I found when I was researching near-sky phenomena for a children’s science encyclopedia article I was writing was, “The Moon with a ring brings water in her beak.” If you see a ring around the Moon (or, less frequently, around the Sun), it will soon rain, I guar-ron-tee.

Another old saw that also sometimes correctly forecasts rain? “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” Red sky at dawn means the red-light-scattering dust has been dispersed as dry air has moved through, and a low-pressure system carrying moisture is soon to arrive.

Finally, what’s the wind doing? It’s usually a less accurate indicator of possible storms than clouds, but is still useful combined with your other “readings.” Easterly or southeasterly winds often mean wet stuff is headed your way. Not sure which way the wind is blowing? That old routine of somebody sticking their index finger in their mouth and holding it up actually works. The side of your finger toward the wind flow will feel decidedly cooler, no fooling.

Whether it is NOAA, the local TV weather-goobers, or your finger doing the forecasting, as I’ve said a few times already, weather it is not an exact science. Don’t get your nose too far out of joint if despite an “all systems go, deep sky imaging till dawn” forecast you find yourself spending the night in a motel room with the cotton-picking cable TV and a bottle of Rebel Yell. That is just the nature of weather and the nature of our pursuit.

The Cat's Out of the Bag Department:  I believe video astronomy, imaging the deep sky with very sensitive video cameras, is about to break through to the larger world of amateur astronomy and may be The Next Big Thing. The problem heretofore has been cost. Up till now, you needed to invest at least 1500 bucks to really get off the ground in video. There were some cheaper cameras, but they all involved a lot of compromises. That's changing now with several new and relatively inexpensive cameras from Mallincam and a new outfit, Astro-Video Systems, hitting the street. These cameras, which are far more capable than the last generation of "novice cams," promise to not just make entry into deep sky video less painful, but to literally blow the roof off amateur astronomy

So far I've only had my hands on one of these, the new Mallincam Junior Pro. And it is a lulu. Great build quality, and I believe it is gonna be finer than split frog hair. I "believe" that, muchachos, but I can't say for sure, since the horrible weather we've had along the coast this summer has prevented me from doing anything with the Jr. Pro I am evaluating. As soon as that changes, you-all will hear all about it

Next Time: Rocket City Again…

Thanks for alerting us on these new video camera's. I hope to learn more about how they perform. I agree that this is a growing trend and hope it continues.
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