Posts Tagged ‘weather books’

One of the things I had hoped to accomplish during this semester was to add to my own ability to recognize what I see in the sky.  I have added some vocabulary, but one book which has delighted me, and which  wish I had started out with, and which is my second nomination for the book to use as a spine for a weather course, is The Weather Identification Handbook by Storm Dunlop. (How did he ever get that name?) It is a beautiful and clear list of cloud types and cloud names — ten genera of clouds with fourteen species and nine varieties, also three accessory forms and then six more particular forms. These, with beautiful color illustrations, are the backbone of the book.

Genera (plural of genus), species, and varieties are not altogether like their biological counterparts, however. A particular species, such as castellanus (which means turret-forming) may appear within several different genera, so that you have stratocumulus castellanus (Sc cas), altocumulus castellanus (Ac cas), cirrocumulus castellanus (Cc cas), and cirrus castellanus (Ci cas). Or, one of the accessory clouds is called pileus, which means having the form of a hood or cap above a rising air mass. Cumulus (Cu pil) and cumulonimbus (Cb pil) clouds may each have pileus forms. In other words, a species is not a specific form within a single genera; rather it is a type of form which may appear as a modification within one or more of the genera.

Another important point about cloud names is that they are, like Linnaeus’ original biological classification, based on appearance, not on origin or function. And just as, over time, biologists realized that certain similar forms were less related than other very dissimilar forms, meteorologists have realized that similar cloud forms and names do not always imply a similar source or similar weather. Names, then, are just the beginning, important because you don’t easily remember — indeed sometimes you barely notice — the things for which you have no name. It would be a fun challenge to see how many cloud types you could identify and photograph within a semester, or even within a month. But a course on weather needs to be more.

The Weather Identification Handbook also has descriptions of the major light displays, precipitation types, and some of the identifying effects of wind speed. However, because the emphasis is on weather identification, the book is not systematic in its presentation of these other things, and there is no discussion of more fundamental things belonging to climate, the larger reality in which weather is set, such as Hadley cells (you can’t see them) or the Coriolis effect. An understanding of weather requires that those topics be covered, and other sources would be necessary. Nevertheless, the principal value of Storm Dunlop’s book is that it would encourage students to look at the sky. If you look, you get curious; if you get curious you learn; if you learn, you notice much more and remember much better. It’s a beautiful little book.


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Just a quick note here, but I have been skimming The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and am about to nominate this as the book I most wish I’d used for my course. It’s written with a happy mix of science, observation, and reflection. Unfortunately, the photos are black and white, but you can always look up to get your fill of color.

And, yes, there really is a Cloud Appreciation Society, and of course they maintain a website, which has, without any competition, the most extraordinary cloud photos I have ever seen.

Did you know that there is a small town in Australia which is home to a unique cloud formation called the Morning Glory? It is a kind of cloud roll which forms in the spring and which is the very Mecca of gliders because you can ride its wave as surfers ride the waves of the sea. Take a look!

There is also a wonderful gallery of photos of all the principal cloud types, and as these are sent in by members from all over the world, they are breathtaking in unexpected ways. Various kinds of displays within clouds are also illustrated with extraordinarily beautiful hotos. Here’s a photo of some fallstreaks, cloud holes that are caused by the passing of an airplane whose exhaust has seeded a portion of the cloud and caused its droplets to fall out.

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I’ve been reading a new book — an old book really: From Raindrops to Volcanoes by Duncan Blanchard, first published in 1967 and presently being reprinted by Dover. It’s a kind of personal journal of Blanchard’s scientific adventures going from the study of how raindrops generate bubbles in the sea, to the way that these bubbles break and send tiny droplets into the air, to the possible relationship between these droplets and atmospheric charge, to the question of how undersea volcanoes send charges into the atmosphere.

This is the kind of book that shows you how scientists really think: An idea forms; in the course of checking that idea, other thoughts form and other experiments suggest still further avenues of thought. Along the way, other people have similar questions and sometimes more ingenious exercises to test them, and then, charmingly, a visit to the library unearths the works of men who raised these questions hundreds of years ago and made their own guesses, wise or foolish.

So, when a drop causes a bubble, and the breaking of the bubble causes the forceful ejection of new and incredibly tiny droplets into the air, how fast do you suppose that ejection really starts them off? It has to have some momentum because the air is quite thick compared to these tiny droplets and to get them up above the sea requires considerable force… The large ones, of course, we actually see; they might be traveling as fast as we swing our arms, and that can’t be much more than a few miles an hour, the speed at which we walk and swing our arms, right?

But would you believe 180 miles an hour for the little ones? No way! Please read his book and explain to me what he did wrong; there must be something. I didn’t follow every equation, I confess.

Actually, I am sure he was careful; and even though there are some math parts that will not catch everyone’s attention, he does give amazingly clear explanations of his work; it’s not just answers, but how he got there. He has the heart of a teacher; he wants to share his fascination with the physical world, all full of surprises.

Volcanic lightning from Chaiten Volcano May 2008

Here is an image of volcanic lightning from another source. It’s the Chaiten Volcano in Chili, which erupted May of 2008. Notice that the cloud is black and smoky, not grey like a rain cloud. The picture is from a news outlet.



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Chapter 10 of Eric Sloane’s Weather book explains the reading of a weather map. It’s one of those things that’s very jumbled and confusing when you first see it, but if you take the symbols one at a time, you can work it out and find it interesting.

  1. First, you see long curves with spikes on them, like the teeth of a saw. That’s the sharp edge of a cold front coming in, and the teeth point which way it is moving. Remember that a cold front isn’t necessarily “cold” as in freezing. It’s just colder than what’s already in place. It probably stormed along this line.
  2. Second, you see lines with scallops on them; they certainly look gentler than the cold front! This is the warm front, and again, the scallops show which way the air is moving; not as dramatic as the pointy teeth of a cold front, but the same idea. There may be low dull clouds here.
  3. Third, you may also see a line with points one way and scallops the other. Here, the warm and cold fronts have met and can’t go anywhere; they’re stuck for the moment. There may be low clouds and some wind. Sort of a useless wind that doesn’t take the weather anywhere…
  4. Fourth, you may see a line with points and scallops both pointing the same way. Here, a cold front has come up behind the warm front, and both are now moving together. Here there will be wind (like a cold front) and a long rain (like a warm front). It’s called an occluded front.

So that’s for the bold lines on the map. What about the big letter H and the big letter L?

  1. “H’ is for High, of course. It means a high barometer, and that means high pressure, which means dense air and no rain. When the air is dense, the water in it warms and evaporates.
  2. And “L” is for Low. When the barometer is low, the air is thin and water more readily condenses into rain and snow.
  3. Related to these two letters are some light lines that make concentric circles or beany shapes round about them. These lines are a connect-the-dots exercise, and the dots they connect are cities (or weather stations) where the air pressure is the same. As you move across these lines away from an “L”, the air pressure (the barometer) is rising. As you move across these lines outward from an “H”, the air pressure is falling. Simplified weather maps don’t use them, lest people be confused — but you won’t be!

Finally, there may be arrows on your map, and these tell the wind direction. The number of fletches on the arrows tell the strength of the wind.

If you take these items one at a time, you will soon find that the weather map is all sorted out and as readable as anything else written in a language that you know. I notice that many of the weather maps now in use are so careful to use pictures (of rain and snow) for example, that they only give information about “now” and no forecast or sense of direction at all. The announcer makes the forecast, not the map.

I guess they don’t think people can understand the symbols, and most can’t. But once you understand the symbols, there is actually more information in the symbols than in the pictures.

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In a comment, a good friend mentions reading about a man who ejected from his plane and fell into a thunderhead. It took him 40 minutes to reach the ground because the updrafts kept pulling him up instead of down. Yikes! Amazing that he survived! He wrote a book about it called The Man Who Rode the Thunder, and it’s available — second hand — from Amazon. In the comments section, his nephew has a beautiful tribute to an inspiring uncle who died only last July. Enjoyable just to read the comments; both experienced pilots and a 13-year old girl recommend this story.

I respond to the comment here because I can’t put links in the comment section. I always used to wonder how people knew about insides of thunderstorms… We use balloons now, but for a while pilots were flying in — and I guess a few just fell in. Unbelievable!

About the otter:

If you go to the jet stream archive and fill in for a three day animation, you can see what happened to the otter. He kept moving slowly across the state, in a kind of sitting position, and then decided to follow his nose north into Canada. He never actually got near Sioux Falls, but he came close enough that we have much cooler air this morning, and all the clouds have soft cottony edges, a sign of frozen vapor.

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First class is Friday. Let’s hit the ground running.

Your assignment is to read the first chapter of your book – either Sloane’s or Jack Williams’ weather book, depending on which class you are in. Here are some notes – Sloane’s book notes first, then Williams’ book.

Eric Sloane’s book:

P 2  Oh fun! Here are a bunch of weather sayings and some nice cartoons to help you remember them. How many do you understand? I don’t even know why all of them are true; maybe I’ll know by December. You should have questions!

P 3-4  Here is a general discussion of weather lore and how great it is to look up.

P 5-7  A long verse gives Sloane a chance to explain a lot of weather responses. Some of it will make more sense at the end of the semester. Do you understand what he is saying? How do you like that insect thermometer?

P 8-10  More weather effects in odd places; good chart for the home builder in hill country. Oh, that’s not here. But you might not live in the plains forever, so study it. You never know.

P 10-11  Quirky cartoons about blood oxygen levels. Study them carefully. Sloane is very friendly, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything serious to say.

P 12  So how many of you want to keep a calendar of your moods charted against the barometer? That would be a good project. Maybe yourself and two friends, and keep it for a good amount of time, so you can even out what else contributes to your feelings.

   Some Questions:

1)    List some of the weather lore you have heard before and that you have verified or falsified (seen to be false) in your own life.

2)    Memorize at least 4 lines of the verse he gives.

3)    You will have to choose a project for the semester. If you are inspired by anything in this chapter, let us know.

4)    Any questions? If you don’t have any questions, the class won’t be much fun.

For Jack Williams’ book:

Chapter 1 briefly describes the wildness of American weather. This is a good introduction to weather because the US has a tremendous variety of weather, more than any other country in the world. We have coasts on two oceans; we have no mountains keeping us from either Canada or the southern lands and waters; we have plains where northern and southern winds can meet and squabble; we’ve got it all.

P 2-3  The diagram of all these possibilities of US weather would probably work as a summing up, better than an introduction, but do your best to look it over and read the captions thoughtfully.

P 4-5  The inset on the Galveston hurricane is interesting – because it has so many mistakes. If you really want to read about this hurricane, get Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson and settle in for a long evening. Two errors: Cline did not ride on horseback along the beach to warn people; that is what he should have done. And there was more than the long ocean swells telling Cline how bad it would be; there was the Cuban (I think) weather service. Unfortunately, the American weather service had no respect for their southern neighbors, forgetting that these guys were bound to be far more storm-savvy for the very good reason that they faced many more storms. Snobbery doesn’t pay.

P 6-8 More information about American weather, including a New York storm in 1888, and a tornado described by Father deSmet from 1841. Cool stuff.

P 8-11 Several more or less conflicting definitions of science are found all through this chapter, but especially at the end. Definitions are important they carry a lot of weight. Watch for the suggestion that nobody was really a scientist until yesterday or the last two decades or the 20th century; that’s just garbage. Watch for silly definitions and think: how would you define science? You have to get it clear, or the tide of modern superciliousness will wash you away.

P 10-11 Bio of a female weather professional. Interesting. Fun in some ways; irritating in others because of the tone of political correctness.

   Some Questions:

1)    Why is US weather so varied?

2)    What evens out Europe’s weather?

3)    What is science?

4)    Why does air move? We have a globe with air all around; why doesn’t the air just sit where it is? Don’t say the wind moves it; the wind is just a word for moving air. Why? Think about it. Have an answer – or a question.

5)    You will have to choose a weather project. No rush. Remember the idea of watching the jet stream or of watching the length of contrails compared to humidity. What are you curious about? You could do a bio of Luke Howard, and that would prepare you for next semester when we switch to history of science.

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Song of the Sky

Guy Murchie’s Song of the Sky is another weather book from the fifties (1954), gently illustrated by the author, a pilot. It’s out of print, but old editions are readily available or you might be able to get a library copy. Besides the weather explanations, which are very good and above all very readable, there’s a lot of interesting lore and some amazing history.

For fun, you might look at page 136-7 which lists some names for the great winds of the world such as:

the great West Indian hurricane (from the Taino word “hurrican” or “evil spirit”)… the typhoon (from “ty fung,” “great wind”) … and the elephanta of the Malabar coast… 

On a more serious note, here’s his description of being in an airplane when it was struck by lightning, quite an exciting event in those days:

We were in a C-8 and had just ridden through three minutes of the most violent turbulence I think I have ever experienced. As I was beginning to wonder how much longer our wing spars could stand the terrific bouncing — up — down — up — slantwise — skewways — down — up — up — down, suddenly it happened! The cockpit lit up like a neon tube. It lasted less than a thousandth o a second, yet huge pale green sparks jumped all over the room, including one to the pilot’s pedestal. The radio man was knocked to the floor and the hairs on the back of my head stood as stiff as bristles.

There follows an eye-popping description of the damage to the plane.

Ahem! About meteorology (the study of weather, remember, not of meteors): On page 236, there is an interesting discussion of raindrop sizes, closing with an account of the growth of raindrops as they fall through a cloud of mist. We do not often consider that raindrops come to us from the distance of a mile or two, sometimes even more, and must have had a long and eventful journey: sometimes colliding and growing, sometimes being steered around other drops (according to Langmuir’s law of raindrop collisions… !), sometimes experiencing overgrowth and being broken again by the wind. What a lot of physics in so simple an event!

Murchie has a number of hair-raising pilot stories, including one (p. 345) in which a jet pilot blacks out — he doesn’t seem to have a co-pilot — and two pilots that are up there with him — in their own planes —  execute a rescue by getting under his wings like a pair of birds until he wakes up. Not that their wings touch; there is a pad of air around anything that moves so fast, and that cushion — and their skill — was what upheld him. An amazing story!

There’s another one about getting a bunch of generals back to Europe after a high-level meeting in the US, right in the middle of World War II. It involves getting caught in a major storm and coming in for a landing in a strange air port, safe only by a hair’s breadth. I can’t find the pages — it’a a long story but there’s no index. I’ll tell you later — if you get the book yourself and find it, drop me a line.

I am sure I will be using this book over the course, because it’s so fascinating in so many ways — not to mention that I have so many boys in my class. You know, when my own son was in high school, his real physics class was getting his private pilot’s license. It’s not like you just learn to steer and brake. You need some physics, some math, some weather information. It’s a real course.

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