Going cruising? Here's how to read the weather maps
by Gord May
With permission of: “GOOD OLD BOAT” Magazine
Published in Issue 45, Nov/Dec 2005
The following text is reprinted with permission of Good Old Boat magazine. I have tried (and failed) to upload the original article c/w graphics.
Ode to the Weatherman
And in the dying embers,
These are my main regrets:
When I'm right,
no one remembers;
When I'm wrong,
no one forgets.
affects every person every day, but few people are more affected by weather than the mariner. An unexpected change in winds, seas, or visibility can reduce the efficiency of marine
operations and threaten the safety
of a vessel and its crew. It behooves the prudent mariner to become familiar with reading weather maps and interpreting what their content portends for future weather conditions.
Surface maps depict the large-scale elements of the weather. These elements include high- and low-pressure systems, cold and warm fronts, and precipitation areas. Current
surface maps are updated every hour. Forecast
surface maps are updated once each day.
High and low pressure centers are indicated by a large block H and L, respectively, together with a set of digits identifying the estimated value of the central pressure. On some charts
, the H is colored blue, while the L is drawn in red.
A high-pressure system is an area of relative pressure maximum that has diverging winds and (in the Northern Hemisphere) a clockwise rotation. Fair weather is typically associated with high pressure.
A low-pressure system is an area of relative pressure minimum that has converging winds and rotates (in the Northern Hemisphere) in a counterclockwise direction. Stormy weather is often associated with low-pressure systems.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the rules listed here must be reversed.
A low-pressure trough that contains significant weather phenomena (such as precipitation and distinct wind
shifts) may be identified on the map by a thick brown dashed line running along the axis of the trough. On some maps this trough line may have the abbreviation, TROF. Surface fronts are generally found under trough regions.
A trough is an elongated area of low atmospheric pressure that can occur either at the Earth's surface or at higher altitudes.
Upper-level troughs influence many surface weather features, including the formation and movement of surface low-pressure areas and the locations of clouds and precipitation.
Precipitation tends to fall to the east of the trough axis, while colder, drier air tends to prevail to the west of the trough. This happens because air rises to the east of troughs. As air rises, it cools, and its humidity begins condensing into clouds and precipitation. Air sinks on the west side of troughs, which inhibits clouds and precipitation.
On weather maps of the Northern Hemisphere, troughs are shown by upper-air winds, or jet streams, blowing south and then turning back to the north.
A high-pressure ridge is an elongated area of high atmospheric pressure. It occurs both at the Earth's surface and at higher altitudes. Upper-level ridges can have a major impact on the weather at the surface. Sunny, dry weather usually prevails to the east of the upper-level ridge axis, while cloudy, wet weather can dominate the weather picture to the west of the upper-level ridge axis. Air tends to sink to the east of the ridge axis, which inhibits clouds and precipitation. On the other hand, air tends to rise to the west of the ridge axis, which can lead to the formation of clouds and precipitation.
On Northern Hemisphere weather maps, upper-air ridges are shown by the path of upper-altitude winds, or the jet stream, turning to flow northward and then back to the south.
The surface analysis may include one or more color-coded lines to identify a front. A front is defined as the transition zone between air masses having dissimilar thermal and moisture properties. Usually, these transition zones are only 50 to 100 kilometers wide, a sufficiently small horizontal distance to permit
their representation as lines on a large-scale surface-analysis chart. Fronts are classified according to their movement and can be represented graphically on a surface analysis chart.
Warm fronts --
A red line with red half-moons pointing in the direction of air flow indicates a warm front, which is the leading edge of an advancing warm air mass that is replacing a retreating relatively colder air mass. With the passage
of a warm front (generally at 10 to 15 knots), the temperature and humidity increase, the pressure rises, and, although the wind
shifts (usually from the southwest to the northwest in the Northern Hemisphere), it is not as pronounced as with a cold frontal passage
. Precipitation -- in the form of rain, snow, or drizzle -- is generally found ahead of the surface front, as well as strong winds, convective showers, and thunderstorms. Fog
is common in the cold air ahead of the front. Although clearing usually occurs after passage, some conditions may produce fog
in the warm air.
As the warm front approaches, winds blow from the east or southeast and pressure drops steadily. Cirrus clouds are sighted first, followed by cirrostratus, altostratus, and finally nimbostratus. Cloud cover gets progressively greater, from a few tenths coverage with cirrus, to completely overcast with the coming of the nimbostratus clouds. Gentle precipitation begins as the nimbostratus clouds move overhead.
As the warm front passes, temperatures rise, precipitation ceases, and winds shift to the south or southwest. Further, the sky clears and the pressure steadies. Later, with the approach of the cold front, cumulonimbus clouds fill much of the sky and bring the likelihood of heavy precipitation and the possibility of hail and tornado activity. The passage of the front is accompanied by a drop in temperature, clearing skies, a wind shift to the northwest, and rising pressure. Fair weather can probably be expected for the next day or two.
Cold fronts --
Cold fronts are depicted by a blue line with blue barbs pointing in the direction of the cold-air flow. A cold front is the leading edge of an advancing cold air mass that is under-running and displacing the warmer air in its path. Generally, with the passage of a cold front, the temperature and humidity decrease, the pressure rises, and the wind shifts (usually clocking from the southwest to the northwest in the Northern Hemisphere).
Precipitation is generally at and/or behind the front and, with a fast-moving system (up to 30 knots), a squall line may develop ahead of the front (weather deteriorates with rain, strong winds, and thunderstorms).
As the low approaches, cool temperatures are the rule
, and winds are easterly because the warm sector of the cyclone is to the south. (A cyclone is just a meteorologist's word for a pressure system centered on a low core
. Most cyclones are not capable of sending you and Toto to Oz.) The pressure drops and the sky becomes increasingly overcast. Precipitation is to be expected. As the front becomes occluded and slowly passes, winds shift from the north or northeast to the northwest. The sky begins to clear and the barometric tendency rises. Temperatures, however, remain cool or cold.
Clouds that are moving in a direction that differs from the way the wind is blowing indicate a condition known as wind shear. This sometimes indicates the arrival of a cold front.
Stationary fronts --
A line with alternating red warm-front symbols and blue cold-front symbols pointing in opposite directions symbolizes little frontal movement.
When warm and cold air of equal pressure are next to each other, no movement will take place. Stationary fronts usually produce weather similar to a warm front but milder.
Occluded fronts --
A front with purple (combined red and blue) half-moons and barbs on the same side, pointing toward the direction of frontal motion, shows an occluded front.
Often, in the later stages of a storm's life cycle, a frontal occlusion occurs. This occurs when the air in the warm sector of the storm is lifted off the ground. Two types of occluded fronts exist.
The first is a cold occlusion, which occurs when the air behind the front is colder than the air ahead of the front. In this situation, the coldest air undercuts the cool air ahead of the front and the occluded front acts very similar to a cold front.
The second type is a warm occlusion, which occurs when the air behind the front is warmer than the air ahead of the front. In this situation, the cool air is lighter than the coldest air ahead of the front. As a result, the cool air rises up and over the coldest air at the surface and the occluded front acts very similar to a warm front.
In both types of occlusions, the occluded front has well-defined vertical boundaries between the coldest air, the cool air, and the warm air. In most cases, storms begin to weaken after a frontal occlusion occurs.
Isobars are thin solid lines depicting the features of the horizontal pressure field at mean sea level. They connect all points having the same sea level-corrected barometric pressure. By meteorological tradition, the isobar spacing is at 4-millibar (mb) intervals, centered upon 1000 mb -- that is, 996, 1000, 1004, and so forth.
Isobars with the lowest value will encircle the region with the lowest point in the pressure field, while the closed isobar with the largest value isolates the highest sea-level pressure. The packing of the isobars reveals how rapidly the pressure varies with distance in the horizontal direction. A tighter packing indicates a much more rapid horizontal variation of air pressure.
The isobar pattern is also useful for visualizing the near-surface wind regimes. The winds tend to parallel the isobars, with low pressure to the left of the wind flow in the Northern Hemisphere; a slight cross-isobar deflection of the winds toward lower pressure is often seen. As a result, winds appear to spiral in toward a surface low-pressure center in a counterclockwise fashion and spiral around a high-pressure cell in a clockwise outflow. Additionally, where the isobars are packed more closely, the wind speed tends to be greater.
If previous surface charts
are available for the last day or two, you will be able to predict the movement of weather systems over time, based upon the principle of continuity.
Surface station models
The location of each reporting station has been printed on the base maps as a small circle. The weather data from each reporting station are plotted around these circles in a particular systematic fashion (convention) called a "station model."
Here's where you'll find the data:
• Temperature (degrees F) is plotted upper left
• Present weather symbol, center left
• Dew point (degrees F), lower left
• Pressure (0.1 mb-coded), upper right as last 3 digits
• Pressure trend, lower right
• Cloud cover, center circle; white fill indicates percentage of cloud cover
• Winds are shown in the wind arrow
For more on interpreting the symbols found in a station model, see <http://www.hpc.ncep.noaa.gov>.
Dew points indicate the amount of moisture in the air. The higher the dew points, the higher the moisture content of the air at a given temperature. Dew-point temperature is defined as the temperature to which the air would have to cool (at constant pressure and constant water-vapor content) to reach saturation.
Relative humidity can be inferred from dew-point values. When air temperature and dew-point temperatures are very close, as shown in the station model illustration on facing page, the air has a high relative humidity. The opposite is true when there is a large difference between air and dew-point temperatures. Conditions at locations with high dew-point temperatures (65 or greater) are likely to be uncomfortably humid.
Humidity is required for thunderstorms to grow for two reasons. First, the humidity in the air condenses to form the water
drops and ice crystals that make up a cloud and the rain that begins falling if the water
drops or ice crystals grow large enough. Second, humidity makes the air more unstable.
If the reported value is greater than 500, the initial 9 is missing. Place it on the left, then divide by 10. For example: 827 becomes 982.7 mb.
If the reported value is less than 500, the initial 10 is missing. Place it on the left, then divide by 10. For example: 027 becomes 1002.7 mb.
Cloud cover and stability
In addition to coverage, cloud shape, size, height, color, and sequence may foretell what's to come. Stand with your back to the wind (true, not apparent) and watch which way the clouds move. In the Northern Hemisphere, high-altitude clouds moving from left to right indicate the weather may worsen; from right to left it may improve. If they move toward or away from you, the weather may stay about the same.
The atmosphere's stability or instability is one of the key factors that determines whether showers and thunderstorms will form and is responsible for the formation of the two predominant cloud types: stratus and cumulus.A more stable atmosphere generally produces stratus clouds, and the weather is generally calm, although rain or snow can fall. The rain or snow that falls on stable days tends to be slow and steady and covers a wide area.
Unstable days produce cumulus clouds, showers, and thunderstorms, with the most violent thunderstorms occurring on the most unstable days.
Generally, the atmosphere tends toward stability, and its primary motion is horizontal. Air masses may move horizontally for many thousands of miles, while the air within the mass may move less than a mile upward. However, when air moves over a warmer surface, it becomes heated and unstable. The lower levels become less dense and are then buoyed upward. Conversely, air moving over a colder surface is cooled, and it becomes denser and more stable.
The observed near-surface wind speed and wind direction are represented on the map by a wind arrow. The shaft indicates the direction from which the wind is blowing, and the barbs show wind speed in nautical miles per hour. Each short barb represents 5 knots, each long barb 10 knots. A long barb and a short barb is 15 knots, simply by adding the value of each barb together. Pennants are 50 knots. If only a station circle is plotted, the winds are calm.
Wind always blows in a circular pattern around high- and low-pressure cells. In the Northern Hemisphere, it blows clockwise (veering) around a high and counterclockwise (backing) around a low. This circulation is a direct result of the earth's rotation and is known as the Coriolis effect.
Backing winds shift in a counterclockwise direction with time at a given location (for example, from southerly to southeasterly) or change direction in a counterclockwise sense with height (for example, westerly at the surface but becoming more southerly aloft). In storm spotting, a backing wind usually refers to the turning of a southerly or southwesterly surface wind with time to a more easterly or southeasterly direction and derives from a low-pressure area. Backing of the surface wind can increase the potential for tornado development by increasing the directional shear at low levels and suggests nasty weather.
Veering winds shift in a clockwise direction with time at a given location (for example, from southerly to westerly) or change direction in a clockwise sense with height (for example, southeasterly at the surface turning to southwesterly aloft). The latter example is a form of directional shear, which is important for tornado formation. A veering wind suggests fair or improving weather in the Northern Hemisphere, due to clockwise rotation of high-pressure areas.
Clouds that move in a direction that differs from the way the surface wind is blowing indicate a condition known as wind shear. This sometimes indicates the arrival of a cold front. Weather fronts usually bring rain.
The speed of the wind also is an indicator of the weather. A strong wind usually means a big differential in the air pressure over a small space. This means that if a low-pressure system is approaching, it will likely be intense.
As communication technology improves, it is becoming easier to receive weather information. The better we understand the information these charts contain, the better we will be at making decisions that affect the safety
of our boats and crews.
Life cycle of a low shown below and on facing page. A frontal system develops as a cold mass meets a warm one (a). The cold air pushes under the warm air (b), creating a cold front on the left and a warm front at the right (c) in the Northern Hemisphere. The low is formed in the center, or tip, of the wave form with winds moving in a counterclockwise direction around the low (d). The entire system continues to move generally in an easterly direction as the two fronts become occluded (e) and the frontal system dissipates (f).
I'll continue to try to upload the original artwork.
I have been unable to upload the weather graphics, so have posted the actual magazine pages (with permission of GOB)
WEATHER BASICS - How to read a weather map
as published in Good Old Boat magazine (issue 45, Nov/Dec 05)
Page 1 (of 4)
Page 4 (of 4)
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