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The Joys of Weather Watching
When I sat down this morning to write this piece, the sun was just breaking the horizon. The most brilliant crimson sky -- accentuated by variously shaped clouds --I had seen in many months announced the arrival of the dawn. I stepped out onto the balcony to get a better view and inhaled the crisp morning air, clean with just the hint of sea. Needless to say, the event delayed my work briefly -- too short a time, for the breathtaking dawn lasted but a quarter hour. Had it lasted two hours, I still would have stopped to watch. You see, I am a compulsive weather watcher. It is in my genes.
I have been a weather watcher for most of my life: forty years, maybe more. My first weather memories are from pre-school days, reactions to thunder and lightning. I have made my love for weather both a recreation and a vocation, describing weather through poetry as often as through equations and statistics. What I would like to convey to you here will not be the science, you must find the answers to your weather whys elsewhere today. I want to help you develop your weather eyes.
First, let me state that weather and various atmospheric phenomena are, in my opinion, the most sensual aspects of life. We see weather, we hear weather, we smell weather and occasionally taste weather, and we definitely feel weather. We often stop listing the senses there, but other physical senses also respond to the weather, as do many mental and spiritual senses. I combine them all under the umbrella of having a weather eye, being sensually aware of the weather around us.
Mark Twain is attributed with saying: "Everybody talks about the weather..." (although it appears his collaborator on The Gilded Age, Charles Dudley Warner, actually wrote the statement). I have no doubt that the weather is a topic on everyone's mind, note the recent concern over El Niño. But weather is more than a subject for casual conversation. We live in weather daily. It surrounds us, it influences us, it controls our past, present and future in more ways than we care to admit. Weather shapes our culture, our national and regional characters, our language, music, art and literature, even our mental and physical health. It awes us with its power and then captivates us with its delicate beauty. And sometimes, it rains on our parades.
THE PASTIME OF WEATHER WATCHING
The pastime of weather watching rivals bird watching and astronomy for the top nature activity. (I have heard that there are more weather sites on the Internet than sex sites!) What other activity can be done almost everywhere, at any time, by everyone? Unlike astronomy, weather watching can be done day and night. Bird watching? Well, that can be done in a lot of places, but watching birds from high-rise apartments and offices or while flying in commercial aircraft is not an easy task. But weather is right there for us to savour.
I have practised weather watching mostly as a solo activity, but that does not preclude it from being a rewarding social affair -- whether watching with another individual, the family, or part of a group. I have watched weather from a sick bed and from a mountain top after an exhilarating climb. I have watched weather in a city and in the northern Ontario wilderness. I have shared my weather stories with family and friends around the dining table and the campfire.
Have I got you hooked yet? I hope so. Because not only is weather watching fun and educational, it can also be the most inexpensive of pastimes and have the least impact on the environment of any activity I can think of. It has no age restrictions, no minimum level of physical ability. I'll let you in on a little secret: you can do a whole bunch of other fun activities in combination with weather watching. For example, if you are interested in writing or visual arts, you can combine them with weather watching. Weather has been a great inspiration for many poets (yours truly included). Artists, whether their medium is pencil, pastels, watercolours, oils or photography, can find weather the focus, or use it to enhance the atmosphere surrounding the focal point, of a work.
Let's get started! I was going to begin by saying all you need to begin weather watching is two good eyes and a place open to the sky. After a moment's thought, I dropped the need for two good eyes. You can "watch" weather with less than two good eyes, and I can say with certainty that sight is not even necessary. Even I, with two good, albeit myopic, eyes, have often enjoyed weather watching using only the senses of hearing and feeling.
Having a place open to the sky means a location that allows the senses to link with the sky. By using senses other than vision to watch the weather, we can practice weather watching in a variety of unlikely locations that may lack visual contact with the sky. I have worked in offices where I was cut off from, or could not easily see, the sky. But there was usually some clue which announced to my weather eyes what was going on outside.
One of these was an air vent in the office. It changed its sound under a variety of different weather conditions. Wind and rain would send the weather-guard flap singing a song unique to a particular condition -- whistling with different pitches as the wind speed changed, plinking and plunking as rain changed intensity. There was even a sound peculiar to the striking of freezing precipitation (freezing rain, sleet, ice pellets).
For our first foray into weather watching, let's focus initially on the visual aspects of weather. If possible, move to a place/position where you can see the sky. I know this may seem difficult if it is nighttime, but don't worry, when you open up your senses, you will be surprised what you can see even at night. Focus your attention on what you see out there. Are there clouds visible? Is the wind blowing? Is it raining or snowing? If it is winter, is perhaps some snow visible on the ground? Pick one aspect of what you see and let it engulf your attention. What do you see that you may have missed before?
I heard someone back there say: "Keith, how can I see the wind? Air is invisible." Ah, a good question. A perceptive weather watcher sees not only the directly visible, but also the indirect indications of weather. Look again. Is there a tree or flag or laundry dancing in the wind? Litter or dead leaves skipping down the street? Since wind is air in motion, at times you can actually see the wind as it affects light passing through it. Look for a twinkling star or the shimmer of a street light. These are all manifestations of the wind you can see.
Did you see something you hadn't noticed before or see with a new appreciation of the vista? I think so. Maybe you were lucky and were able to see a storm roll in or out, a rainbow or halo in the sky, lightning streaking across the horizon chased by thunder. If not, look for something you may have heard about on the weather report or read about in one of the guides to the weather. While you may not find exactly what you were looking for, something fascinating will be visible. As you sharpen your weather eye, you will even find interesting features in a seemingly uniform cloud layer or in dense fog. Look toward sources of light, not just the sun or moon, to provide interesting colour variations. The time around dawn and dusk provide fascinating opportunities because bright reds, oranges and yellows often dominate portions of the sky.
Once you have exercised your vision, try using your hearing, sense of tactile feeling or smell to scan the current weather condition. Gather in the feel of the senses. Now look at the weather from a viewpoint of how it makes you feel emotionally and spiritually: joyful, depressed, afraid, apprehensive, awed, excited? If you continue such exercises for several minutes each day, I guarantee that after a while you will want to spend more time and delve deeper into weather watching.
GOING ON A WEATHER WATCHING FIELD TRIP
Next, let us go on a little field trip. Perhaps, you may have already ventured from home and begun noticing the weather more as you walked to work, went out for a walk or run, or worked on the yard or garden. Great! But this time I recommend going farther afield for the sole purpose of watching weather. Here I mean going outdoors, but if that is not possible for some reason, you could seek out a destination such as a view point from a tall building where the sky view is minimally obstructed.
My first recommendation is to wear the proper clothing for current and anticipated weather conditions. While shivering is one way to sense the weather, I do not find it much fun. I am a great advocate of dressing in layers. It works in all types of weather. For example, if you are going out on a cold day and you throw on a heavy overcoat over a thin shirt/blouse, you may find yourself overly warm when walking or under a strong sun in light winds. Dressed in this manner, you are going to be either too warm with the coat or too cold without it. By dressing in layers -- shirt, sweatshirt or sweater, coat or jacket that is at least windproof and best if waterproof as well -- you have options of removing or adding layers to adjust to the current conditions. If it is warm, consider carrying an extra layer, in case you find it cooler at your destination.
Now that we are dressed appropriately and out the door, where should we go? That depends on where you live. I live on southern Vancouver Island so it is easy to go to the shoreline or a park at higher elevations or even a low-level park that gives me the opportunity to see around the compass, more than I would see from a backyard or apartment commons. The important point is that you choose a place where you can see more sky than at home and be physically immersed in the weather. Let it surround you. Weather watching when walking or even running can be a fun combination of activities, but today we will stop and stand or sit in one spot for a while.
Now repeat our initial exercise. Look for weather phenomena you may or may not have experienced before. Soak in the pageant of the weather moving around you. Perhaps you did a little homework and went out on a particular day because of atmospheric conditions that were existing or unfolding -- you're learning quickly. If not, that is okay. I personally am a big fan of serendipity, enjoying what you find. Something about the weather will grab your attention, even if the sky is completely clear.
Over the next year, look for a variety of areas where you may enjoy different weather phenomena. I go to the seashore because, in addition to the wave action, I can see some good unobstructed sky vistas where cloud and optical events are more visible. I can also enjoy the interaction between mountains and sky. In the autumn, I look for a spot where trees are dropping leaves and the wind is freer to flow. Then I sit back and listen to the leaves chattering and watch them dance. I once worked near a park across from a glass-clad highrise. I enjoyed spending lunch time there, watching the sun and clouds reflecting off the glass. Ponds and lakes can do similar interesting things with light.
You may also want to go out in "bad" weather. If dressed appropriately, you can open your weather eyes to many sensual experiences -- the taste of snowflakes, the beat of rain, the force of the wind pushing against your body, the electricity in the air before a thunderstorm. However, please use common sense regarding your safety, especially during severe thunderstorms, lightning or extreme cold. Storm chasing can be fun but also extremely dangerous.
SOME THINGS TO LOOK FOR IN THE SKY
I hear you asking: "What should we be looking for?" I have purposely avoided any answer to this point, partly because I do not know where or when you are reading this, and the weather situation I may tell you to look for may not happen. In addition, I would like you to first get accustomed to the parade of regular weather conditions where you live. Learn the nuances of your neighbourhood weather. Do clouds form over mountain peaks in the same way every day at the same time? Do sunset features have any correlation to the day's weather? Does the wind shift in a common way on particularly hot days? How do storms roll in? And how do they play out here?
I suggest that you keep notes of your observations in the beginning and see if there are patterns. If so, maybe you can predict that some weather phenomenon will happen whenever some particular pattern occurs. Find that a particular pattern occurs under common conditions and you have undertaken some basic scientific research. No matter that others may have determined the same sequence years ago, it is still your discovery. Use this knowledge to look for the phenomenon in the future, and you will be a weather forecaster.
TO SUM UP
W.P. Kinsella, the author of Shoeless Joe, the book upon which the movie, Field of Dreams is based, believes the allure of baseball is found more in the anticipation of what will happen on the field than on the action itself. Weather watching is a lot like that. A forecast of a major storm can catch us in anticipation for several days or hours. During a thunderstorm, watches eagerly await the next flash of lightning and peal of thunder. If they match our expectations, we ooooh! and aaaahhhh! like an audience at a fireworks display. As a lover of baseball, I see the parallel; however, weather watching offers not only a high degree of anticipation, but also a wide variety of engrossing experiences once the event unfolds.
When you become an avid weather watcher, the weather becomes more than something to complain about. Weather becomes a treasure chest of potential memories: brilliant rainbows, rolling thunder, clean, crisp mornings, fire in the sky, lacy snowflakes, powerful winds. If you aren't presently a weather watcher, join me; start today. Develop those weather eyes! You won't regret it.
Please come back to this site often. We will be adding more and more material on weather and weather watching. We would also love to hear from you!
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