In my opinion, few good books have been written on weather forecasting for the lay audience. Most books that claim on their cover to be guides to weather forecasting are usually basic weather books with a slightly greater emphasis on weather fronts and air masses but little in the way of forecasting rules or tools except perhaps for the basic barometer tendency/wind direction charts to assist their readers.
The Weather Handbook by Alan Watts, however, is in a different class, by far the best book I have ever read on the topic of weather forecasting, including technical books. In it, Mr Watts passes on his weather forecasting wisdom distilled from his six decades of experience as a professional forecaster, avid sailor and sky watcher. Watts writes with a lucid style supported by good, relevant illustrations that allow the reader to easily apply its forecasting techniques with only a sharp weather eye to guide them. Measurements and maps are considered tools by Watts for the enhancement of local forecasting ability rather than necessary tools for beginning the process.
The book has only one major drawback for the North American reader. It is written from a European viewpoint as England is Watts' home. The focus thus may fall short for those residing in the western mountain and plains regions of North America where conditions not common to western Europe predominate. Fortunately, however, most of the material is applicable in large degree to all areas of the world where weather is influenced by moving cyclones and frontal waves. For me, this European emphasis is also a great plus because it forces me to broaden my thinking about weather systems from my strictly North American viewpoint.
Watts breaks the book into fifteen concise, well-illustrated chapters, each focusing on a specific aspect of the processes altering local weather conditions. I found his discussions of upper level winds and clouds and their interactions in presaging local weather conditions very informative, particularly his forecasting principle of Crossed Winds. This tool uses visual observations of the movement of low and high altitude clouds as indicators of wind direction in these atmospheric layers and thus of coming changes in the weather. Watts then does a fine job of explaining why the principle works using surface and upper level weather charts to support his explanation.
Watts also provides brief discussions of local weather influences, such as sea or mountain wind circulations, which may cause departures in local weather conditions from those indicated by the general regional forecasts that look only at the larger picture.
I did find Watts' mixing of measurement units a little confusing. I can well understand his dilemma of having begun his career in the days when non-metric units dominated in some countries. Now metric units in weather forecasting, analysis and observation are used globally, although many of the North American public including the American media and some professions such as mariners and pilots still mix units in general usage. I confront the same problem since I write generally for a North American audience who use metric (Canada) and non-metric (United States) units.
His worst mixing of units is found on page 119 in discussion visibility related to fog. He starts using nautical miles (which differ from statute miles) for visibility in marine fog forecasts but gives the description of poor visibility as "1 km to 2 nmi." The next paragraph then gives fog definitions over land in terms of yards.
One definition given in the chapter "Information and Explanations" is technically incorrect. Watts defines sublimation as the transformation of water vapour directly to ice during frost formation. This is a common mistake, but the process so described is correctly termed deposition. Sublimation is actually the reverse process where ice transforms directly to water vapour.
I found his closing chapter "Some Fundamental Principles" a very good summary of the important points to consider when making a local weather forecast. Too bad that this chapter was not summarized on a plasticized card for reminding the forecaster on the important details to look for when making a forecast in the field.
Overall, The Weather Handbook is a well written and beautifully illustrated book. The figures and photos each play a role in the text, clearly aiding in the explanation of the particular process Watts is discussing. While The Weather Handbook stands fully on its own, I would complement a purchase of the book with a copy of Watts' classic Instant Weather Forecasting as a field guide companion to The Weather Handbook. [I bought my copy of the first edition of Instant Weather Forecasting in the late 1960s. It has been in print ever since and translated into ten languages.] The cloud photographs in this book are matched with the weather conditions they are associated with, and then can be used to enhance the rules and tools Watts presents in The Weather Handbook.
The Weather Handbook is written for the lay forecaster frustrated by overly general weather forecasts and wishing to have more precise local weather forecasts. This book delivers in its goal. Alan Watts has again given us a weather book gem which should not be missed. Any weather enthusiast, weather watcher and forecaster, novice or veteran, will learn from The Weather Handbook. I give it my highest rating.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
May 1, 2000