Forecasting the Weather in a Grid-Down Situation, by the Old Farmer

I love satellite radar in real time. I’m a big fan of NOAA‘s weather alerts and a unit sits in our kitchen next to the old-fashioned pilot-light gas stove. But over the years I’ve learned a couple of things. One, they’re never completely right, and two, it all depends on technologies we might not have in the not too distant future. I could maybe add a third, just a theory of mine, that computer weather models are based on prejudices that might not be entirely true, like global warming. That could mean that the forecaster is assuming a kind of weather pattern nature isn’t going to dish out.

Weather is my companion. Watch it, smell it, guess at it, pray for changes in it, live in it, that’s all part of a farmer’s life, and I’ve learned to add my observations to whatever is coming out of the forecasters’ mouths. Here’s a summation of my experiences.

Wind Direction

Weather travels on the wind. In the US, this is West to East, following the jet stream, a pattern that has notorious dips from time to time. I live in the Northeast, so I’ll use anecdotes from my area. You’ll have to gather some from your area, and this isn’t hard to do it you’re observant, and if you take the time to talk to old timers. When JWR prints this, maybe other folks will add their wisdom.

Weather from the nor’west is generally fair; weather from the southwest/east is not, and weather from the nor’east is usually bad. So the first thing you’ll need is a good compass. Train yourself to know the compass directions in the area where you live. You’ll find after a while you can remember what they are. For those who have never paid much attention but are learning to do so now, remember “the sun rises in the y’east”, traverses overhead, or in the southern sky, and sets in the west. If you’re watching the dawn you’re facing east, north is on your left and south on your right.

If you simply stand still, you can see how clouds are moving against stationary trees or stars. Don’t assume that if it’s coming out of the west when you get up to do the morning chores it will stay that way. Wind shifts have meaning. So you may want to have some way of measuring: a wind sock, flag, weathervane. Smoke in the winter is a classic way of telling wind direction. Just be sure that you’re away from any structure that would cause a false wind tunnel, such as two tall buildings. Get into the habit of checking from time to time. For me, this is just SOP.

Weather patterns may change seasonally. In the summer and fall in our area, tropical storms coming from the south will bring warm, and sometimes torrential rains, but in winter the nor’easters are more likely, snowstorms or blizzards coming off the water.

Cloud Formations

These are really worth knowing. Observe them at dawn and dusk, then as they change during the day. I like this forecasting cloud chart because it has pictures of the formations condensed on two pages that I can pin to a wall.

Since clouds are made of water particles, they reflect color and that can tell you a lot about what’s coming when you see them at dawn and dusk. The wind direction works in tandem, though. Just knowing the cloud formation isn’t enough. For example, the last hurricane that passed our way missed us by about 80 miles. Since we’re preppers, we topped off our preparations, but as I was watching the clouds in the evening I saw dark, boiling, low gray clouds moving overhead. Normally these (called cumulonimbus mamma) mean bad weather right away. But the wind direction was from the west. With careful observation, I could catch sight of some blue sky in between the threatening patches. Swirling clouds were coming off the coast (a little hint of salt in the air) but were being kept at bay by westerly winds. In fact, we never even got needed rain from that system. So just a cloud formation is only part of the equation.

Become familiar with some of the well-known ones: the ‘mackerel scales’ formation, high ice clouds called cirrocumulus that break up as they move, forming the ‘scales’. If the wind is from the south, there could be rain in 15 to 20 hours, maybe less. Precipitation is likely if you see the undulating forms of altocumulus undulatus, like bands of dirty gray cotton, but once again, the wind needs to be NE to S. Cloud covers that make the whole sky white or gray-white usually mean precipitation of some kind, and so on. Those of you who have often looked at the sky will enjoy knowing the names of these formations and for others, it will be a learning curve.

Other Signs

When growing food depends on rain, or knowing if snow will endanger travel, other signs are important in the mix.

  • The smell of the air. I know, this sounds a little hokey, but other farmers will know what I mean: the sooty or iron taste of air that comes ahead of snow. A salty smell of storms coming off the water. The increased humidity and heaviness in the air the precedes foul weather like thunderstorms and tropical depressions.
  • Sky colors before frost or the arrival of a cooler trend. We all have seen the definite line of clearing or approaching clouds called a ‘front line’. When this happens and the color of the clearing sky is almost a pale green, cooler weather is on the way. ‘Apple green west’ is how I remember it, but sometimes it’s seen in other quadrants, too. In a clearing atmosphere in the fall, it’s a good sign of frost to come. I’m speaking of sky colors under normal conditions. If there’s a major volcanic event, there will be spectacular sunsets for some time, at the least, because of particles in the air.
  • And of course, there’s that sickly greenish tinge of the sky in a bad storm that everyone who’s ever lived in a tornado prone area knows and hates.
  • radiation cooling. This means clouds have cleared and as night falls there’s nothing to trap the warmth near the earth so it’s more likely to be frosty and/or colder than if there was a cloud cover. Very clear, pin-point stars mean there’s not much humidity in the air. Fuzzy, ‘close’ looking stars mean more humidity is present.
  • Rainbows around the moon. This is not a sure portent of precipitation, but it does mean there are water crystals in the atmosphere. In winter I look for this as an early predictor of snow, but it must be taken with wind and cloud formations.
  • animal behaviors. A bad winter storm is always proceeded by animals trying to get food packed in before they have to wait out a storm. If you have a songbird feeder, you know this behavior. When species that are normally in competition seem to be feeding together, just dead-set on getting food on board, look out
  • A sudden change in temperatures. You’re working outside and it’s hot and still. Then you feel welcome, cooler downdrafts lifting your sweat-soaked hair. The wind starts to pick up, and you notice that under the clouds the temperatures are lower, more than shade accounts for. This is a good time to batten down the hatches, close the barn door, get the livestock in, because with the right wind direction, there’s severe weather coming, maybe a tornado or hail. The clash of warm and cold is what causes severe storms.

Predicting The Amount

This is tricky, I admit. But the last few years I got tired of the hype over inches of snow and started paying attention to what I could observe, and the signs of nature always pointed right. Maybe it was just a couple of good years of guesses. But this is what I looked for: the right wind direction. Heavy overcast that got more white/gray. Temps at freezing or lower. Increased bird activity. Small flakes at the onset of snow that don’t get larger. Increasing winds. Generally, small, cold, stinging flakes mean business. Larger flakes mean the upper atmosphere is warm and they’re sticking together, so there will be more melting and probably less accumulation. If the temperature is also rising, it will end with rain.

If the temperature is going down and the snow mixes with ice pellets, freezing rain or a nasty mix can be the result, but there won’t be a foot of snow. Remember, 1 inch of rain equals 10 inches of snow at 32 degrees, so whatever rain or melting you get lessens the accumulation.

Better Safe Than Sorry

In our techno world people get into warm cars in light clothes and go off on their Michelin tires with all-wheel drive and expect to get to their warm, lighted destination without a hitch. I hope the increasingly severe weather patterns have ground some sense into a few folks here and there. Once you know the signs, wind directions and cloud formations, pay attention to them. It could save your life to not go into the woods before a bad storm, or try to travel when the snow looks like it means business. As the economy worsens, we’ll be seeing less frenetic sanding and plowing to keep everybody getting to karate lessons. And that, my friends, is when it’s best to crank up the (non-electric) wood or coal stove, dip into the deep larder, and stay home.

A Real Time Exercise

NOAA has predicted a nor’easter within 36 hours. Use as an exercise to hone your weather forecasting skills. (Actual weather event, Oct. 13 – 15) I’ve used EST rather than military time for the exercise.

  • 8:00 AM, initial observation: Clear. Perfect day, bright, sunny. The sky is a deep, brilliant blue. It’s hard to believe bad weather is on the way. Set barometer.
  • Evening, 12 hours later. Cooler temps, stars brilliant. Haze around half moon, however.
  • Midnight, bobcat in vicinity. Checking our birds, notice a little ground haze but stars still clear.
  • Morning, 24 hours later. Still clear, quiet. Some clouds coming from West. ‘Mackerel scale’ formation noted in W sky. Clouds are moving fast but are light, almost filmy.
  • 12:30 PM, traveling back from an off-farm job. Noticed more clouds, some cumulus in distance, wind still westerly.
  • 2:00 PM, working on farm, note wind shift to due South. High and low clouds moving, still patches of blue. Seems to be less bird activity than usual, especially for migration season. Wonder if they’ve moved on ahead of an approaching storm? Humidity seems higher.
  • 3:00 PM, wind gusts strong enough to blow papers, fitful. Sky is now completely white in the upper atmosphere(altostratus translucidus) with fast moving gray clouds below. No more glimpses of blue. Some shift to SSE.
  • 6:00 PM, first light rain begins.
  • 10:00 PM, heavier rains. Still no wind. Barometer down slightly.
  • 12:30 AM, Heavy, straight rain. Some wind can be seen tossing the tops of trees against a pearl gray sky (remember, there’s a half moon over all this.)
  • 2:00 AM. Not much in the way of wind. If it was a real nor’easter, the east window screens would be clotted with snow or obscured with caught rain. They’re clear. My analysis is that this storm is passing too far to the E to really impact us.
  • 7:30 AM – Barometer has dropped almost 5/10ths. The low has passed us or is passing. We got an inch of rain. Skies are clearing, there’s little wind. Turn on NOAA to learn that this storm did pass to the E and will hit Maine. Higher gusts are forecast behind the storm – let’s see if we get them…

This is the second storm to pass to our E after a big buildup by media outlets. NOAA seems more conservative but sometimes they are dead wrong. Since we get our blizzards as nor’easters and hurricane dregs from a S pattern, this was a useful exercise. I did spend some time preparing for a real storm, putting away things that could become projectiles in a high wind, making sure all the animal chores were done in case the weather delayed my visits to the livestock. It’s tempting to ignore the next one, but I’ve been farming too long to take the weather for granted. Be safe! Good luck in your own forecasting.