Learned #26: Weather Up

In which we learn how to talk about the weather. Really.

There’s a common trope in movies and books: a couple sits across from each other at a table, quiet, contemplative, paying more attention to their meals than to their companion and finally, one makes an innocuous comment about the weather. Something like, "Really beautiful weather outside today." Or, "How 'bout this weather?"

At which point everything falls apart. The other character is annoyed at this attempt at chit-chat, or perhaps they see this as a sign that the relationship has gone stale, or maybe they just hate the weather. The specifics don't matter, the trope always plays out the same: talking about the weather is boring.

I hate that.

I like talking about the weather. I'm fascinated by it. Especially during typhoon season. I drag all my weather apps to a special folder on my phone and I chart and track the wind conditions as the tropical storms develop and I make my plans for the week accordingly. It's fun.*

As a kid, I thought the weather news was the most boring part of the day. But I grew up in Southern Arizona, where it is sunny and hot 545 days a year. (I know there are only 365 days a year, but it's that hot: every day in the summer feels as long as three.) The weather there is pretty boring. Then I moved to California, where the weather is pretty boring. Then, Seattle. Boring.

These days, I live in rural Japan and the weather is, well, changeable is the nice way to put it. I've got a half-dozen apps that tell me everything I could ever want to know, if only I knew what everything actually meant...

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: The Weather

  • What We're Reading:

  • Down the Rabbit Hole:

Let's get to it.

Photo by Andy Grizzell on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

The Weather

Let's start with one of the most basic questions: what's the difference between weather and climate and why does it matter?

NOAA gives us this:

Weather is what you experience when you step outside on any given day. In other words, it is the state of the atmosphere at a particular location over the short-term. Climate is the average of the weather patterns in a location over a longer period of time, usually 30 years or more.

And NASA gives us the very similar:

The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere "behaves" over relatively long periods of time.

Every phone comes with a weather app these days. For the most part, these tell you everything you need to know. Right now, the iOS Weather app tells me that...

  • it is 24°C

  • there is a 50% chance of precipitation at 9:00 p.m.

  • the wind is blowing East-Northeast at 2 m/s

  • the humidity is at 85%

  • the visibility is 16.1 km

  • and the pressure reading is 1016 hPa.

If I switch to some of the more detailed apps available to me (I use Weather Underground and AccuWeather), I can see that...

  • the dew point is 23°C

  • the pollen count is 0.0 of 12

  • the moon is waxing gibbous?

  • and Typhoon Trami is 1,367 miles from where I live and traveling WNW at 18 kph.

All of which sounds like really good information to have. The trouble is, I don't really know what half of that really means. So, because this column is entirely about trying to figure out all the little things that confound us everyday, let's look at some of these things and see what they really mean.

(I’m skipping the ones we’re all more or less familiar with - the temperature, humidity, etc. But, for the curious, they’re a fascinating read all on their own.)

Let’s start with precipitation. Gizmodo’s Matt Hardigree has a good write-up which explains that the issue in "percent of precipitation" is usually that the area in question is larger than people realize. If the weather forecaster tells me that Utsunomiya City has a 50% chance of rain, what they're saying is that there's an even chance that *some* rain will fall *somewhere* in the 416 square kilometers that define the city's borders.

Also, “precipitation

includes rain, sleet, snow, hail and drizzle plus a few less common ones such as ice pellets, diamond dust and freezing rain.

Good to know.

The next two that need a bit of explaining are visibility and pressure. We often think of visibility as “how far we can see.” While this isn’t wrong, it’s only half the picture. Visibility is defined “a measure of the distance at which an object or light can be clearly discerned.” (Italics mine.) In other words, it’s not just whether we can make something out, but rather can we see anything at all. So, if there’s an object 100 meters away that we can’t see clearly, but can at least see well enough to know it’s there, we have visibility of at least 100 meters.

Barometric pressure, on the other hand is simply, “the measurement of the weight exerted by air molecules at a given point on Earth.” Oh. Well, sure. Why do we care?

In general, if a low pressure system is on its way, be prepared for warmer weather with storms and rain. If a high pressure system is coming, you can expect clear skies and cooler temperatures. (Source.)

Ok. So, at this point, from the basic and extended sections of a standard weather app, we can know the weather outside at the moment and what sort of weather to expect in the near future, in the immediate (large) vicinity. How about some of the other data available via other apps?

  • Dew point - the dew point is the temperature at which water vapor condenses to water. So, if you’re wondering whether you should water your outdoor flowers and the dew point is close to the current temperature, you might want to wait a minute or two and see if nature does the job for you. (Uh, different types of flowers need different amounts of water and dew alone may not be enough. FYI.)

  • Pollen Count - There are a few different scales out there (i.e. no international standard) but the pollen count is just what it sounds like: it’s a count of how much of various pollens are in a given sample of air. The higher it is, the worse your allergies are going to be. My advice? Match your levels of discomfort to the pollen count and plan accordingly.

  • Waxing Gibbous - I went way down the rabbit hole looking this one up, but the answer is fairly simple, a gibbous moon is more than half-lit, but not all the way full yet. And waxing means moving towards full. (The opposite is waning.)

Honestly, doing the research for this (e.g. reading Wikipedia like it was a trashy novel) brought back memories of high-school life science classes and vague recollections of what everything was and how it was measured. But, as I said above, the point of this column is to move things from the “I’m pretty sure I know” to the “I absolutely know” sections of our memories. To that end, I hope you found it useful.

But, if you didn’t, well, did you know that the moon is waxing gibbous? It’s very pretty. Go take a look!

To be clear, it's fun because the area I live in is rarely affected by typhoons or other powerful storms. For people who live in coastal regions and other spots where hurricanes and typhoons do significant, regular damage - watch your news reports, get some good apps and be safe.

What We’re Reading:

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

by Steve Brusatte

I mean, I either had you at dinosaur or you might as well skip down to the rabbit hole.

For those of you still here, from the product description page:

In this stunning narrative spanning more than 200 million years, Steve Brusatte, a young American paleontologist who has emerged as one of the foremost stars of the field—discovering ten new species and leading groundbreaking scientific studies and fieldwork—masterfully tells the complete, surprising, and new history of the dinosaurs, drawing on cutting-edge science to dramatically bring to life their lost world and illuminate their enigmatic origins, spectacular flourishing, astonishing diversity, cataclysmic extinction, and startling living legacy. Captivating and revelatory, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a book for the ages.

So, yeah. Looking forward to it.

(Even though we all know the real reason dinosaurs went extinct.)


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Lyrically Yours,

clouds rolled in from the north, and it started to rain.

I wanted to be with you alone, and talk about the weather.

cats and dogs are coming down., 14th Street is gonna drown, everyone else rushing ‘round

bus stop, wet day, she's there, I say, "Please share my umbrella." 

and I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, hey, I oughtta leave young thing alone

here I stand and face the rain, I know that nothing is going to be the same…again

all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey

as long as it's talking with you, talk of the weather will do

too much wine and too much song, like the seasons have all gone

it’s raining again

raining in my head like a tragedy

when we kissed goodbye and parted, I knew we'd never meet again

I never wanted to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain

well there's gonna be a snowstorm

is there enough frost left to write our names upon the pane?


“My sorrow, when she's here with me, thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be; she loves the bare, the withered tree; she walks the sodden pasture lane.”

—Robert Frost

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.