(video) Weather Forecasting Skills #3: Tuning Your Weather Senses

Weather means more when you have a garden.  There’s nothing like listening to a rain and thinking how it is soaking in and around your lettuce and green beans.”
–  Henry Van Dyke

Equally perceptive of both man and nature, the poet and clergyman Henry Van Dyke reminds us of the joys and responsibilities of gardening:

Joys:   We truly take immense happiness from our gardens on so many different levels.  As the golden sun warms our soul, it’s hard to beat the primal joy of simply digging in the dirt.  We’re a kid again; we apologize to nobody. How marvelous is the burst-in-your-mouth sweetness and complexity of the all the mature sugars and enzymes in a blood-red cherry tomato!  We grudgingly admire the species adaptations of those pesky insects, and the industriousness and flying skills of the honeybee.   The birds sing us a chorus as we labor and nurture or baby peas. Intellectually, we know we’re giving ourselves and loved ones the gift of nutrition at it’s very finest. Heck, we can even get a kick out of the grumpiness of our perennially grouchy neighbor –who perhaps desired to picnic this rainy day — when he sees us taking delight in the life-giving moisture that ruins his plans.  Schadenfreude aside, our gardens bring us much fulfillment.

Responsibilities:   When we plant a seed, we become the Sustainer-in-Chief for those plants which now often depend on us to stay alive and thrive. The rewards, of course, are working in harmony with nature and knowing that food this healthy and delicious often cannot be purchased at any price. But with the rewards comes the responsibilities to protect our plants from the occasional hazards of fickle weather.  It just won’t do to lose a young crop that could have easily been covered from the bite of a late frost, or other weather hazard … if only we had recognized the approach of that gardener’s nemesis. The responsibility gets more serious if we’re gardening for subsistence.

“Weather means more when you have a garden.”  Indeed it does, and today we’re going to talk about two ways of learning to be better weather observers.  First, let’s zoom our perspective out and get the Big Picture of typical weather patterns.  With some amazing new technologies, we can finally see the seasonal patterns of weather in our own geographic areas.  (Personally, I would have killed to have this stuff 25 years ago when I was starting to fly professionally, and first tangling with these patterns in airplanes.  Those dry meteorology textbooks really didn’t remotely tell the big-picture story like you’re going to learn here! )

Below we have a YouTube link that shows us the weather in ways simply not available to mortals just a few years ago.  This one is a time-lapse view combining various optic and radar technologies, and condensing an ENTIRE YEAR of weather images into just 12 minutes.  Fascinating.


I’d like you to look for several things.  (Mostly you’ll be looking at the left half of the screen.)  You’ll see a black-and white image of the US, with colorful bands of rain in depicted in green, yellow, and red sweeping (mostly) left to right.  By now most of us know that lighter rain is green and heaviest rain is red.  On the lower right is a composite that also depicts the same time frame; but includes the cloud as well.   Again, note the patterns that swirl with some regularity from west to east across the continent.  Look for huge long bands of rain that often form slanted lines (leaning to the right).  Those are usually cold fronts; where dense, dry air masses push rain ahead of them.  Look also for giant swirling low pressure areas that spin counter-clockwise … and often have those cold fronts trailing to their south.  Meteorologists call those circular swirly-things “Extra-Tropical Cyclones” to discriminate them from hurricanes.  Normal folks simply call them a “Low” or low pressure area.   (Don’t worry about the details; we’ll cover these terms and much more in future columns.)

For now just enjoy the remarkable “god’s eye view,” and try to get a sense of how repetitive the patterns are. Note also how the patterns change subtly with the seasons. They’re milder and less “aggressive” in the summer, for example.

(Note for our foreign friends; if you search on YouTube, your country may or may not have geostationary satellites in orbit above you, but the weather principles are the same.  Except for the southern hemisphere, where everything is charmingly bass-ackwards.)

Second:  Let’s also work on honing our sensory appreciation of the patterns of weather at dirt-level in our own geographic area. We can all learn to be Better Weather Watchers.  Every region around this huge nation has significant weather variations due to latitude, geography, mountain ranges, proximity to water bodies, etc., etc.; you’ll need to become the expert on your own local patterns.

For those of you on the path of Permaculture; recall that one of the Principles is: “Observe and interact with the patterns of nature.”  I submit that weather is a crucial pattern that very much affects your gardening and self-sufficiency efforts, and a deeper understanding of same is highly desirable.

I challenge you to use all your senses; to immerse yourself in the slow-motion “music” of natural weather patterns. Your eyes of course, are primary.  Whenever you step outdoors remind yourself to take careful note of what weather phenomena you can see; cloud height, types, thickness, shapes, etc., as well as their direction of movement. Over the next few months we’ll try to move beyond the “That one looks like Yogi Bear” stage.  Take note of halos around moon or sun (more on this in later columns.)  Of course your skin registers the delight of cool dry air; the persistent clamminess of wet saturated air, and the direction and speed of the wind. Your nose can alert you to the fresh clean air of a cold frontal passage, or the warm, full moistness of a warm front.  (As we mentioned in an earlier column, perhaps the scent of salt air from the Gulf of Mexico can clue you in to an approaching cold front in winter.)  Your ears may attune to how fog muffles sound, and how clear cold nights with dry air seem to accentuate the tiniest of sounds.

In future columns we hope to bring all these sensory clues together –along with the most primitive of atmospheric measuring tools– to help develop your weather observation skills, knowledge — and most importantly, to develop our weather PREDICTION skills.

In the meantime, if it’s been a while, may I suggest you pull out Marjory’s video and view it again. It’s amazing how much knowledge is packed in there.  I have to thank her for my own micro-farm milestone this last week; my first successful kindling of a batch of brand-new baby wabbits! Woo – hoo!  Thanks, Marjory!

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This post was written by Marjory


  • gena says:

    As I’m sure you know, being a fellow Texan, one sure way to tell in Texas when a Blue Norther is coming in within a day or so, is abnormally warm weather in the winter. When it suddenly hits 90 or above in the winter, you better cover the plants and prepare for a usually hard hitting cold front. I remember when we had been having a moderately warm winter in San Antonio but one day in Feb it hit 100 degrees, the earliest it had ever hit 100 in San Antonio. The next day we had a horrible hard freeze which nipped the early growth on my trees. And in 2006, in early March, in Uvalde, it hit 104 for two days in a row, very abnormal, and then we had an ice storm that lasted three days. That is one of the easiest ways to tell when you are going to get an Arctic blast in a day or two.
    Another way to tell the weather is about to change was taught me by an Army pilot when I was in the Army. He showed me wispy clouds up high. He said when you see that, it means the upper winds are very fast, and signals a change in the weather. I look for that and am aware when I see it that we will likely see storms soon. This is, I believe, year round. I have noticed it more in warmer weather, but I’m out more in warmer weather, so I don’t know if it only occurs in the 9 warm months of S Texas.
    I have also noticed in the last few years you can no longer go by the planting guides that are out for when you can start planting outdoors in S Texas. The winters, or colder weather, is lasting longer than in recent years, and if you plant in Feb, which used to be the norm, you will have to watch very closely for freezes or near freezes close to March or last year, even early April. There has been no global warming for the last 15 years and things are, in fact, getting as predicted in the 1990’s where we have extremes in both winter and summer, which they were saying back then was a more normal cycle than the temperate period we had recently gone through.
    I love watching the skies and knowing what to look for to protect my plants and animals. It is fun and entertaining besides being a necessary part of growing plants and caring for animals.

  • Great Grey says:

    Not a lot of info on patterns as 2012 was a very dry year.
    Info from a wet year is also needed to show the patterns across much of the USA. Also to show how they very.

  • Darryl C. says:

    How do U read the weather when the “weather “gods”” R planting Chem-trails???

  • Cap'n Dave says:

    It sounds like Gena is very much on top of this Gulf Coast weather pattern. She has keenly and accurately described the winter Cold Front phenomena that often extends from W. Texas to the East coast states, and the garden-whuppin’ extremes that can come from it.

    Coincidentally, as I write this, another Whopper of a cold front is extending from New Mexico to past Nova Scotia.


    In future columns we plan to explore the WHY about this… and several things we can measure and observe to better understand and predict it.

    Not to worry; with all this Gulf Coast talk we won’t forget our friends in places with cool-sounding names like Portland and Minot and Bangor. (Hat’s off to you gardeners who can coax veggies out of the frozen tundra up there!)

    Cap’n Dave

  • Alan says:

    Up here in Michigan I grew up a country kid and even though I was just 18 when I showed up at the boss’ house one 1977 morning I could just feel the air and know it was about to pour. I asked him what we were going to do that day and he told me the concrete will be here at 8AM.
    We had a basement across the road from him to pour. Two loads 12 yards of concrete and I told him it was going to rain like crazy. I could feel it. He said the weather guy had said 30% chance. I told him I was 100% sure. The rest of the guys got there, the first truck showed up right on time we got both trucks, all 12 yards of concrete on the floor and just as the foreman had about half of it bull floated the sky opened up and it was rain to drown a cat. It came down hard for the next three hours. The kind of rain that makes you wish you had a garage to park in because you would be soaked to the skin just getting out and running into the house.
    We rented a concrete grinder and spent the next day grinding down the stones then used a thick pad and carpeted the basement. Listen to the country folks.

    1. Alan, that’s a great story! thanks for sharing.

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