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 Wisconsin Skyscape

Keeping a Weather Eye

In spite of the aphorism that states: ?A great deal has been said about the weather, but very little has been done about it.?; we recently did do something about it. We decided to learn more about severe weather by attending a weather spotters training session. Along with some 200 others, from fresh youngsters through older well-weathered enthusiasts, we watched severe weather develop on the auditorium screen and learned about some of the tools used to evaluate, track and advise the public of potential severe weather. The local ham radio club and county amateur radio emergency service organized the presentation by personnel from the National Weather Service (NWS).

As photographers, weather is our friend and our foe. It paints the wild landscapes we love to photograph . Winds change the weather and do wonderful things, like provide the conditions to make Mount Rainier visible for the whole week of our visit several years ago. Winds are sometimes cursed when we need delicate spring native flowers to stand still. Our arsenal of wind shields and umbrellas are used to do something about the weather. And of course, precipitation can assist in making an exquisite image or can drive us back to cover to protect our equipment. The stillness of a muggy yellow sky before some storms can be as surreal or impressionistic as any painting. Whether or not we consciously think about it, weather is always part of the nature photograph or painting.

Those who spend time outdoors enjoy and understand their experiences more when they are attuned to the changes of weather, season and climate. While we may not be able to do much about the weather, we can do things about protecting ourselves and our communities in times of severe weather. Knowing about the natural history of severe weather also provides us with opportunities to make interesting art.

The NWS uses a nationwide network of volunteers who report their observations to their local National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) NWS Offices. These observations become part of their record keeping and reporting process, including severe weather watches and warnings. Click on the map at the Kansas City office of the NWS website ( to find your nearby NWS office and learn about the training sessions offered in your area. For all of us who talk about the weather, a wealth of facts and figures may be found on any of the NOAA websites.

During the weather spotters presentations, we decided that measuring wind and photography have something in common; they both use parallel scales to measure differences in wind and light. Photographers often evaluate their photographs with the steps from black to white called the Zone System developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. Color photographers sometimes refer to these differences in luminosity as a tone system.

British Admiral Beaufort developed a system for gauging wind strength by wave characteristics without instruments in the early 19th century. A similar system using conditions on land was developed by the U.S. NWS for estimating wind differences. Its thirteen categories from ?0 ? smoke rises vertically? to ?12 ? severe structural damage?? remind us of the eleven step zone system with descriptions of what is visible where ?0 ? pure black? to ?10 ? pure white?.

Even if we do not become part of the network of weather spotters in our areas, the training presentations are enlightening and will help anyone interested in the natural world become a better observer and reporter; if it is only in a private diary or nature journal. And if we know what was just observed is a sign of potentially hazardous weather, a call to the NWS may protect life and property.

By the way, there is no proof that Mark Twain is the author of the saying at the beginning of this article but he certainly might have been. All those who grew up in the Midwest, as did Mark Twain, know that if one does not like the weather, all we have to do is wait around for an hour or so and it will change. Spring in the Midwest brings frequent weather changes. We are eager for its beauty and wonders, including the weather.

? Linda & Robert Scarth, 2006.

First published in NatureScape News, 1 (5), 16, 2006.

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Linda & Robert Scarth


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