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Expanding Your Weather View

December 10th, 2016

Do you wish you had a good way to avoid unwelcome weather surprises?  Try to clarify your perspective on the weather by expanding your view!  I always have had a tremendous interest in viewing maps and applying my knowledge of geography.  When I was young, I enjoyed seeing each local weather broadcast depicting the unfolding weather for the Upper Midwest.  When Dr. Walt Lyons became the on-air meteorologist for KSTP TV in Saint Paul in 1975 — see video clips here I was delighted with the detail on his hand-drawn maps.  The more temperatures shown on the regional map, the better.   It is interesting how televised weather reports have changed in 40 years!

Current Conditions – Weather Contrasts

In an early May post, I mentioned looking at weather conditions on a statewide or regional scale.  Today’s blog post will focus on tools which I use to do that.  You may also want to use some of these tools to expand your view over the horizon and gain an idea of what is coming.

You may find a lot of value in seeing how current weather varies from place to place around your own state or region.   This value comes in three ways.

  • Seeing what’s coming toward the area, and getting an idea of how soon a change in weather may occur.
  • Seeing the reasons behind the forecast which is in place for my area.
  • Giving early indications when the forecast may need to change.

Available online, state weather summaries like this one for Minnesota (for a different state, substitute its two-letter abbreviation at the end of the URL) provide an idea of how temperatures and weather conditions change over the space of a couple hundred miles.

We’re all familiar with the adage urging that “A picture is worth a thousand words”.  In the context of weather events, this is particularly true of using satellite and radar images.  Next, I’ll explain where to view the latest images for any part of the United States.

The NWS home page provides a path to a collection of satellite images  covering the entire nation.  From that site, about halfway down the left-hand menu (as depicted by the red arrow in the image below) there are links to views centered on any region of the country (REGIONAL menu) or a close-up view of any area (WFO SITES menu – blue arrow).  A great feature here is the ability to view a time-lapse loop of any of these images.

Satellite picture menu

Each local NWS page also provides a link to a current radar picture covering its forecast area, and the primary NWS radar site provides links to any local and regional radar images.

Most of these radar images utilize electronic technology to remove false returns caused by temperature inversions or flocks of birds.  Because of this, you no longer have to be an expert to distinguish the real precipitation from the false returns.  If you’re ever in doubt, select the radar loop and usually the “real” precipitation echoes over a given area will all be moving in the same direction.

I obtain almost all my weather information online for these reasons….

  • Information is available anytime I want it.
  • I can select exactly what I want to look at.
  • I can save images for later reference. For example, if I have a radar image displayed, I know that the radar loop may only hold about 45 minutes’ worth of pictures.  Rather than looping or refreshing the original image after an hour or more, I will open a second browser window to obtain the newest image.  I then flip back and forth between the two windows.

The Forecast Gradient – Making Comparisons

A very practical approach for a home weather watcher is to look at differences in the forecast between my location and that of adjoining counties in various directions. I really like starting from a countrywide image (such as this color-coded map depicting any watches or warnings).  Then I can click anywhere on the map to select a close-up image of the region or area in which I am most interested.

Each county comprises its own National Weather Service forecast zone — so, if necessary, the NWS forecast will vary by county.  The county forecasts are viewable by clicking on the individual counties (try to click on your precise location within the county as that will be useful later).  The usefulness of comparing forecasts in adjoining counties is two-fold.

  • First, to give some sense of how much the weather could change over short distances (one way to gauge the uncertainty of the forecast).
  • Secondly, to help judge whether (if located near a county boundary) the forecast for the county next to mine might be a better representation of what I should expect. For example, I live in the northwest portion of my county.  If a huge winter storm is passing close by to the southeast, forecasters will not leave the people within the same county but 30 miles to my southeast unprepared for the snow and ice. My countywide text forecast may reflect the potential for a large accumulation of snow.

I then look farther down the page to click on the hourly weather graph icon (as shown below).  This will give more precise 6-hour snowfall forecast and hourly percentage probabilities for the exact location you clicked on the county map.  The same graphic also has hourly wind speed forecasts which are VERY useful in helping determine the risk of blowing snow or blizzard conditions


If I would like a “second opinion”, I have developed the habit of looking at the forecast for the next county to my north (which is just 10 miles away from me).  I then consider whether their snowfall forecast might be more representative of my own local conditions.  I do this not simply because I prefer that weather outlook, but because I have a solid reason for thinking that may better fit my situation.

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