Before getting into the subject, I'd like to comment on the picture that's hung onto this column. It was taken at the bottom of a 300-foot-deep quarry in Rockford, Illinois. The temperature was about plus 10 (Fahrenheit) with 6 inches of snow coming down as we waited to launch the global balloon J. Renee. I thought it might be a good idea to explain that the miserable look was created by, uh, misery.
Now, on to weather and the Internet. I have mixed emotions about the Internet. It's not only a fact of life, it's rapidly becoming a way of life. The guess is that there's no subject on which you can't find some reference in the Internet. Whether it's hunting aardvarks or making zithers or anything in between, it's there. As everyone knows by now, it's possible to learn how to build a bomb or bake a cake off the medium. But our focus will be on sites that are pertinent to weather and, more specifically, weather as it applies to sailing.
My main problem with the net is that it raises the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" to a whole new dimension. Many people getting weather information from the net seem thereby to be empowered to take on all the world's weather, from pond to southern oceans. This is not only false, but can be downright dangerous. Perform your own lobotomy, if you will, but please recognize the limitations of do-it-yourself weather forecasting.
There are a bazillion Web sites dealing with weather, but probably a relative handful that provide the information you need and in a format that is useable. The latter becomes quite important because it's necessary to be able to print out the data in order to fully utilize it to any depth. A printed map allows you to draw on it and to lay out courses. But there are many weather products that build on a solid dark background. Computer geeks may be able to reverse those colors, but those of us who are computer-disadvantaged, and are taxed to shut down Windows properly, are reduced to using a quart of jet ink to print one of those things. Some sites seem to have been developed to show off the abilities of the Web-site designer. An in-depth Web site is going to be a little busy, but one that is nothing short of entering a maze is of little use in real life.
Let's start with some basics. Of primary interest to you will be any site created by NOAA. And there are a lot of these. It's been my experience that the United States is the source for a pretty high percentage of the sites, good and bad, but those from NOAA typically are very good, and meet most of our criteria for both ease of obtaining and utilizing. Universities with meteorology departments also have some real good stuff, but some are much better than others.
I'll be supplying some specific sites, but in the meantime one way of approaching this is to set aside a rather long period-and I'm talking hours, probably days-and just wander along through as many sites as you can tolerate, just kicking tires. Plug in some of the more appropriate buzzwords for the search engine, and just follow along and see where it takes you. Make notes, bookmark and save the more obvious ones, and cull out the real favorites later.
Which buzzwords? They should be what you think you'll need. Use "weather," "NOAA," "satellite,", "models," "marine," etc., in your search. Think about what you want to know and go into the search engine of choice to find them. You're going to want the things that are directly applicable to your particular interests, whether it's local cruising, racing or circumnavigating; whether by southern oceans or along the equator. There are a lot of things in there to help you, but for any one of them I'll be including caveats on their use without professional help, whether from private or government sources. You know, "Don't try this at home" or a "Weather can cause pain" sort of admonition.
Meteorology is a terribly complex science, and often confusing, even to professionals. Despite the steady improvement of models, there are still a huge amount of subjective corrections and adaptations that must be applied. You're not equipped to do this, any more than I can perform an appendectomy because I found a site on the Internet that explains it. To think you can, quite honestly, displays a contempt for weather that's not warranted or justified, and might just wind up putting your life in serious jeopardy.
In the next article, I'll talk about specific sites and how best to use them.