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Eye on the Sky

The Language of Clouds:
An Introduction

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

December 4, 2007

This sure is some weather we're having, isn't it? Chances are you've heard this question (or something very like it) many times. That's no surprise. We all talk about the weather. It's one subject on which everyone has something to say. The reason is obvious. Weather is the great common denominator. It affects us all, whatever our income or interests. Though many of us spend our days entombed in hermetically sealed buildings, or behind the wheels of our climate-controlled cars, we're still exposed to the elements every time we step outside. Of course, it's the folks who work or play out-of-doors who see weather at its worst. That includes paddlers. Whether we're just going out for the day or the weekend, or traveling for an entire summer, the weather is always in our faces. As soon as it starts to rain we know it. When the Old Woman turns spiteful, we can't avoid her wrath. And if a dry cold front sweeps through and the temperature drops 20 degrees in as many minutes, we shiver. That's why smart paddlers aim to …

Be Weather-Wise

Ben Franklin said it first: "Some are weather-wise, and some are otherwise." Paddlers fall in the first group. Or they should. It's part of being prepared. Gear plays a role, obviously. Rain jacket and wind shell, even extra food and a way to make the water safe to drink … all these improve your odds of avoiding a worst-case scenario when the weather goes against you. Hypothermia and heat injuries aren't inevitable. They're usually the result of "paddler error." And having the right gear can make all the difference.

But there's a lot more to being weather-wise than making sure you pack your foul-weather gear. Planning for a day on the water requires that you know what to expect, and forecasting the day's weather is as important as checking your route on the map. Not that you'll always get it right, of course. Then again, not every rapids is shown on the map, even on the most detailed quads available. A weather forecast is a guide, not a guarantee. And the pros — aka professional meteorologists — would be the first to agree. Despite their sophisticated computer models, weather radar, and real-time satellite imagery, they sometimes get it wrong. And even when they don't, they frequently overlook local exceptions to the general forecast.

A case in point: It was the beginning of the second week in November, and the weather service morning forecast wasn't encouraging:

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF RAIN BY LATE MORNING ... THEN CLOUDY WITH RAIN LIKELY IN THE AFTERNOON. HIGHS IN THE LOW 40S. SOUTHWEST WINDS INCREASING TO 10 TO 20 MPH WITH GUSTS TO 35 MPH. CHANCE OF RAIN 50 PERCENT.

Not exactly smiling, sunny conditions, to be sure, but the following four days sounded even worse, with highs around freezing and rain turning to snow. General Winter was advancing on the North Country. I knew that, but I'd hoped to get in one last outing before the General's army of occupation took possession for the season. I'd discovered a pocket wetland only eight miles from my door, just off a little-used town road, and I was keen to check out the paddling possibilities. Now it looked like I'd left it too long. To make matters worse, I couldn't get under way until late morning, just when the forecast suggested the rain would start.

I stepped outside into the chilly air. Mid-level clouds were moving in from the east. It didn't look promising, so I put my plans on hold. And sure enough, the clouds grew thicker and more ominous. But then, in mid-morning, they suddenly parted, revealing a slice of blue sky. I wasn't hopeful, however. I dismissed the rift in the clouds as a "sucker hole," a temporary reprieve at best. Moreover, the forecast winds discouraged me. I didn't want to struggle against 35-mph gusts, even on a sheltered beaver pond. After all, there was a skin of ice in the shallows, and I didn't fancy swamping or capsizing in 35-degree water when I was alone. So my plans for the day were shelved for good.

That was a big mistake. As morning passed into afternoon, the slice of blue broadened until it nearly encompassed the whole sky, and the winds stayed light. Only a thin veil of high cloud remained to remind me of the morning forecast, and it stayed well to the south. At first I cursed the weather service for leading me astray. But then I came to my senses and cursed myself. If I'd trusted the evidence of my own two eyes, instead of relying unquestioningly on a forecast generated in an office 100 miles away, I'd have had a pleasant day on the water to look back on.

Of course, things can easily go the other way. It's happened to most canoeists and kayakers, and it's probably happened to you, too. If so, you know what I'm talking about. The morning forecast predicts a sunny day, with warm temperatures and light winds. Encouraged by this good news, you seize the moment, drive out to a nearby lake, and launch your boat — ignoring the dark clouds massing on the horizon and the fitful cat's-paws roiling the water's surface. Science is on your side, you tell yourself. A sunny, warm day was forecast, wasn't it? You're sure that the clouds will soon dissipate and the freshening breeze will shortly subside. But you're wrong. In an hour you're fighting to claw your way back to shore in near gale-force winds and slashing rain. And you're cursing yourself for ignoring the evidence of your own two eyes yet again.

 

Don't misunderstand me. Weather service forecasts are right far more often than they're wrong. Still, no regional forecast can predict every variation over thousands of square miles with absolute accuracy. The best forecast for the place where you're standing is the one you make yourself. Use the weather service predictions as a guide by all means, but don't ignore what's happening around you, particularly in remote areas, or in rural districts with few reporting stations. National weather service forecast centers rely on local observations to tweak the predictions of their computer models. But in places where observers are few and far between — and these aren't just wilderness areas; northern New York is one such place — the forecasts can't easily be corrected. That's why you can sometimes beat the pros at their own game, at least where local forecasts are concerned.

You can't do it on your own, however. You'll need all the help you can get. And, no, I'm not talking about the latest portable weather station. What I'm thinking about won't need any batteries. It's much simpler than that. When ancient prophets wanted to learn what the future held, they looked to the heavens first. Modern paddlers could do a lot worse. In fact, when you need to know what the weather holds in store for you, the first place to look is …

The Sky Above

Bring in the cloudsAnd why not? Watermen (and waterwomen, of course) have always kept a weather eye out for threatening skies. A carefully nurtured weather sense was part of the waterman's tool kit, alongside the ability to read water in dangerous rapids, chart a course from point to point along the shelving margin of a tidal bay, or plan an open-water crossing on a windswept lake. In fact, reading the sky has a good deal in common with reading water. Both air and water are fluids, and their behavior is governed by the same physical laws. But one difference is immediately obvious. Paddlers read the water from a dry perch, well above the surface (most of the time, at any rate). So our knowledge of it is necessarily superficial. On the other hand, we read the sky from underneath, looking up through it. When it comes to the ocean of air, therefore, we're always immersed in our subject.

The upshot? As a weather-wise paddler you need to … 

Keep the Clouds in Your Head

Just as reading a river requires that you learn to speak the water's language, to recognize surging eddy lines, upstream and downstream Vs, and standing waves, reading the sky requires learning the language of the clouds, and that's a tall order.

Why? Well, despite the fact that (apart from dust clouds) all clouds are built from the same basic ingredient — water, in either liquid or solid state — they assume a bewildering variety of shapes. And because our atmosphere is deeper than the deepest sea, different types of clouds can inhabit very different levels. (The troposphere, the part of earth's atmosphere where weather happens, is some 58,000 feet deep at the equator, though it thins considerably over the poles.) Some clouds cling to the ground in low-lying valleys. Others sail high above the tallest peaks. So characterizing clouds entails careful consideration of two distinct criteria: shape and elevation. It's like I said: learning the language of the clouds is a tall order. But it's not impossible. Generations of watermen have done it, and there's nothing that says this ancient art can't be rediscovered by modern paddlers. We've every reason to make the effort, too. There's simply no better way to sharpen a weather eye. That will be my goal in future articles.

Will it rain?

Clouds have inspired legions of poets and songwriters, to be sure, but that's not the only use we've put them to. Their names and shapes have also been part of the working vocabulary of watermen for thousands of years. The reason is obvious to any paddler who's ever been caught out by a sudden storm. Clouds can help canoeists and kayakers read the weather in the same way that waves help them read water. Clouds, like waves, are often the only visible warnings of unseen dangers, as well as occasional harbingers of unsuspected delights. So if you'd like to improve your reputation as a weather prophet, while at the same time adding to your waterman's tool kit, just keep your eye on the sky — and on this column.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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