Up in the Air

How can you be lost in the fog about weather?

April 20, 2014 

“Ticket Confirmation for Dark Sky Observatory Public Night.” That was the subject line of an email sent me by our ticketing software … my copy of the message to someone who got a ticket to one of our events. The odd thing is that it was sent a day before the event – but after clouds had moved in to stay for a couple of days, along with rain and even predicted snow flurries.

The particular event was a special public night Monday for last week’s total lunar eclipse. We had planned a totally crazy event, starting at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday and going almost to dawn. But the long-range weather forecast had already gone south days before. And it did not change much by event time. I had to wonder what the intended attendee was thinking. Was he or she that unaware of the weather?

Maybe it’s just me. Being an observational astronomer, gardener and owner of property with a steep, 2,000-foot private gravel road, I am particularly aware of the weather. I pretty much know what’s going on up in the air at any time … and what’s coming.

In the Internet Age, abundant sources of information exist about the current and predicted weather, like real-time views of cloud coverage and radar. Heck, I check the radar loop before I walk across campus! There are even a couple of free sites (Clear Sky Chart and the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Real-Time Weather Data) that predict cloud cover. See my upintheair.info Web page for some good sites to bookmark.

I supplement these websites with the Charlotte TV forecast and the weather radio broadcast from the National Weather Service. No forecast is perfect, but the sum of a few is better than any one prediction.

Perhaps too many people do not pay enough attention to the weather, especially to dangerous weather such as tornadoes, approaching squall lines, blizzards and hurricanes. Extreme weather can kill you, and in the age of weather radios and Web info, no one needs to succumb to a fatalistic belief (“If it’s my time to go…”). That is not in the interest of your survival.

Perhaps the hopeful eclipse observer thought we were above the weather. However, at an elevation of about 3,000 feet, we are only above some fog and occasional ground-hugging clouds. To be above real cloudiness, you need to be above 10,000 feet – and even that is not always enough. Is there a higher power to which the aspiring astronomer was praying for a miracle? Maybe the ticketholder found a forecast that sounded OK for that night?

After all, weather forecasters are like preachers: You can always find one who will tell you what you want to hear.

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.

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