Understanding the weather
Snowkiting is my passion. I love being out in the mountains. I really love it when there is fresh snow and strong wind. Knowing when and where to go to bring wind and snow together to snowkite can be baffling. Never wanting to get skunked, I have spent much too much time trying to understand the dynamics of winter weather. It’s has gotten to the point now that I rarely (knock on wood) get skunked and many of my snowkite friends call wanting to know “where to go”.
The following information centers on snowkiting in the western United States. However, some of this information will help kiters anywhere. Understanding the science of weather will help assure a great day on the snow, on the water kitesurfing or riding the beaches, deserts and fields on land.
Reading the weather for snowkiting is my daily routine. Each morning I take advantage of a variety of meteorological web sites to study the conditions that will help me find wind for the current day and plan for the days that follow.
I first study the forecast models issued by the National Center for Atmospheric Research http://www.rap.ucar.edu/weather/model/. These are the same models that professional meteorologists use to make the local weather forecast one hears on the radio, television or read in the newspaper. These models help me by graphically illustrating the pressure gradients that drive the winds we need to snowkite.
Since I live in the mountains, I always examine the upper level winds, particularly the 700 millibar (mb) jet stream. When the 700mb winds come down to the surface it is nuclear: 4, 6 (maybe 8 ) meter kite conditions. Obviously one does not need quite that much wind to have fun on the snow. However that is what I look for to find wind. Some days that presence of 700mb winds nearby will generate enough of a pressure gradient that even being nearby will make for a great day of snowkiting.
Here’s a graphic of a 700mb wind model:
There are a variety of weather models that one can examine. Some are of a short time span; others will model the weather for a week out. The further out the models predict the less reliable they become. Still they are indicative of what may occur in the coming days, helping me plan my kite days ahead.
When looking at the 700mb winds I consider the various geographic locations that I have to choose from to snowkite. Obviously, they must have snow on the ground to kite. I try to match areas that have snow with some degree of pressure gradient. Usually the more pressure, the tighter the isobars will be illustrated on the weather models. There is some trial and error that comes from matching a particular snowkite location and a weather prediction. Some locations have natural features (mountains, passes and canyons) that will alter the pressure gradient and enhance (or obstruct) the strength of the wind. One learns these local conditions from experience.
Another web based resource I study is the National Weather Service http://www.weather.gov/ Point Forecast for the specific areas I have to snowkite. These forecasts are based on a grid of 2.5 or 5 kilometers. The Point Forecast is a quick and easy way to get a general sense of the weather forecast for that day and perhaps the next day. Remember, the further out the forecast, the less reliable the prediction. The Point Forecast is based, in part, on the weather models described above.
When I examine the Point Forecast, I always dig a little deeper and read the Forecast Discussion link. This is a detailed description that an individual meteorologist at the weather service has written for the region’s weather. There is always some jargon that one has to wade through when reading the Forecast Discussion. However, the more one reads the Discussion, the easier it is to understand the big words. The Forecast Discussion frequently will reference the different weather models and this is where you and I can develop a greater understanding of how the forecast models work in the real world as kiters.
The Forecast Discussion is for the short term and for up to a week away. Again, the further out, the less reliable it becomes. This is very evident when one reads the discussion. Some weather service offices have discussions that are really hard to understand, others use more basic language. I always examine the Forecast Discussions for each of the weather service offices surrounding my kite spots. This gives one a view of the big picture, reinforcing our understanding of the forecast models.
Here’s a screen shot of the Forecast Discussion and Other Local Obs links:
Another useful component of the Point Forecast page is a link called Other Local Obs. This is a current summary of local weather stations remote observations. They will report temperature and some of these have anemometers (wind meters). They often report in real time so one can get very current conditions. Once again, this helps me plan where to go kite that day. Rarely, one has the benefit of a weather station right at the kite spot. More often these weather stations are somewhere nearby. Personal familiarity of a particular kite spot and a nearby weather station allows one to correlate weather conditions to some degree. For example, I’ve learned that when one specific weather station in Island Park, Idaho reports 2 - 4 mph of wind it’s usually kiteable with a 12m foil. If it reads 5 – 7 mph, get ready for an 8 or 10m day! This weather station is deep in the forest, away from the nearby extremes of wind.
In many states the Department of Transportation will have roadside meteorological stations that report in real time. Some of these stations also have web cams. These stations are very helpful in my day to day snowkite planning. Further, the station data is usually available to study online after the fact. By reading a station’s data after a kite session I can correlate the conditions of a nearby kite spot to that station for future reference. Learning current (real-time) weather conditions is made easy in the United States through the University of Utah’s MesoWest reporting system http://www.met.utah.edu/mesowest/. Through MesoWest, one can access thousands of meteorological stations and learn current conditions. Some of these stations are the same ones mentioned above in the Other Local Obs by the National Weather Service. The University of Utah’s Department of Meteorology also has many detailed weather models that one can study.
Many of the real-time weather reporting sites have simple text-based web pages as an alternative to their graphical pages. These text-based pages are easily accessible through most cell phones. To access these links when away from a computer, I created a web page of text-based weather links which allow me to stay current using my cell phone.
A very valuable tool for learning local weather conditions is available through local avalanche advisories http://www.avalanche.org/. Avalanche forecast centers write daily advisories in many areas of the U.S. and provide valuable weather observations and snow stability analysis. These advisories will analyze local weather from a different perspective than the weather service. They are an important tool in keeping one safe before one heads into the mountains.
Finding one new weather resource on the WWW always seems to lead to another dozen links that await our attention. These secondary and tertiary links can be very helpful and will often become part of my daily weather forecasting routine. As with all scientific study, learning the science of weather can be as simple or as complex as one wants to make it. For those who spend a little time digging a little deeper, it can dramatically improve the likelihood of having day after day of wind to enjoy our passion of kiting.