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10/03/2015

Amateur Astronomer or Amateur Weather Person?



      Sometimes inspiration for this blog comes from reading different sites about astronomy. Sometimes it comes from me reflecting on the hobby and sharing something that I feel is important to me in the hobby, and then sharing it here on my blog.  Well, one thing I found tonight that is prompting this late evening post, is the role of becoming an effective amateur forecaster plays in terms of the weather in being a solid to outstanding amateur astronomer.  You will forgive me as I have touched on how I interpret the weather (I don't predict it, I interpret the weather and conditions for when I observe. I am not sure if anyone can predict the weather more than three to five days out), as this post is going to go deeper. Also, if you don't live in Utah, you can read and see the tools I use, some will work for you, some you may need to find a local replacement for.  So here I go!

     First off why is interpreting the weather so critical for being an amateur astronomer? This pertains to any facet of the hobby.  Why? It is relatively self-evident I believe. First, one has to know if the weather is going to be clear, partly cloudy (and the percent of clouds in the sky) or cloudy to even begin to decide if your going to observe. This is an even more important factor if deciding to pack up and drive and set up at a dark site some distance away from home. Second, the amount of humidity will determine for me if I bring my anti-dew equipment, and if I charge the power source for that equipment so dew doesn't ruin my secondary mirror, my eyepiece, my Telrad and finder etc.  If any of these dew up, then the observing session is over. Next, road conditions. Is it wet and muddy where I am going? Do I need to bring a tarp or is my usual ground cover okay to use? Temperature is another factor I have to look at as it controls dew point often, and it tells me what type of clothing I am going to wear while observing. Nothing will end a session more readily than when one gets cold.  These are the main factors I am going to share.


National Weather Service Site: Salt Lake City: Forecast Discussion and Local Area

   The first site I go to in order to obtain a high level view of what is going on is my local National Weather Service.  If you are in Utah, you can find that at this LINK.  I mainly use two tabs that I will cover here (I do use on other feature but I won't share that at this time) and those are the Forecast Discussion and the Local Area which are located over on the left panel. The screenshot below shows them:



     You can see above that the red arrows point to the location on the website where Forecast Discussion and Local Area are located. You access them by left clicking on them. Forecast Discussion as you can see in the screen shot below, is a general and high level look at the forecast over the next several days and upcoming week.  It is written by a member of the National Weather Service, in this case in Salt Lake City and I find it to be quite accurate. I highlighted here the parts I use in making my forecasts.  For example, tomorrow night my local astronomy club, the Salt Lake Astronomical Society has an outreach planned. If I am considering going I will look at the Forecast discussion and read to see what conditions are to be like for Saturday evening. It isn't looking very good in that forecast discussion. So right now I am hesitant but will confirm with the next website I will share.

     However, the Forecast Discussion here does provide me with a lot of hope that next weekend the forecast is looking really good for me to go observing as we move into the next new moon period. So as of tonight, I am planning on heading out!



     The screen shot below is one of the Local Area. This is a quick summation as I say, of the Forecast Discussion from above.  Again, it confirms with the Forecast Discussion about tomorrow night, see my comments in red, and then of observing come next weekend. This provides me with my confirmation of what I am seeing from the Forecast Discussion.  So if you like to read the weather to see what is going on, read the Forecast Discussion. Want the short version, read the Local Area.  From reading these reports I know (and from being outside tonight) it is not a night for me to take a telescope out and observe.  Sad, but true. Nor will I risk exposure of my equipment and telescopes tomorrow in the conditions that are out there. 






SkippySky Astronomy


     My next site that I use extensively to see conditions is Skippy Sky Astronomy found at this LINK.  It is all about the weather but instead of just writing about it, I have made a video to show you Skippy Sky Astronomy and give you a basic running tutorial of how to use it.  Screencastify and another similar tool (that I took the screenshots above with) are two tools you will see me using more on the blog.  Anyway, Skippy Sky Astronomy I have found is the closest site tied into the NWS forecast and is extremely accurate for predicting cloud cover, dew, temperature and wind. Some like Clear Sky Clock, and I'll cover that site, but Skippy Sky Astronomy is much more accurate as my observing friends and companions can testify too.  




     So above is my quick introduction on SkippySky Astronomy. It is found at this LINK.  Again, for me I have found SkippySky to be one of the best tools for forecasting the weather and conditions for amateur astronomy and to determine whether it is good to go, and what equipment to take. Again, as I say in the video, Total Cloud Cover; Transparency; Seeing; Temperature; Wind Speed and Dew Risk are the main categories I look at in SkippySky.  

   
Clear Outside 

     The next page that I go to, and I find it equally as valuable as SkippySky is called Clear Outside. It is located at www.clearoutside.com or at this LINK.  Again, I have made a video that briefly highlights how this site works and how you can use it to help you observe. Critical here again is the Total Cloud Cover (goal is 20% or less), ISS Passover if you want to view that; Precipitation Probability (you want 0) Precipitation Amount (again want 0, I won't take my telescopes out to risk the mirrors to rain or precipitation of any kind); wind speed and direction (critical here, less than 6 mph if possible as I don't like my dobs become wind vanes or shaking); temperature, so you know what type of clothing to wear); dew point (I compare that reading to the temperature to see if I will have dew) and relative humidity. If I go above 70% I will actually hook up my dew equipment but that usually doesn't happen where I observe now).  Those are the main parts of their charts that I use, and I have to mention that I absolutely LOVE that as I hover over the sun/darkness bar near the top, I get the times for sun rise, sunset, astronomical twilight, darkness etc.  This really allows me to plan if all conditions are good on when I want to arrive, set up and be ready to go.  

    Here is the video on Clear Outside: 



     The other thing these sites provide to me is to learn the conditions of the locations that I observe from.  I have purposely hand picked by locations from years of observing and experience at the sites. I want a site free of dew, is accessible and safe for my Outback (I don't want to get stuck in the mud in the winter by myself) and I want to ensure I am dressed warmly enough to ensure a great evening of observing. The sites I have shared do that perfectly.  

     
National Weather Serivce: Salt Lake City; Activity Planner

     The video below will show you the National Weather Service's Activity Planner for Salt Lake City. You have to know your Latitude and Longitude for the location you want, and you can find that on Google Maps.  I won't share how to do that, it is relatively easy unless I get someone asking for that in a comment. Then I can add it.  The site allows you to pick the categories that are of interest to you, I usually pick Sky Cover, Temperature, Wind Chill (in the winter); Relative Humidity; Dew Point; Surface Wind Speed and Precipitation Potential.  Then I hit submit and the bars show up and I simply pick the day and time of day I am interested in looking at, slide the mouse along that bar for that day and time and I get the results listed in a pop up box.  Take a look. Another great fit with the tools above.




MesoWest Weather Current Weather Station Reports 

     The next website that I use for looking at the weather is called MesoWest.  You find can MesoWest at this LINK.  MesoWest is best describe from quoting for their Help Webpage. There it states: 
"MesoWest was created to provide access to current and archived weather observations across the United States. It is used by the National Weather Service to aid in forecasting, by researchers to understand severe weather events, and by the public for personal and other uses. MesoWest relies upon weather observing networks that are managed by government agencies, private firms, and educational institutions. Additional stations have been installed at key locations such as near the Great Salt Lake. Observations of temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, and other weather parameters are provided and available through the MesoWest interface."
If you are going to use this site, I highly recommend that you review their Help Page at this LINK.  Tons of useful information there.  I use MesoWest for current conditions.  It use to be called MesoNet but that was changed to MesoWest as some networks left and some came on board.  Anyway, for current conditions and to build up a history it is a really useful site to gather weather data.  You can view current humidity and dew levels, temperature and current wind speed. You can create a profile and save that data to build up a history of sites to track how the weather is over time.  I am doing this publicly now so I can show how local weather conditions impact observing.  One feature I did not capture in the video below is the map overlays. This is a really tiny tab in the upper right part of the map next to current fires (which has a flame on it).  Here you can put in current precipitation if you want.  However, if there is rain, your not observing or probably shouldn't be.  So take a look at the video and I hope you can see its use.  



   

Clear Sky Chart 


     My next area is one well known in the amateur astronomical community, and that is Clear Sky Chart.  You will see by the length I spend on the video that I am not a huge fan of Clear Sky Chart. Too often it is not accurate and I have learned to use the sites I have shared prior to this one to be much more accurate and reflective of current and foretasted weather conditions.  Clear Sky Chart provides a quick view but I usually want to know more in depth in terms of weather conditions so I know whether to go, what to wear, what equipment I will need and how transparency or seeing will impact my observing. Clear Sky Clock is usually based on weather maps that change, and the site doesn't seem to update on a regular basis, perhaps once a day.  So I rely on the sites I shared previous to this one, but I still will look at it. I do find the weather maps that come up by clicking on the individual time box to be helpful.




COD Meteorology 

This site is one that I just enjoy as someone who enjoys weather. I  don't use it a lot to forecast conditions, but I do like the radar and visible images and the infrared maps and water vapor maps.  These maps can be one nationally, covering most of North America or at least the United States, and you can go regional and then down to just a couple of states level.  Lots of options to see how weather is developing and what current conditions are. Very visual and very accurate for immediate. Overtime you can develop your forecasting skills and determine your weather for 3 to 5 days out using this site. I have done that with probably over 90% accuracy.  





     There you have it. Those are the sites I use to determine the cloud cover, temperature, dew and relative humidity, wind speeds and gusts and transparency and seeing that impact observing. There are some skills to developing in terms of weather. One is knowing how water vapor in the air impacts transparency and/or seeing and how that impacts what Deep Sky Object types you may want to go after that evening or night.  Dew impacts equipment and it is important to understand how that interacts to reduce details in objects and how to combat it if you want to observe in the late fall, winter and early spring in Utah.  Clothing requirements are dictated by temperature and humidity, remember humidity can cut through your clothes if your not dressed correctly.  Wind and upper level winds impact observing as well, and knowing when the jet stream meanders away from Utah and when it is zipping over head will tell you when transparency and seeing are not going to be good or when they will be outstanding.  This LINK will help you to see that. 

     So in truth, yes, I have become quite good at forecasting the weather and weather conditions here in Utah. It is partially science and partially an art I believe. Having said that, I still often find myself heading out even with a questionable forecast. Why? Easy answer is that if you wait for perfect conditions, you will only observe two to five times a year IF it aligns with work and family and everything else you have in life.  No, what looking at all this does for me is determine IF I am going, and IF I decide to risk it, what scope to take. I won't take the 17.5" dob if conditions are questionable, I may take the 14" strut dob, or the 10" solid tube or 4" refractor.  The last two are because they are so easy to set up and so easy to break down and fit in the back of my Outback. If conditions don't clear up I don't have to worry about a 10 to 15 minute breakdown.  If it is looking good to great, then either the 14" or 17.5" dob is coming along for the ride and to observe with. 

     So my advice is yes, you probably should know the weather conditions in the area you observe. It tells you how to be prepared in terms of clothing and equipment, and where you want to go.  I hope in some way this helps and I hope if you don't live in Utah, if you have read the post, that you find local resources as I have done to aid you in reviewing weather conditions to make your observing decisions. Keep enjoy the wonders of our night sky!