decode the secrets of the sky
Predict the weather and find your way home when you understand the clouds and stars.
NIGHT: SUPER STAR GAZING
Smartphones don’t have to be the enemy of outdoor exploits. Download astronomy apps like SkyView, SkyGuide or Star Chart, hold your phone out in front of you, and the app will illuminate and label the stars, planets and constellations that surround you.
- SkyView (free or $1.99; Android and iOS 8.0 or later) Includes basic trivia (Mercury: the planet closest to the sun) and an “I” button to access mythological info.
- Sky Guide ($2.99; Android and iOS 8.0 or later) Adds a calendar feature so you can schedule optimal viewing of of the moon, comets and other heavenly bodies.
- Star Chart (free; Android and iOS 7.0 or later) All you have to do is point your device at the sky and Star Chart will tell you exactly what you are looking at.
If you want to connect the dots the old-school way and live in the Northern Hemisphere, start with the easy-to-spot Big Dipper. Its seven stars, with four forming the familiar quadrilateral, are always above the horizon in northern skies. They serve as a signpost for another superstar of the northern hemisphere, Polaris, a.k.a. the North Star.
To find Polaris, look at the side of the Big Dipper’s ladle farthest from the the handle, then draw a hypothetical line straight up from it. When that line reaches about five times the distance between the two stars you started with, you will arrive at Polaris, which also marks the end of the Little Dipper’s handle.
Facing the North Star or Polaris means you’re facing north. Turn your back to it and you’re facing south. Unlike other stars, it never wanders far, so it could help you find your way out of an unfamiliar place. As you travel toward the equator, it will lurk closer to the horizon before dropping out of sight in the Southern Hemisphere.
DAY: CLOUD COMPUTING
Most of us know to run for cover from dark, ominous cumulonimbus clouds. But some tufts are stealthier. Cirrus, like cotton candy wisps streaming high in the sky, are typically fair weather friends. But if they’re moving, they can signify a front arriving within 24 hours. Cirrostratus, resembling a filmy veil, can predict precipitation within 12 to 24 hours.
- thin, wispy, usually white
- seen in fair to pleasant weather
- predict a weather change within 24 hours
- rows of small white puffs
- usually indicate fair, cold weather
- can predict a hurricane in tropical climates
- thin, sheetlike
- often cover the entire sky
- predict rain or snow
- gray or blue-gray
- made of ice crystals and water droplets
- often predict continuous rain or snow storms
- gray puffy masses
- usually form in groups
- if seen in the morning, predict thunderstorms in the afternoon
- uniform fog-like gray clouds
- sometimes produce light mist or drizzle
- if seen in the morning, they usually burn off
- low, puffy and gray
- form in rows with blue sky in between
- may predict slight chance of light rain
- dark gray, wet-looking layer
- associated with continuous rain or snow
- often predict light to moderate precipitation
- white, puffy clouds
- often called fair-weather clouds
- can turn into giant cumulonimbus clouds/thunderstorm clouds
- high winds flatten them into anvil-like shape
- anvil often points in direction storm is moving
- predict with heavy rain, snow, hail, lightning, even tornadoes
Old School Tools
Before meteorology, farmers and fishermen devised mnemonic proverbs to help them respond to the sky's signals. Challenge your family to a game of fact or fiction on these gems:
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” This adage holds some water. A red sunset generally signifies that high pressure, associated with calm weather, is keeping dust near the earth’s surface. Red in the morning, however, could mean a high pressure front has already passed over from west to east. Low pressure might be nipping at its heels, boding inclement weather. Batten down the hatches, skipper!
“Lightning never strikes twice.” Actually, it does, particularly when tempted by sky-high structures. New York City’s Empire State Building is struck by a bolt about 23 times every year.