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How to Read a Weather Map


“Weather Maps may seem confusing when you first see them. But you can learn the basics easily. The information they contain helps us to understand the current weather picture and to make future weather predictions. Just looking out your window only tells you the immediate weather in your local spot, but it cannot tell you what changes to expect like the coming of a storm, or the possibility of surf arriving in a few days. Weather Maps look at a large area and show the large weather systems that are moving toward your area. Come with me as we take a look at How to read a weather map”. Aloha, David Dorn

Weather maps contain information about atmospheric pressure, fronts, storms, and wind speeds and wind direction. The areas of different atmospheric pressure are what drive our winds, and in turn generate surf. It is nice to know if the wind is going to be too light or way too strong before we venture out onto the water, or before we plan a weekend camping trip. Weather Maps also show the positions of severe storms, like hurricanes, and typhoons that are especially important to island, and coastal communities and mariners.

How weather maps are made: Weather maps use a collection of weather observations that are made at many locations at the same time. They are all put down on a single map to create a snapshot of an area too large to normally observe. Each weather station, or data collection point transmits its data to a central point, usually the national weather service. Each surface station reports the atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, cloud cover, and weather condition for their particular location. Meteorologists combine the data and create the map to show the area of interest. By connecting the location of each surface station that reported the same barometric pressure, with a line (isobar), a pattern emerges that is useful in predicting weather. Air temperature is also measured, and edges of warm and cold air masses are marked on the Map. A cold front or warm front will be marked on the map. A weather map uses specific symbols to indicate specific features.
Isobars: The most obvious feature of a weather map is the squiggly lines. These lines are called isobars. The isobars are lines that connect areas of equal atmospheric pressure. The word isobar, comes from iso=equal and bar=pressure. Anywhere on one line will have the same pressure. The pressure is usually noted on every other isobar so you can see the pattern of pressure distribution. The point with the highest pressure is called a High. It is usually marked with a capital letter “H”. this High pressure center is surrounded by concentric circles of isobars, the isobars closest to the center of the High will have a higher number, than the ones further out. The area with the lowest pressure on the map is called a “low”, this is designated by a capital “L”.
Atmospheric Pressure: Atmospheric pressure is measured at the earth surface, and is know as surface pressure. The difference in surface pressure is measured with an instrument called a barometer, and is sometimes called barometric pressure. Pressure changes with altitude. Pressure readings taken at any altitude, like from a surface station in Denver (5000ft), will be corrected to sea level, for a common frame of reference. Pressure also changes with temperature. Hot air has lower density and rises creating lower surface pressure. Cooler denser air descends creating a higher surface pressure. Low pressure cells are areas of converging air that rises upward an the center. Lows are usually associated with unstable conditions and stormy weather. High pressure areas, “Highs” are associated with milder, more stable weather.
The atmospheric pressure will attempt to reach an equilibrium, so air will flow from a high pressure area toward a low pressure area. The horizontal flow of air is called wind. The Between the lows and highs are where the winds are blowing, The wind blows from High to Low, but not directly. Because of the earth’s rotation (Corriolis force) the wind will blow more parallel to the isobars. The wind blows clockwise around a High in the northern hemisphere. The Wind blows counterclockwise around a Low in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere the wind rotational direction is reversed. When you have a lot of lines close together is means strong winds. Areas with widely spaced isobars will have little or no wind.

The horizontal movement of air at the surface are the surface winds that we measure.

The rotation of winds around the pressure cells caused by the earths rotation, called the Corriolis force.

Also when there is a very low pressure low, next to a high pressure high, the difference creates stronger winds than normal. The greater the difference between the high and the low, the greater the Pressure Gradient Force (PGF) that drives the wind will be. More isobars (lines) packed close together means strong winds. Weather systems generally move across the map from west to east. The exceptions are hurricanes and tropical storms that often move towards the west.

Frontal Systems: The areas between hot and cold air masses are called fronts. Fronts are located on the transition between different air masses. Fronts are significant because they influence the vertical movement of air, and the formation of clouds, rain, and storms. The four types of fronts are Warm front, Cold front, Occluded Front, and Stationary Front.

Warm Fronts are the leading edge of a warm air mass that generally brings light rain and gradually deteriorating weather. They appear on the weather map as a red line with semi circles on the side the front is moving towards. Cold Fronts are the leading edge “front” of a cold air mass that brings about abrupt weather change and can bring sudden heavy rain and the possibility of thunderstorms. Cold fronts are indicated by a blue line with blue triangles indicating the direction it is traveling. The Occluded Front is caused when a cold front overtakes a warm front, they can bring about thunderstorms and a variety of weather conditions. The occluded front is indicated by a line with triangles and semi circles on the same side indicating the direction it is traveling. The Stationary Fronts are non-moving fronts that stay in a particular area for an extended period of time and can bring extended bad weather and persistent protracted rains and floods. Stationary fronts are indicated by a red or blue line with triangles and semicircles on opposite sides.

Storms: Storms that are large enough will be named, and their progress will be tracked across the map. Special attention is paid to storm tracking to give the population the maximum amount of time to prepare for them. Severe weather is responsible for many natural disasters, like high winds, huge waves, and flooding rains. Intense severe winds and thunderstorm activity can also be anticipated. The storm’s anticipated track is often indicated with an arrow. The ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone) is located near the equator, and is an area on no wind doldrums. The ICTZ has a special symbol of a stripped red line.

Hurricanes: Hurricanes are severe low pressure storms with dangerously high wind speeds; they cover hundreds of square miles and can last for weeks. Hurricanes tend to be fueled by warm water and meteorologists use computer models to help them predict their behavior. Hurricanes usually start out as Tropical Storms which are less severe. The hurricane is dangerous to ships at sea, and can generate huge waves that can batter a coastline thousands of miles away. When the hurricane makes landfall, the waves and wind combine to create an especially destructive storm. Hurricanes can also cause coastal flooding, by creating wind driven waves that pile up on shore, and by creating a higher than normal sea level by lowering the atmospheric pressure to an extremely low level. When a hurricane, moves over land it will lose its power and eventually dissipate. When a hurricane moves into the western pacific it is called a Typhoon, A Typhoon is exactly the same thing by a different name. In the southern hemisphere the Hurricane is called a “Cyclone”.

Wind Barbs: Wind Barbs are little arrows that indicate the wind’s direction and strength. The number of “tail feathers” indicates how strong the wind is. The arrows are oriented to indicate the direction the wind is blowing. and on the back of the arrow the are different symbols to indicate the wind strength. A short tail feather means 5 knots of wind, a longer feather has the value of 10 knots of wind. The feathers can be combined to indicate other wind speeds. A short feather plus a long feather combines to indicate 15 knots of wind. A triangle represents 50 knots. See the Wind Barbs diagram for some of the different wind barbs.

A knot, is a nautical mile per hour. 1 knot = 1.152 miles per hour:

1 Knot = 1 Nautical Mile per hour
1 Nautical mile = 6076.12 ft. = 1852 m
1 Statute mile = 1760 yards = 5280 feet


Cloud cover symbols: Cloud cover symbols are given by surface stations to describe the local cloud cover. A all white (empty) circle symbol describes a clear sky, the all black circle symbol means completely overcast sky (solid black circle). A quarter black circle means 25 percent cloud cover. Half black circle means 50 percent cloud cover etc.

Cloud cover symbols can also be combined with a wind barb to describe the local weather at the station.


Current Weather Map (North Pacific)

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