EarthLabs > Climate and the Biosphere > Lab 3: Climatology Basics > 3C: Local Weather Stories

Climatology Basics

Part C: Local Weather Stories

As you learned in the previous labs, multiple factors work together to create the weather in a given location and time period. Most people probably haven't thought much about how fast, or in which direction, weather systems travel, nor how quickly the weather can change in a single day or week. In this lab, you will see how variable weekly weather can be, and you will consider the factors that make it so changeable.

You will also download and analyze temperature and precipitation patterns for one city over a number of years and see how climate patterns emerge from many years worth of weather data.

When we observe weather, we usually report temperature, precipitation, cloudiness, humidity, air pressure, wind speed, and direction. Weather observations are made by many systems, both from the ground and from above. These systems include: automated instruments, satellites, trained professional observers, as well as volunteers. If you'd like to become a volunteer weather watcher you can join the CoCoRaHS network.

Checking In

Begin the lab with this question: What is weather, and how does it differ from climate? Try your hand at using what you have learned so far in this module to sort out weather from climate. Choose one of the options listed here, either download and print the strips (below) or work with the interactive weather and climate sentence page.

  • Download and print the following sentence strips.
  • Cut apart the sentence strips.
  • Sort them into two groups: weather or climate. When you are done sorting, write out and add two more statements of your own to each set.
    • You should wear your raincoat today; I think it is going to rain.
    • My grandfather told me that 40 years ago we used to get a lot more snow in December, now we don't see snow until mid-January.
    • It seems like we had a very short summer here in Idaho this year.
    • Springtime is the rainy season here in Arizona.
    • We had hail the size of golf balls in last week's storm.
    • I've noticed that many new types of plants grow here in North Dakota; the winters just aren't as cold as they used to be 30 years ago.
    • Every summer we have a picnic by the beach in July; it is always warm and breezy.
    • This afternoon was hot; I think we set a new record.
    • We should go sailing this afternoon; it is breezy this morning, and the wind is supposed to come up later today.

Track a storm system

Get a feel for the rate at which typical weather systems travel over a week's time by viewing a slide show of one week's weather. Examples of these systems are shown on the weather map, upper-right, as blue high (H) and red low (L) pressure regions, and their related frontal zones. Play the entire slideshow, below, see all the slides. Then play it again one slide at a time and examine it more closely. Choose one H (high) or L (low), or a front (blue or red lines), and follow the high or low with your pencil tip as it moves across the map, through space and time. Note: the slide show can be played full screen mode.

Image Source: Wikipedia.

For more information about what the symbols mean (beyond the scope of this lesson), read this page: Weather Map Symbols.

weather tracking ppt
Click to view

In this exercise, you will get a sense of how fast storm systems move across the contiguous (lower 48) United States, by recording and drawing the storm tracks of the two weather systems shown in the slide show above.

  1. Print out a blank outline map of the United States. (shown right)
    Click the image to enlarge the map to full size and then download, save, and print the map.
  2. Using the printed maps from the link below or the online maps in the animation above, locate the first map in the series. Note and record the date and time of this map.
  3. Observe the location of the first low pressure center in the Seattle, Washington area on March 30, 2012.
  4. Record its location on the blank U.S. map by drawing a L on the blank map and circling it.
    • Advance to the next map image, March 31, 2012. Note the location of the low, now located near northern Idaho. Record this new on your blank map.
    • Advance to the 3rd map image. The low pressure is now over Montana. Again, record the location on your blank map.
    • Repeat this procedure for the next several map images, following one storm as it travels across the country, and eventually heads out across the Atlantic Ocean.
  5. Draw a black line connecting the location of the low across the map.
  6. Rewind the map images to April 2nd, 2012, and track a second storm. Either start with the one off the coast of Washington, or the one located over South Dakota.
  7. When you are done tracking the storm, answer the Stop and Think questions listed below.
  8. Click here to download a storm tracking (Acrobat (PDF) 1.5MB Apr15 12) PDF file of the instructions and image files.

Stop and Think

1. Which day (date) did the L pressure move off the Atlantic coast?

2. How many days did it take for the storm to travel across the country?

3. Given the distance the storm traveled as approximately 2700 miles (4350 kilometers), what was the average rate of travel of the storm? Express your answer in miles (or kilometers) per day.


Talking about the Weather
Some areas have weather patterns that are more variable than others. You may have heard the adage: "If you don't like the weather in Vermont (or some other place...), just wait five minutes." How fast does the weather change in your hometown or neighborhood?

Recall the regional climate drivers that you studied in Labs 3A and 3B. Which of these factors contributed to the movement of this storm system across the country? Choose a location on the storm track and use your knowledge to write out a script that could be used by a TV meteorologist to describe the weather patterns shown in the series of images. Share your weather story with your lab team or class.

Use weather data to discover climate patterns

In this next activity, you will use the United States Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) records to explore temperature data for one weather station. You will begin by selecting one single year's worth of data to view, and then you will expand the graph to display data from an extended period of timeup to 120 years. By exploring this historical dataset, you will learn how daily weather patterns vary over a typical year and you will get a sense of how climatologists use long-term records to arrive at a definition of "normal" temperature and precipitation.

When you have investigated these concepts, you will apply your skills by using the USHCN site to inform your answer to the question: "What will I wear to my cousin's wedding in May?"

When we think of weather we often only think of today, this week or this month. However, if you step back and look at a large collection of weather data it is possible to use the daily records to visualize the climate. The United States Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) archives many variables of weather and climate data, summarizing the data in both monthly and daily time frames, making many types of research possible.

The daily data recorded at these USHCN stations includes observations of: maximum and minimum temperature, precipitation amount, snowfall amount, and snow depth. Monthly data includes mean, maximum, and minimum temperature and total precipitation. Most data records extend through the most recent year (2011). For this exercise you will use the daily data.

The data you will use in this activity is available at the following website. Access the United States Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) website and begin your investigation.

  1. On the USHCN page select the Web Interface link to access data via a map of stations.

  2. Once on the map interface, use the drop-down menu to select your state and site of interest. All of the sites in the state will be listed, and displayed on the map.

  3. Use the zoom and pan tools, in the upper-left corner of the map, to zoom into your state and select a site to explore. Once you have selected a site, click on the balloon to learn more about the site.
    Montana stations are displayed on the map in the image below.

  4. In the pop-up bubble, the name of the station, its latitude, longitude, and elevation are displayed. Click the words "Get Daily Data" to access the data for the site.
    Jordan, Montana has been selected in the image below.

  5. On the data selection page, click the link titled Climate variable vs day of year to move down the list of possibilities.

  6. Select the climate variable that you wish to view, in this example choose Temperature mean for the year of your birth.
    • Under the heading "Select a variable for a plot of variable vs day of year (annual)" choose the radio button next to Temperature mean.
    • In the boxes next to the words "for the year (inclusive)" type in one year, such as your birth year, into both boxes. (This will select only one year's worth of data.)
      In the example below, Temperature mean has been selected, the years are set to show data from 1905 through 2011. To select one years worth of data type the same year into both boxes.

  7. Once you have made your selections, click the Get the Plot button to view a graph of daily mean temperature for the year of your choice. Use a screen capture program to save a copy of this graph so that you can compare it to other graphs. Note: When you are done viewing the graph use the back button to return to the previous screen.
    Montana Temperature Data (in degrees F) for the Year 1990.

  8. After you have investigated one year, select a 30-year range of data around your birth year. In other words, if your birth year was 1960, you would choose 1945-1975. How do you think this will change the appearance of the graph? Once you have set the parameters, and stated your hypothesis, click the Get the Plot button to see a graph of daily mean temperature for the selected years.
  9. Checking In

    What new patterns emerge in the plotted data when you add more years to the graph?
    The pattern is still highly variable, but, in general, you can see that in this part of the United States, it is warmest in July and August and coldest in November, December, January and February. With this amount of data you can see that there is a lot more variation of temperatures in the winter months. (In other words, the data points are not clustered as closely in the winter.)

    However, you can begin to see that there are patterns that emerge year after year, giving you a sense of "normal" weather which is known as climate.
  10. Next, click the Reset Form button in order to see the available years of record for the station. Then re-select the Temperature mean button and click get the plot to graph all of the available data points for the station of your choice.
  11. Repeat this procedure, only choose the Precipitation variable this time.

  12. For more weather variables, such as wind speed and barometric pressure, access the Weather Underground historical data website. Again, input your city, and date range of choice in order to observe daily, weekly, monthly, or custom date range data outputs.

  13. Stop and Think

    4. How do the long-term graphs of weather data compare to the original (single year) graph? Which type of graph is a better representation of typical temperature and precipitation for a station?

    5. Your cousin in Hastings, Nebraska (NE) has invited you to her outdoor wedding in early May. What will you wear? What is the likelihood that you will you need a sweater or jacket? Might it be over 100˚F; in which case you better bring shorts! Is it likely that it will it rain? Use the USHCN and Weather Underground sites to investigate historical Nebraska temperature and precipitation data in order to answer this question. Explain your clothing selection and your procedure for arriving at this decision.

    Optional Extensions