Friday, January 31, 2014

Speaking of the Weather

In the past, I did not see much point in obsessing about the weather. When I lived in England in my 20s, it mystified and amused me that in-depth discussions of this topic appeared to be a national pastime. After all, the statistically probable answer to the question "Will it rain today?" was always "Yes." So any form of speculation on the issue seemed purely recreational, a way to let loose shared fantasies of green fields bathed in sunshine rather than address reality. And the reality was that, at some point of any given day it would probably, almost certainly, rain. At least a little. But possibly a lot. Dress accordingly!

If there is one thing for which I am thankful to England, aside from the friends I made in pursuit of my now-useless university degrees, it's teaching me how to dress for the ever-looming possibility of rain and sudden-onset cold spells. Layers. Waterproof footwear. Waterproof outerwear. Always a hat or umbrella in my bag. And that's it. Really. Rain was no reason to cancel a weekend hiking trip. And it did not mean that you couldn't walk to your friend's house two villages away. You could do anything you liked in the rain if you dressed appropriately. This mindset carried over into my life as a cyclist. for 5 years I've been going out on my bike and never worrying about normal fluctuations in weather conditions.

So why now do I pore over weather charts the night before a ride? Why do I know or care what an occluded front is? And why on god's green earth do I listen with intense and impassioned interest to my aviator friends discussing pressure systems?

image via metoffice.gov.uk
Well this little chart might offer a clue! Prior to moving to Northern ireland, I had no experience of ordinary weather conditions (that is, not snow, ice, or hurricane related), physically preventing me from riding my bike. I did not imagine that plain, ordinary, everyday winds could be strong enough to casually move me sideways, keep me from pedaling at anything over 4mph, or downright knock me off. Well, now I know. And for as long as winter is here, I have learned not to set off without checking the weather - in particular, the wind data.

It took some time before the numbers began to mean anything. With temperature readings, I intuitively know what 10°C or 20°C or 40°F or 80°F feels like, and what to wear for each of those conditions. With wind readings, I lacked a point of reference and had to form the associations from scratch. What number does a strong wind correspond to, versus a moderate wind, versus a breeze? At what point do the gusts transition from annoying to dangerous? After each winter ride - whether successful, scary, or outright aborted (yes, I've walked home pushing my bike down the lane a couple of times!), I would check the wind readings to get a sense for what the numbers feel like. Eventually I determined that if the wind speed is forecasted to be over 20mph, or if the gusts are predicted to be stronger than that, I should not go out on my roadbike - especially not up the mountain. Below those figures is doable, though of course the lower the numbers the better.

So after years of not caring, here I am, a bona fide weather discussion enthusiast. Interestingly, while the rain forecast is wrong just as often as it is correct, the wind forecast tends to be more accurate - so at least it's gratifying. No roadcycling today. But I'll ride my upright bike to the shop, ready to hop off should the gusts try to hurl me into the hedges.

31 comments:

  1. Are the using miles/hour for wind speed in UK? This is confusing. Just look at the table - they use metric units everywhere else, except for the wind speed.

    We know that Americans are "wrong" with their units, the rest of the world is "right" but what they did in UK is just a mess. Distance in km but speed in mph? Huh?

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    1. A pilot told me wind speed given in mph is the result of early U.S. domination of commercial aviation.

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    2. The British have slowly and grudgingly adopted the metric system, regarding it an unpleasant continental imposition; hence the remnants of imperial measures. Eventually even USA will probably come around to metric.

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    3. Someone local told me this is because the wind speed is in nautical miles. But I am pretty sure this is not correct.

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  2. You might look at this from the Met Office:
    http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/interesting/2013-decwind
    It has been unusually windy to say the very least.
    As for hurricane related they are not called hurricanes in the North Atlantic. December 2013 alone had 5 North Atlantic storm systems with pressures below 950mb. If those were tropical storms they would be called Category Five hurricanes. The UK got all five of those storms. They tend to spread their force over a broader area in the northern ocean, they are still huge storms.
    January not much better.

    Light riders do get blown off the bike. Heavier riders can take much more wind before it gets them. Personally I can and do ride to about 40mph at 180lbs, my sweetie at 101 can't ride at 20mph, is super-cautious when it gets blustery.

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  3. If you live in the UK or Eire you'll get (mainly) SW winds which carry rain but also mild temperatures (and this winter has made the point...).
    Therefore when going for a ride, even the daily commute (however short) THE WIND has to be acknowledged, thought about and planned for.
    I myself think that the following rule of wind applies to a long ride:
    Assuming your ride is 'circular', in that you plan a rout that eventually brings you back home, then its unlikely to be a circle, more like a polygon, and you will only be able to ride WITH the wind (oh the pleasure...) along the shortest side of that polygon.
    Along the rest of the 'sides', especially any long ones, you'll be fighting the wind...
    But, NB: on these Islands, watch out for the E wind, coming over from as far as perhaps even the Urals...
    Keep watching the forecasts Velouria!

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  4. Hey, just found your blog. Love it. If you like finding about the weather then it's your duty to figure out the shipping forecast. It gives current and future conditions round the coast of Britain. Once you understand the format it's a great way to know what's going on for the next 12 hours in about six words. Coming from 'over the mountain' in Ballymoney :)

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  5. I think that, once you've had a spring and a summer here on the bike, you'll have got a bit acclimatized to the wind as well as the weather in general. I commuted in Belfast (only 3.5 miles each way, admittedly) right through the year for 30 years or so and the wind was never as much of a problem as the cars.

    By the way, the waterproof gear got used far less than you might think, too (but I do have mudguards on the commute bike).

    Michael - Ballinderry Lower

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  6. Canadians as a rule love to talk about the weather which is a bit baffling considering what we put up with and know is going to happen. I live in the PNW, it rains, I ride in the rain and arrive at work to much praise and concern. I must be freezing, it must be horrible. No, I'm toasty and full of endorphins. People who live in nice climates just cannot imagine even having to discuss the weather unless it is something unusual, or a storm. I spent years on the prairie where it can get very windy, and it could be difficult riding my bike, I'd have to take the wind into consideration, like it would take me much longer to get somewhere. Moving to the pacific northwest meant lots of rain which I am prepared for, but I never considered the wind. It can get very very windy. There are daily thermal winds, winds at mid mountain height, other winds close the ocean, or headwinds from various directions. Often I do not know how windy it will be until I actually get down the mountain a bit to highway level. I have not resorted to charts, but having grown up on the prairie, I do know how to observe the weather.

    Oh useless university degrees, have a few of those...

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  7. Great post about the weather and cycling, and I agree it can be the biggest deterrent. I hadn't even thought to check the forecast for wind speeds. I always just checked the branches on the big tree in my front yard. Seriously. Thank you. My comment is related to your remark about your "now-useless" university degrees. I can only guess you're saying that because perhaps you aren't employed in some career related to your degrees. But are they really useless? I don't think of college as job training, but more a life experience — confidence building yet humbling at the same time. When I finished high school I thought I knew just about everything and I'd go to college to learn the rest. When I finished college, I realized I knew nothing and would spend the rest of my life learning. Would you be the same exact person now had you not gone to college? Are those degrees really useless?

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    1. You are right Darren. It was a joke. Well maybe 80% joke.

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  8. Yup obsessing over the weather is IMPORTANT here ;-) My commute is on single lane, national speed limit roads; so if its gusty that has a massive impact on my safety. It's no wonder most people here are stuck in cars and cant be bothered braving any winds

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  9. Strong winds are a winter phenomenon where I live, too. I commute everyday --- but that route is more or less perpendicular (N-S) to the wind (SW-NW). I don't ride recreationally on those days. One commuter I ran into who has a long SW-NW commute carries a battery assist specifically for the high-wind commutes home.

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  10. when we moved from NorCal to MN we did the same. I have a reputation at work as the crazy weather girl. but when much of your life and sanity is dependent on weather to bicycle, a slight meteorological obsession is bound to ensue. this winter has been particularly brutal, I am thankful for my spin class sanity.

    you are not alone.

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  11. Another fun facet of meteorology is learning cloud classifications. It's mostly useless, but there's something about knowing the name of the clouds above your head that adds to your appreciation of the weather at large. The wispy cirrus or mushroom-cloud cumulonimbus can create specific moods as well, when incorporated into your photography!

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    1. Wave clouds are the sought after ones around here!

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    2. Those are the ones that make the sky look like it's been in the bathtub too long.

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  12. Sense of the subtleties of place account for a lot.

    Attention to detail. I'm not talking about lugs.

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  13. I can tell you exactly which way the wind is blowing. Into my face. It will do this for the duration of a ride, even when the route is a great big circle from my house.

    I can also forecast the exact moment it will start to rain. This will occur at precisely the furthest point of my ride.

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  14. You might consider acquiring a temperature/wind-chill chart to keep handy and guide you in choosing the clothing you will wear to cycle on a particular day. If you know how fast the wind is blowing you can determine how cold it really feels according to the chart. Doubtless you knew that already. As some sailors do, you could get a pocket weather station and read the wind speed/chill (English or metric or Beaufort), temperature (C or F with or without humidity), --lots more stuff! "Kestrel" is the brand I have. It's a delightfully useful gadget that's small enough to take along on your bike.

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  15. That chart linked above has some astonishingly stiff gust speeds- what would be considered an "average" wind speed/gust speed for the area during this part of the season?

    I've never managed to stay on a bike with crosswinds over 35 mph or so- it's just too unpleasant.

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    1. Not sure about averages, but since mid-November winds at over 20mph and gusts at over 40mph have been pretty typical.

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    2. Same in Bedfordshire, which is nowhere near a coastline. Very wet, also. Temperatures fairly mild, on the whole, though - only 1-2 nights of frost, no snow. Wind has definitely been the standout feature this winter.

      And to think last summer "they" were predicting much more snow than last winter (when we had snow on the ground here more or less continuously for 2+ months). Just goes to show, "they" don't always know what they're talking about. Whoever "they" actually are.

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  16. http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/regional-climates/ni
    Click on the "Wind" tab about half way down the page for mean wind speeds by month. Lots more available if you want to explore the Met Office site.

    The wind you have been experiencing is unusual, extreme, and will establish new records when all the stats are compiled. The endless procession of extreme low pressure systems moving over the isles is absolutely without precedent.

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    1. Interesting, because the locals insist the wind we're experiencing this winter is typical for the area.

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    2. Oh sure. 929 millibars happens all the time.

      The main storm track and the events that are news all over the world are a bit south of you. The wind field is large and extends to the north. Met Office published stats for NI monthly mean wind speeds are completely reliable. Look at the stats for yourself and tell me how it compares with what you have observed.

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  17. Here in the northwest, dodging the rain is almost impossible to predict. But I find that online weather radar is sometimes useful. Since it always looks like it's going to rain, the radar helps to give a more informed opinion.

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  18. "...now-useless university degrees..."? Useless in what way? It's hard for me to believe that the acquisition of those degrees contributed nothing to the thoughtfulness that your writing so consistently displays. Universities and the degrees they award may function as vocational trainers and credentials, but that certainly is not their only possible function. They are also waypoints on the journey that leads us to where we are, and they contribute to who we are. That doesn't seem to me to be a useless function.

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  19. Apologies for comment that was duplicative of one above. Didn't see it until after I posted.

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  20. My Dear Velouria; This blog, your writing, your insights are living proof that your university degrees are put to good use, everyday. I like bikes, but even if I didn't, I would still read this blog for it is such a superb and beautiful thing... and speaks volumes about you. Please, don't stop writing... and don't for a minute think that any of your experiences to date are useless! They helped shape who you are, and that is very good indeed.

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