As far as sky gazing goes, nobody needs a reason. It’s perfectly legal to stand still and look up into the sky (except perhaps in traffic), doing nothing at all but absorbing the grand beauty of nature in her most accessible view, the infinite view above.
But if somebody asks you why, you can use one of these ready-made reasons:
The Top Ten Reasons for Sky Gazing
19. If you’re not careful you’ll lose all track of time. (A good thing.)
18. It’s a chance to take a deep breath, pause and relax. Heaven requires nothing of you, thank heaven.
17. You get a sense of the vastness of the universe.
16. You can find shapes in the clouds, and then name them. I see a whale! I see a giraffe! I see a funny guy with horn-rimmed glasses on a kangaroo!
15. Unexpected occurrences can sometimes spontaneously appear. Check in often.
14. You can learn to read the clouds and predict the likely course of the oncoming weather.
13. You can spot meteors. The word “meteor” means anything that falls from the sky, including rain, snow and ice. That’s why study of the weather is called “meteorology.”
12. You’ll spot falling pianos before they hit. Which are also meteors.
11. If you enjoy being in nature and watching its changes through day and week and season, watch the sky! You can’t always get to the beach, or walk in the woods, or climb a mountain, but you can always get to the sky at least sometime during the day.
10. Visibility in clear air can be as much as 100 miles straight up. Where else can you see that distance?
9. Looking upward is looking inward, and a chance to breathe and relax into your body.
8. It’s always changing. It’s never the same.
7. It makes you happy to look upward. Social scientists have proven it. I think.
6. You can identify the cloud types you see. Puffy Cumulus, wispy Cirrus, leaden-sky Stratus, rainy Nimbus, tempestuous Cumulonimbus. Learning about the clouds will tell you much about the weather to come.
5. There’s always something new and interesting going on.
4. Visibility at night is, theoretically, infinity. Where else can you see that distance?
3. If you look up at the sky in a crowd, pretty soon everyone else will look up, too. Try it! It works. Start thinking of yourself as a Sky Ambassador.
2. It’s just big, that’s all.
1. And the Number One reason to watch the sky: It feels good!
Feel free to print off your Sky Gazer badge, below, courtesy of Skyboy Photos!
Happy sky gazing!
Learning to read the clouds can be pugnaciously hard. At least it was for me.
I’d look at a complex sky with two or three or even four cloud types at once, and it would be hard to tell which cloud was in front of which, what was larger and what was smaller. I couldn’t visualize the underlying causes of the bewildering shapes and forms that clouds like to take. They were often breathtakingly beautiful, but I longed to know what was making them happen.
The breakthrough came during a canoe trip down the Niangua River in central Missouri. Being late summer, the river was low enough to have numerous riffles, shallow flows ten or twenty feet wide but only a few inches deep. We had to get out of the canoes and drag them to the next deep water — the bane of summer canoeing.
Often the water would be coming from two directions, and the waves would organize themselves into a rectangular pattern of ripples. They would remain completely stationary as the water flowed across the riverbed underneath them.
We stopped for a breather, and as I watched the rippling water cascading over the pebbles. I suddenly realized how similar it was to a familiar pattern of clouds that I had seen in the sky.
It occurred to me that perhaps the same
But I wondered: The waves on the Niangua shallows were on the surface of the water, the boundary between water and air. If clouds are also waves, what “surface” are they forming on? They’re right in the middle of the air! The atmosphere is all just air, from top to bottom, right?
Wrong. As I was to learn, the atmosphere might be air top to bottom, but in between many different layers of air usually exist: warm and wet, cold and dry, dusty, clear, etc . And though you wouldn’t think so, two layers of air with very different characteristics don’t mix together easily, so they tend to remain separate. The “surface” upon which clouds form is the boundary between any two layers of air.
Water has waves, and the sky has waves. The sky is just one big ocean.
Building a Cloud
The easiest way to build a cloud is to send some “juicy” warm and humid air upwards. It doesn’t matter how you do this. Anytime air rises, it cools, because the drop in air pressure lets it expand. The expanding and cooling condenses the water vapor into droplets which can be seen, much like an iced drink on a humid day will “sweat” on the glass. A cloud is born.
In the case of the rhythmic rows of clouds as I had seen, the air is caused to rise between two layers of air flowing at different directions or speeds. The mixing at the boundary can organize itself into a wave, or rows of waves. When the front of a wave rolls downward, the air at the back is forced to flow upward — and that causes it to condense.
After my sudden insight, I began to watch the sky more with the concept of waves in mind. I found that a lot of previously puzzling behaviors and events became more understandable.
The weather is a wave
The concept of waves turns out to apply at nearly all scales.
The familiar weather map that we see with blue cold front lines and red warm fronts, is itself nothing but a wave. This might explain why these maps can bear such a resemblance to ocean waves.
This is a little different because rather than a wave forming between a higher and lower layer of air, it forms between two air masses side by side. Each one of these might be as large as a small continent. In this map, all the air south of the Low is part of a huge mass flowing to the right (east), and the air north of the Low is flowing left (west). The same thing happens here as happened above, with our layers of air. A wave develops as some of the southern air mass begins to flow upward to the north and the northern air wraps back around to the south.
The resulting spiral or vortex is a wave, and represents where most of the weather occurs as the two different air masses mix.
A weather system is just a really big wave between two different air masses. The blue and red lines tell the boundary, where the meeting and mixing is taking place.
So next time you’re outdoors, keep an eye to the sky and see if you can spot the waves, elegant brushstrokes in nature’s way of painting.
Sunset in the Gulf of Mexico paints the sky and sea as one canvas.
Handmade greeting card, blank card or with inscription, from Skyboy Photos.
I’ve been thinking about this concept for a while but never tried to articulate it, so here goes nothing.
It’s the edges of things, not the things themselves, that are that are the most interesting.
If I could draw this idea as a map, maybe it would look like this.
If you’re sitting inside the upper circle on this map, you’re yellow. Everything and everyone around you is also yellow. You never see anything but yellow, and even if you like yellow, you’ll admit it isn’t too interesting by itself.
Likewise if you’re in the lower right circle, it’s nothing but red, red, red, all day long; in the blue circle, well, people are pretty much done with blue, thank you. In these places, nothing happens that’s very different from anything else.
But when you get near the borders between the circles, things begin to get interesting.
Clouds as Boundaries
I first noticed this principle at work when I started watching the sky and the daily drama of the atmosphere. I was awed but puzzled by the strange shapes, textures and movements of clouds and weather. I could not imagine how some of these things came to be.
After studying and photographing these unusual clouds for a few years, though, I began to start thinking of them not so much as things in themselves, so much as the boundaries between two or more other things.
Suddenly the strange and twisted shapes of the clouds started to make sense. They were being formed at the common boundary between two very different masses of air, and their strange shapes were nothing more than the shape of that boundary.
The larger-scale weather of Earth is also a perfect example of this. You could think of weather as what happens when pieces of Un-Weather meet. (A fair-weather high pressure system is in fact called an anti-cyclone!) Huge masses of air flow around the planet, each mass tending to be pretty much the same throughout, whether warm and dry, cold and moist, or any other characteristic. Inside any one air mass, the weather stays the same everywhere. Under a high-pressure dome, Kansas City weather is about the same as St. Louis weather is about the same as Omaha and Des Moines and Wichita. Nothing much different happens. Everything is pretty homogeneous, pretty similar, pretty boring.
The excitement that we call weather comes when these large areas meet and mix at the boundaries. This encounter between the two creates something entirely new, and unlike either of the things that contributed to it.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that my Boring/Interesting map looks a lot like a weather map!
Edges Describe the Center
The intersection between two different things is also where we can learn the most about each, more than we would ever find out by studying either one by itself. Behaviors occur, events take place that could never be predicted by what we know of the contributing parts.
Things show themselves most clearly through their interaction with other things.
In the case of clouds, when properly read, they can describe the shape, extent and character of whatever weather is coming. They show us the boundaries of change.
This principle isn’t limited to the weather, though. I have noticed the same effect in other area of life.
Mixing at the Boundaries
In politics, it might be fine to be a Tory, and if you are around Tories most of time, nothing much interesting will happen. People differ, of course, but in terms of your philosophy you would have more in common with your group than anyone outside. If you are a Whig, same thing applies within the party. All the interesting things happen in Congress, where the boundaries between Whig and Tory are most sharply exposed, most clearly defined, and most interesting. It is also where each group learns the most about the other — as well as things about themselves they could not otherwise learn. (If they’re open-minded, anyway!)
In ecology, boundaries between ecosystems behave the same way. The deep forest is monotonously uniform, its diversification very narrow, as is the the endless prairie. But where forest edge meets prairie edge, interesting things can happen. Plants grow there that are unique to the border habitat and could not thrive within either forest or prairie. This area can grow into an entirely new and different ecosystem of its own.
And perhaps this explains why one of the most interesting parts of any dwelling, architecturally, is the front door… the boundary between home and elsewhere, inside and outside. Memorable meetings, surprise encounters and lingering door-talk define this boundary between public and intimate.
Thoughts along these lines were what inspired my newest Greeting Card, “Borderlands”.
I like the idea of the boundary as a place unto itself, unique, separate and different from any of the lands being bordered but sharing parts of each. Like the skin of our bodies, the boundary is the place where we learn the shape of the world by touching against it, and learn about ourselves as it touches us back.
On the most intimate level, the borderlands are where we live. I like the way they invite us to step across, grow into new territory, and make it part of our selves.
The story goes something like this:
The acolyte, sitting in meditation in front of the master, breaks the long silence with a question:
“What is the sound of the void, Master?”
To which the master replies,
“What is the sound of the void, Master?”
The young monk, perhaps thinking the master is absent-mindedly repeating his question, replies, “I simply wondered what the void sounded like, so that I can recognize it when I encounter it in my meditation.”
Without a word, the Master suddenly reaches out across the room and smacks the pupil soundly on the back of the head.
For some reason this apocryphal Zen Buddhist tale always comes to mind when I think of lightning. Lightning is like mother nature’s painful but ultimately educational smack to the back of the head.
Direct and immediate, it brooks no delays and allows no obfuscations. It happens right NOW! It has your full, undivided attention. You understand in a blink that nature’s power is limitless and her control of things is pretty much complete. It is a manifestation of The Way Things Are that you might as well cooperate with.
But like the master’s blow, by the time it happens it’s too late to prepare for. You realize it’s been busy preparing for you.
Before the lightning ever strikes, the strong electrical charge tunnels a path of ionized air through normal air, seeking for somewhere to land. Once the ionized paths through the air and rain and mud and ground have been established, the charge instantaneously leaps across the bridge. An electric fury hotter than the sun travels through a tube no bigger than your little finger and cracks into the earth below.
Like the Master’s smack to the back of the head, though, lightning brings about an eventual benefit despite its violence. The powerful spark travelling through earth’s atmosphere is strong enough to fuse atoms into molecules, forming nitrogen from the air into minerals and compounds that can fall out of the air. These minerals are what plants use as fertilizer: nitrates. Without lightning in the atmosphere millions of years ago, plants would would never have begun growing on our young planet. And without plants, there’d have been no animals, and there would be no us.
Thousands of lightning strikes are happening all over the earth just now, every second, enough that even today, with plants able to make their own nitrates, lightning still contributes about as much nitrogen to the soil as does all the vegetation on earth.
“Lightning’s still the biggest thrill of all…” says Merle Haggard.
Lightning bugs. Lightning Hopkins. Greased Lightning.
Lightning might scare us, but there’s no denying that it electrifies our spirit. We enjoy the sheer adrenalin rush of a good storm…especially when we’re safe and protected from it.
One of the things I enjoy is taking photos of lightning, because few things leave such a feeling of intense excitement as nature’s own celebratory fireworks.
To photograph lightning, you will use a lot of film, so it’s a good idea to keep several rolls on hand. Then let me give you a few tips on how to….
Wait, I forgot, it’s 2014, nobody uses film these days! Well, I can say this: no one is happier than the lightning photographers of the world. The techniques are pretty much the same, just cheaper….
But before I say anything about that in this blog, stop reading and go google everything about lightning safety that I won’t have time to cover here — and my internet liability insurance isn’t up to date, anyway. Take your photos from indoors!
That said, once you’ve found a vantage point, set up the camera on a tripod, and use a remote shutter release to shoot the pictures. Set the lens to a wide a field of vision. Focus the camera, which in darkness may mean learning to set your lens barrel on infinity focus by hand and disabling the autofocus.
Now, set the camera to manual function. Set the aperture to a small opening (f22 or higher), set the time to two or three seconds, and set the sensitivity to very low (i.e., ISO 100). Set the camera drive to take continuous shooting (pictures one right after another) rather than single-shot. Then take a test picture.
The resulting image ought to clearly show clouds, but only dimly. If it’s too bright or dark, adjust the time exposure until the background is dimly visible. If your test pictures looks good, shoot a few more pictures to make sure you are catching the correct part of the sky. Then once you’re sure the tripod is stable, lock down the shutter release to take continuous photos.
Go get a cup of coffee.
Don’t take too long, though. Come back to make sure the camera is still pointed in the direction of the lightning, as the storm is likely moving. Stop every so often to view the camera display and make sure images are being recorded, then keep shooting. Don’t waste time viewing pictures to see if you caught lightning, you’ll have all the next day to do that!
Here is our newest Greeting Card in the Skyboy Photos catalog, “Ancient Spark”
Struck by Fire
I was in the garden, I remember, pulling weeds and looking for aphids, when I happened to look up from my work to see this — apparition — hanging over the treetops like an impromptu party decoration, curly clouds lit up in a vibrant crimson. I’d never seen a cloud like this, seemingly on fire in the bright sunset, and I ran inside the house to grab my camera.
I’d been bitten.
I’m celebrating Skyboy Photos’ Anniversary this August 23, twenty-five years after that first photograph, and after becoming hooked on the magical and unpredictable beauty of the sky, the two hundred miles of atmosphere that we live beneath, and the weather that it produces.
In the ensuing years I’ve seen many wondrous sights and glorious vistas that I certainly would have missed if I hadn’t started paying attention. And I don’t even have to travel! I’ve found that if you just stay put and pay attention, eventually something interesting, beautiful, strange, or all three, will happen overhead.
That first photo was taken with what was called, in the olden days, film. We’ve had digital cameras for so long now, that I almost don’t remember what it was like having to take a picture and then wait three days to see if it came out. And not being able to do much about it, if it didn’t. I also remember spending money, lots of money.
Lens Kwik Photo of Kansas City did all of my processing work. As I walked in the door with yet another three rolls of 36-exposure film, all used up on skies, skies, skies, Jean the owner looked up from her photo printing machine and said dryly, “Well, hello there, Sky Boy!”
The name has stuck.
Blue Skies and Black
My love affair with the sky actually goes back even further than that. Somewhat more than twenty-five years ago, when I was a lad of about eight years, I remember lying on my back on the brick patio outside our house. I was going for an Astronomy merit badge in Boy Scouts, and one of the assignments placed me there on the ground, looking up at the nighttime sky, I don’t remember exactly why.
I could see the Milky Way, and planets, and millions and billions upon zillions of stars, twinkling confetti floating in the nighttime sky . Lying there on the bricks, seeing nothing but the sky in my view, I had a sudden exhilarating sensation of near-vertigo, as if I were lying on a mere six-foot pebble of rock, an asteroid floating and spinning through space, travelling dizzyingly past all those stars and worlds and nebulae and galaxies that I could see from our suburban Pittsburgh home.
I got a telescope soon after, and begin to watch the night sky with it. Then I grew up, and other things happened, and some long time later, I was reminded by a friend about my boyhood fascination. I thought it might be fun to get a telescope again and try watching the night sky. My deep-sky photography has been one of the outcomes of this renewed interest, and it feels like this completes some kind of circle, I don’t know what. Perhaps in the way that I see that nature presenting herself to us in her infinite different ways, beautiful in every manifestation, and more interesting and gratifying the more you look, in every realm and scale.
You can visit my website at Skyboy Photos to see photographs, film and digital, of some of the memorable moments I have witnessed over the last twenty-five years. available as handmade Greeting Cards and Photographic Prints.
But more importantly, I hope you remember the next time you may happen to go outdoors, or if you are already outdoors, and focused (as indeed you should be) on the task at hand and the next thing you need to be doing in your day, or whomever you’re talking with or whatever you may be reading — well, I hope you happen, like I did, to glance up for just a moment. And when you do, I hope you are surprised by the unexpected, and delighted by the sheer wonder of the sky.
Weather rules us
By night we glimpse neighbors
The sky is our window and our
— David Bayard
What if you wanted to know what the weather was going to be like in the near future, but didn’t have a cell phone? Or the internet? Or a television or a radio or newspaper?
I’ll show you how to turn yourself into a working portable weather station! Your body is equipped to gather all the data to make your own weather forecast.
You’ll need to know five pieces of information: Temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind direction, and wind speed.
- Temperature: Activate you on-board your temperature sensor. Using your skin, and standing out of the sun, you can come pretty close to guessing the temperature of the air. Practice makes perfect, so check how warm or cool you feel against the actual air temperature and learn to calibrate your sensors. After a while you can tell the difference between 80 degrees and 85 degrees, say, and that’s close enough for our purposes.
- Humidity: You can use the same outer organ to judge the humidity, too. Your body cools itself by evaporation of sweat through the skin. When humidity is low, this works great, but as the air gets wetter, the sweat won’t evaporate and you feel that “sticky” feeling. How humid you feel is also tied in with how warm you feel, since humid air tricks your body into feeling warmer than it is. Again, you can learn to judge pretty closely by checking your senses against the actual humidity.
- Air Pressure: Sorry, you body has very poor pressure sensors. Air pressure changes too slowly for our bodies to notice. But if you know that high pressure makes clouds dissipate and low pressure encourages them to form, you can estimate the pressure using your visual sensors (peepers) and looking to see if it’s clear or cloudy. Clear skies equal high pressure, cloudy is low, and partly cloudy is somewhere in between. That’s close enough for our purposes. What’s important about air pressure is not so much where it is right now, but how it is changing: falling, rising, or staying the same. We’ll figure that out using the wind direction.
- Wind Direction: The wind direction might be the most important piece of info. It tells you where the weather is coming from and whether high or low pressure is approaching. You can feel the wind on your skin, and probably sense the direction it’s coming from, but if the wind is too calm to tell, moisten a finger and hold it up to the air. The side facing the wind will feel cooler. By the way, wind direction always refers to the direction FROM which the wind is blowing, i.e., a north wind blows from north to south.
- Wind Speed: This one’s easy. You can generally feel how strong the wind is on your skin, hear the wind in the trees, see flags and banners blowing. Again, it’s enough to know the general strength of the wind, and you can learn to predict this pretty closely. One note: The air layer from the ground up to about 200 feet travels more slowly than the air above, as it is slowed down by friction as it flows past forests and buildings and landscape features.
Okay, so now we know, perhaps, that it’s about eighty degrees, with high humidity, low pressure and a strong south wind. How do we do our forecast?
This sketch shows how high pressure “bubbles” of air the size of continents go marching their way across the landscape. In the northern hemisphere they all flow from west to east, and in addition they spin with relation to the ground. That’s because the ground is essentially turning its way out from under the air as the earth rotates. The wind never catches up, so as the heavy high pressure air falls downward and outward from the High, it also spins, flowing clockwise around the High (counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere).
In between the mountains of high pressure, valleys of low pressure form. The air is rising, not falling, in the low pressure areas, as the air rotates in toward the center, spinning counterclockwise.
That’s the basic picture of weather in the mid-latitudes, with these Highs and Lows continually flowing west to east all the time. (The tropics are another story.) Highs bring clear skies and fair weather, and Lows can bring clouds, storms and cyclones. By figuring out where the Highs and Lows are right now, we can guess what’s coming our way in the next hours and days.
So, once you’ve found the wind direction, stand with your back to the wind. Turn about 45 degrees to your right, and you will have your back to the wind high overhead, which flows in a different direction than wind near the ground (remember, it moves slower, so it also spins less).
You’re now facing “downstream” of the wind at high altitude. Raise your arms, and your right arm will be now be pointing to the High pressure system. Your left arm points to the Low pressure.
Now you can place yourself on the weather map. What’s to the west? Since Highs and Lows move generally from west to east, whatever it is to your west will be coming in your direction.
The anatomy of weather systems is more complex than I can cover here, but a good way to familiarize yourself with them is by watching Weather Channel and other published weather maps, then comparing your local weather experience with your position on the weather pressure map.
The familiar red and blue lines of fronts, the highs and lows, the way that storms form and move across the land, will start to make sense after a while.
But in our case, what we know is that a low pressure system is drifting towards us to our north. The winds are high, so there’s a big difference between High and Low pressure to push the wind. The means the low might be very low. Since the air’s coming from the south, that means warmer temperatures are coming, but bad weather might be coming too. The humidity is high, so there’s plenty of moisture to make storms. I think it might be a day to stay indoors.
Maybe I’ll put on the Weather Channel !
Clouds are great fun to watch.
Sitting under a tree, high on a hill, you gaze up to the sky for a few moments and you daydream. The rest of your life falls away as you watch the clouds slowly, imperceptibly roll across the heavens . Then you sigh again, take a sip of lemonade, and pick up your book to read for a while.
When you look up again, barely ten minutes later, the sky is totally different. Some clouds are gone and new ones have taken their place. A whole new cloud deck is rolling in. How did the sky manage that sleight-of-hand? You look again and watch, and yes, just as before, the clouds are barely moving. Almost motionless. How did they do that so fast?
But when you play the sky’s endless movie at fast-forward, a whole different story emerges!
The cumulus clouds which had seemed to be simply floating by like cotton balls are seen to be forming and dissolving at the same time, continually flowing through forms, coming and going in random disorder, appearing and disappearing throughout their short lives.
And you can see how the clouds pull themselves up by their own bootstraps: once an area of cloud starts condensing, the condensing moisture releases heat, which warms the air. The air rises. That pulls in more moist air to replace it. That air condenses, warms, rises, pulls in more moisture…the cloud feeds on its own growth in a positive feedback loop, like a microphone held too close to a speaker.
Clouds is Water
There is a classification system for clouds, but it’s only moderately helpful in deciphering cloud mysteries. There are too many types of clouds. There are clouds that fit in more than one category, or fit in between categories. Some defy categorization.
But what all clouds have in common is water. Think of what your cool lemonade glass did once the waiter laid it on your table. The outside of the glass condenses water just like cold air condenses water out of warm, moist air. Then it’s just a matter of how many infinite ways warm moist air can be introduced to colder air, and in what shapes and fashions and situations.
To Make a Cloud
Of all the planets, only Earth (that we know of) has abundant water in all three of its possible phases: solid ice, liquid water, and gas vapor. Mars is too cold, Venus is too hot, but on our world, temperatures are just right. And the sun’s heat makes sure water is changing from one phase to another all the time.
Vapor in the air condenses into droplets that float and we call it a cloud. Droplets bump together and collect to form bigger droplets that sink to earth. We call it anything from a gentle filmy mist to a thundering downpour. Droplets freeze and fall as snow, sleet or hail.
Or vapor directly freezes to frost or rime ice on everything it touches. Or it falls as liquid rain and freezes instantly when it lands, pulling down mighty oaks by sheer weight.
Finally, water which has collected in lakes, oceans, soil, and living things (like us), evaporates back into gas, and we have sweltering humidity, dew and fog, and clouds. Moisture has come full circle, and is reunited with the deep blue sky.
Some of the most dramatic and fascinating displays of weather in the sky are the result of water changing from one phase to another. Nature seems to delight in creating different ways for things to mix and interact. Even a single type of event, like a snowflake or a cloud, is never repeated in exactly the same way twice.
Boundaries, borders and edges
The most interesting things in the sky occur at the boundaries between other things. The point of contact between two continent-sized air masses is where weather occurs. The boundary between earth and sky is the scene for fog, frost and dew, when we get to literally live in the clouds for a while. The boundaries between cold air, warm air, wet air, dry air, dirty, clean, moving or still, high or low, neutral or electrically charged air — all these boundaries produce their own special spectacles.
The border between day and night produces spectacular displays only possible with the low, red light from the sun on the horizon. The low light of dawn and twilight also punches up the contrast of clouds, outlines and defines their shapes more sharply than during the day. Sometimes two, three, four or even more cloud decks are all doing different things at the same time.
But the best way to learn about clouds is to live with them. Watch them. Go back up on the hill and spend some time watching. It’s really great fun!