Gift Guide for a Weather Geek
By Heidi Sonen & Roscoe Shaw
Only about 0.005 % of people get a college degree in meteorology like Heidi and I did. But I would estimate that a good 5% to 10% of people you meet are serious weather enthusiasts. These people tend to be rather nerdy (like us) and there is a good chance at least one is on your Christmas list. So, we have put together a quick list of possible gifts that you can give that special nerd this season.
Just for clarification, Heidi and I used to think that meteorologists were the biggest nerds in the world. But over time, we have come to realize that we only rank third behind Ham Radio Operators and Civil War Reenactors. Also, not all weather enthusiasts are nerds and geeks. Your perfectly normal grandmother may love to check her rain gauge every day.
The potential gift list is huge. We will break it into six categories: thermometers, rain gauges, comprehensive weather stations, online data subscriptions, books and toys. The first question you need to ask yourself is “electronic or manual?” Modern fancy wireless electronic devices can be wonderful. But when it takes forever to assemble and it won’t work and you troubleshoot it for hours and then the battery dies and then the Bluetooth quits talking, you may think otherwise. The cursedness of these things can be extraordinary. So, instead of a sophisticated electronic instrument that synchs in real time with the web, maybe a huge, easy to read, decorative instrument is a better choice for grandpa or your mom.
Amazon or other online retailers have a great variety of choices. Also, assorted retailers have ones you can see, feel and touch right in the store. Crozet Hardware has a selection right in town and so do farm and garden stores like Southern States.
Thermometers range from large, easy to read manual devices to remote wireless sensors that can monitor your pool, the basement and various places in the yard. A $20 wireless device can be properly located outside and display indoors. This is very convenient but they often have wireless range or battery issues. Most claim a 100 foot range but I wouldn’t count on it. Lithium batteries do better in the cold.
Regardless of the type of thermometer, you need to have it properly located to get a true reading. The key thing to remember is that you are trying to get the temperature of the air. It is very easy to end up measuring the temperature of the window or the tree it’s nailed to, or the temperature of the thermometer itself as it bakes in the sun.
The ideal location is six feet off the ground, always shaded and with decent air circulation and away from any obvious heat source like the house. The wireless technology makes it easier to find a good spot for the sensor compared to manual thermometers.
Many thermometers are designed to attach to windows. They do surprisingly well but will be corrupted by the temperature of the house.
Galileo thermometers are another nice option. They date back to 1666 and are beautiful and decorative but for indoors only. Ironically, Galileo did not invent this device but it was named in his honor. It works with balls of various densities floating in a glass tube. I love the simplicity, elegance and beauty. If all the balls sink to the bottom, the house is too hot. If they all float to the top, it’s too cold. If some are at the top and some at the bottom, then it is just right.
Rain is actually much easier to measure than temperature. You just catch it and measure it. Old fashioned, manual gauges work the best. Most have a magnifying funnel that makes it easier to read accurately. Basic plastic ones can be found under $10 and an excellent one runs about $50. A professional rain gauge costs much more and has a heater to melt snow as it falls.
Electronic rain gauges have been slow to evolve but now AcuRite makes an inexpensive wireless device that works pretty well and can remember the last 10 days. It works with a tipping bucket. Every time 0.01 inch of rain falls, the weight in the bucket causes it to tip which sends an electronic signal to the base unit.
The advantage of electronic over manual is that you can watch downpours in real time from inside the house plus you get a 10 day memory and don’t ever have to empty it. The disadvantage is the same as with the thermometers… wireless connectivity and battery issues. Also, I trust the manual ones more.
Comprehensive Weather Stations
You don’t need to have separate instruments. There are now many weather stations that have a myriad of instruments all on a single platform. Generally, they gather data and transmit it to your computer and put the data on the web in real time. Many people link their machines to the Weather Underground’s network of weather stations.
Dyacon will sell you the ultimate complete weather station with solar power and solar intensity readings, soil temp, and it can measure rain to an accuracy of 1/1000th of an inch. This costs just $5100. Davis Weather Instruments has been a leader in the field and they sell a nice system for about $600. Some low cost weather stations run less than $200.
These weather stations are amazing but they certainly aren’t for everyone. They require considerable installation effort and maintenance is ongoing. Heidi bought one in 1990s. Eventually, it died. We have decided it is too much work so we haven’t replaced it.
One thing these weather stations do is measure wind but, unfortunately, not very accurately. Most people don’t have an open, unobstructed place to locate an anemometer. Also, only expensive anemometers will measure the maximum gust accurately. We have a great spot for a measuring wind at our farm but the anemometers we have tried are woefully lacking at measuring max gust.
There are thousands of books about weather. I recommend avoiding climate change books at Christmas unless you want to start a family fight. There are books on weather history, basic science or even mystery novels. The Old Farmers Almanac is always popular, just don’t believe the forecasts.
Toy stores often sell weather kits and gizmos for kids of various ages. Heidi’s favorite is a “Tornado in a Bottle”. You just shake it and a tornado develops inside the glass. Way cool.
Some weather sites sell subscriptions for premium services. Most don’t interest me. But American Weather (americanwx.com) has a lot to offer a weather junkie. First, they have all the raw weather models from NOAA or the European Center. This is fascinating for the storm nut with a technical interest. Secondly, they have forums where you meet plenty of other weather crazies. This is great fun when a snow storm is hitting and somebody from Lake Monticello says “It’s sticking on my car!” and posts a picture. An hour later he cries when it turns to rain. The other benefit is that there are dozens of professional meteorologists online who can and will explain things. A subscription is reasonable, at about $6 a month
November was warm and mostly nice. We did have a couple of funks where dreary rain settled it but the average high temperature was 62. That’s a full five degrees above normal and we hit 80 on November 6. A series of hard freezes hit the week before Thanksgiving and that ended any chance for keeping the plants and flowers going.