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Weather Basics

Most people subconsciously "forecast" the weather. If they look outside and see dark clouds they may decide to take rain gear. If an unexpected wind strikes, people glance to the sky for other bad signs. A conscious effort to follow weather changes will ultimately lead to a more accurate forecast. An analysis of mountain weather and how it is affected by mountain terrain shows that such weather is prone to patterns and is usually severe, but patterns are less obvious in mountainous terrain than in other areas. Conditions greatly change with altitude, latitude, and exposure to atmospheric winds and air masses. Mountain weather can be extremely erratic. It varies from stormy winds to calm, and from extreme cold to warmth within a short time or with a minor shift in locality.

Weather Characteristics

The earth is surrounded by an atmosphere that is divided into several layers. The world’s weather systems are in the lower of these layers known as the "troposphere." This layer reaches as high as 40,000 feet. Weather is a result of an atmosphere, oceans, land masses, unequal heating and cooling from the sun, and the earth’s rotation. The weather found in any one place depends on many things such as the air temperature, humidity (moisture content), air pressure (barometric pressure), how it is being moved, and if it is being lifted or not.

Air pressure is the "weight" of the atmosphere at any given place. The higher the pressure, the better the weather will be. With lower air pressure, the weather will more than likely be worse. In order to understand this, imagine that the air in the atmosphere acts like a liquid. Areas with a high level of this "liquid" exert more pressure on an area and are called high-pressure areas. Areas with a lower level are called low-pressure areas. The average air pressure at sea level is 29.92 inches of mercury (hg) or 1,013 millibars (mb). The higher in altitude, the lower the pressure.

High Pressure - The characteristics of a high-pressure area are as follows:

  • The airflow is clockwise and out.
  • Otherwise known as an "anticyclone".
  • Associated with clear skies.
  • Generally the winds will be mild.
  • Depicted as a blue "H" on weather maps.

Low Pressure - The characteristics of a low-pressure area are as follows:

  • The airflow is counterclockwise and in.
  • Otherwise known as a "cyclone".
  • Associated with bad weather.
  • Depicted as a red "L" on weather maps.

Air from a high-pressure area is basically trying to flow out and equalize its pressure with the surrounding air. Low pressure, on the other hand, is building up vertically by pulling air in from outside itself, which causes atmospheric instability resulting in bad weather.

On a weather map, these differences in pressure are depicted as isobars. Isobars resemble contour lines and are measured in either millibars or inches of mercury. The areas of high pressure are called "ridges" and lows are called "troughs."


In high mountains, the ridges and passes are seldom calm; however, strong winds in protected valleys are rare. Normally, wind speed increases with altitude since the earth’s frictional drag is strongest near the ground. This effect is intensified by mountainous terrain. Winds are accelerated when they converge through mountain passes and canyons. Because of these funneling effects, the wind may blast with great force on an exposed mountainside or summit. Usually, the local wind direction is controlled by topography.

Winds are formed due to the uneven heating of the air by the sun and rotation of the earth. Much of the world’s weather depends on a system of winds that blow in a set direction.

Above hot surfaces, air expands and moves to colder areas where it cools and becomes denser, and sinks to the earth’s surface. The results are a circulation of air from the poles along the surface of the earth to the equator, where it rises and moves to the poles again.

Heating and cooling together with the rotation of the earth causes surface winds. In the Northern Hemisphere, there are three prevailing winds:

  • Polar Easterlies - These are winds from the polar region moving from the east. This is air that has cooled and settled at the poles.
  • Prevailing Westerlies - These winds originate from approximately 30 degrees north latitude from the west. This is an area where prematurely cooled air, due to the earth’s rotation, has settled to the surface.
  • Northeast Tradewinds - These are winds that originate from approximately 30o north from the northeast.

The jet stream is a long meandering current of high-speed winds often exceeding 250 miles per hour near the transition zone between the troposphere and the stratosphere known as the tropopause. These winds blow from a generally westerly direction dipping down and picking up air masses from the tropical regions and going north and bringing down air masses from the polar regions.

The patterns of wind mentioned above move air. This air comes in parcels called "air masses." These air masses can vary from the size of a small town to as large as a country. These air masses are named from where they originate:

  • Maritime - Originate over water.
  • Continental - Originate over land
  • Polar - Originate north of 60° north latitude.
  • Tropical - Originate south of 60° north latitude.

Combining these parcels of air provides the names and description of the four types of air masses:

  • Continental Polar - Cold, dry air mass.
  • Maritime Polar - Cold, wet air mass.
  • Maritime Tropical - Warm, wet air mass.
  • Continental Tropical - Warm, dry air mass.

Two types of winds are peculiar to mountain environments, but do not necessarily affect the weather:

  • Anabatic Wind (Valley Winds) - These winds blow up mountain valleys to replace warm rising air and are usually light winds.
  • Katabatic Wind (Mountain Wind) - These winds blow down mountain valley slopes caused by the cooling of air and are occasionally strong winds.


Humidity is the amount of moisture in the air. All air holds water vapor even if it cannot be seen. Air can hold only so much water vapor; however, the warmer the air, the more moisture it can hold. When air can hold all that it can the air is "saturated" or has 100 percent relative humidity.

If air is cooled beyond its saturation point, the air will release its moisture in one form or another (clouds, fog, dew, rain, snow, and so on). The temperature at which this happens is called the "condensation point". The condensation point varies depending on the amount of water vapor contained in the air and the temperature of the air. If the air contains a great deal of water, condensation can occur at a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit, but if the air is dry and does not hold much moisture, condensation may not form until the temperature drops to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or even below freezing.

The adiabatic lapse rate is the rate at which air cools as it rises or warms as it descends. This rate varies depending on the moisture content of the air. Saturated (moist) air will warm and cool approximately 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet of elevation gained or lost. Dry air will warm and cool approximately 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet of elevation gained or lost.


Clouds are one of the signposts to what is happening with the weather. Clouds can be described in many ways. They can be classified by height or appearance, or even by the amount of area covered vertically or horizontally. Clouds are classified into five categories: low-, mid-, and high-level clouds; vertically-developed clouds; and less common clouds.

Low-Level Clouds

Low-level clouds (0 to 6,500 feet) are either cumulus or stratus. Low-level clouds are mostly composed of water droplets since their bases lie below 6,500 feet. When temperatures are cold enough, these clouds may also contain ice particles and snow.

Low-level clouds may be identified by their height above nearby surrounding relief of known elevation. Most precipitation originates from low-level clouds because rain or snow usually evaporate before reaching the ground from higher clouds. Low-level clouds usually indicate impending precipitation, especially if the cloud is more than 3,000 feet thick. (Clouds that appear dark at their bases are more than 3,000 feet thick.)

The two types of precipitating low-level clouds are nimbostratus and stratocumulus.

Nimbostratus clouds are dark, low-level clouds accompanied by light to moderately falling precipitation. The sun or moon is not visible through nimbostratus clouds, which distinguishes them from mid-level altostratus clouds. Because of the fog and falling precipitation commonly found beneath and around nimbostratus clouds, the cloud base is typically extremely diffuse and difficult to accurately determine.

Nimbostratus clouds

Stratocumulus clouds generally appear as a low, lumpy layer of clouds that is sometimes accompanied by weak precipitation. Stratocumulus vary in color from dark gray to light gray and may appear as rounded masses with breaks of clear sky in between. Because the individual elements of stratocumulus are larger than those of altocumulus, deciphering between the two cloud types is easier. With your arm extended toward the sky, altocumulus elements are about the size of a thumbnail while stratocumulus are about the size of a fist.

Stratocumulus clouds

Mid-Level Clouds

Mid-level clouds (between 6,500 to 20,000 feet) have a prefix of alto. Middle clouds appear less distinct than low clouds because of their height. Alto clouds with sharp edges are warmer because they are composed mainly of water droplets. Cold clouds, composed mainly of ice crystals and usually colder than -30 degrees F, have distinct edges that grade gradually into the surrounding sky. Middle clouds usually indicate fair weather, especially if they are rising over time. Lowering middle clouds indicate potential storms, though usually hours away. There are two types of mid-level clouds, altocumulus and altostratus clouds.

Altocumulus clouds can appear as parallel bands or rounded masses. Typically a portion of an altocumulus cloud is shaded, a characteristic which makes them distinguishable from high-level cirrocumulus. Altocumulus clouds usually form in advance of a cold front. The presence of altocumulus clouds on a warm humid summer morning is commonly followed by thunderstorms later in the day. Altocumulus clouds that are scattered rather than even, in a blue sky, are called "fair weather" cumulus and suggest arrival of high pressure and clear skies.

Altocumulus clouds

Altostratus clouds are often confused with cirrostratus. The one distinguishing feature is that a halo is not observed around the sun or moon. With altostratus, the sun or moon is only vaguely visible and appears as if it were shining through frosted glass.

Altostratus clouds

High-Level Clouds

High-level clouds (more than 20,000 feet above ground level) are usually frozen clouds, indicating air temperatures at that elevation below -30 degrees Fahrenheit, with a fibrous structure and blurred outlines. The sky is often covered with a thin veil of cirrus that partly obscures the sun or, at night, produces a ring of light around the moon. The arrival of cirrus indicates moisture aloft and the approach of a traveling storm system. Precipitation is often 24 to 36 hours away. As the storm approaches, the cirrus thickens and lowers, becoming altostratus and eventually stratus. Temperatures are warm, humidity rises, and winds become southerly or south easterly. The two types of high-level clouds are cirrus and cirrostratus.

Cirrus clouds are the most common of the high-level clouds. Typically found at altitudes greater than 20,000 feet, cirrus are composed of ice crystals that form when super-cooled water droplets freeze. Cirrus clouds generally occur in fair weather and point in the direction of air movement at their elevation. Cirrus can be observed in a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be nearly straight, shaped like a comma, or seemingly all tangled together. Extensive cirrus clouds are associated with an approaching warm front.

Cirrus clouds

Cirrostratus clouds are sheet-like, high-level clouds composed of ice crystals. They are relatively transparent and can cover the entire sky and be up to several thousand feet thick. The sun or moon can be seen through cirrostratus. Sometimes the only indication of cirrostratus clouds is a halo around the sun or moon. Cirrostratus clouds tend to thicken as a warm front approaches, signifying an increased production of ice crystals. As a result, the halo gradually disappears and the sun or moon becomes less visible.

Cirrostratus clouds

Vertical-Development Clouds

Clouds with vertical development can grow to heights in excess of 39,000 feet, releasing incredible amounts of energy. The two types of clouds with vertical development are fair weather cumulus and cumulonimbus.

Fair weather cumulus clouds have the appearance of floating cotton balls and have a lifetime of 5 to 40 minutes. Known for their flat bases and distinct outlines, fair weather cumulus exhibit only slight vertical growth, with the cloud tops designating the limit of the rising air. Given suitable conditions, however, these clouds can later develop into towering cumulonimbus clouds associated with powerful thunderstorms. Fair weather cumulus clouds are fueled by buoyant bubbles of air known as thermals that rise up from the earth’s surface. As the air rises, the water vapor cools and condenses forming water droplets. Young fair weather cumulus clouds have sharply defined edges and bases while the edges of older clouds appear more ragged, an artifact of erosion. Evaporation along the cloud edges cools the surrounding air, making it heavier and producing sinking motion outside the cloud. This downward motion inhibits further convection and growth of additional thermals from down below, which is why fair weather cumulus typically have expanses of clear sky between them. Without a continued supply of rising air, the cloud begins to erode and eventually disappears.

Cumulonimbus clouds are much larger and more vertically developed than fair weather cumulus. They can exist as individual towers or form a line of towers called a squall line. Fueled by vigorous convective updrafts, the tops of cumulonimbus clouds can reach 39,000 feet or higher. Lower levels of cumulonimbus clouds consist mostly of water droplets while at higher elevations, where the temperatures are well below freezing, ice crystals dominate the composition. Under favorable conditions, harmless fair weather cumulus clouds can quickly develop into large cumulonimbus associated with powerful thunderstorms known as super-cells. Super-cells are large thunderstorms with deep rotating updrafts and can have a lifetime of several hours. Super-cells produce frequent lightning, large hail, damaging winds, and tornadoes. These storms tend to develop during the afternoon and early evening when the effects of heating from the sun are the strongest.

Cumulonimbus clouds

Other Cloud Types

These clouds are a collection of miscellaneous types that do not fit into the previous four groups.

Lenticular clouds are cloud caps that often form above pinnacles and peaks, and usually indicate higher winds aloft. Cloud caps with a lens shape, similar to a "flying saucer," indicate extremely high winds (over 40 knots). Lenticulars should always be watched for changes. If they grow and descend, bad weather can be expected.

Cumulonimbus clouds

Contrails are clouds that are made by water vapor being inserted into the upper atmosphere by the exhaust of jet engines. Contrails evaporate rapidly in fair weather. If it takes longer than two hours for contrails to evaporate, then there is impending bad weather (usually about 24 hours prior to a front).


Cloud Interpretation

Serious errors can occur in interpreting the extent of cloud cover, especially when cloud cover must be reported to another location. Cloud cover always appears greater on or near the horizon, especially if the sky is covered with cumulus clouds, since the observer is looking more at the sides of the clouds rather than between them. Cloud cover estimates should be restricted to sky areas more than 40 degrees above the horizon—that is, to the local sky. Assess the sky by dividing the 360 degrees of sky around you into eighths. Record the coverage in eighths and the types of clouds observed.

The Climber's Bible