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Finally, the season is upon us where we get the really cool storms! And by ‘cool’ I mean ‘deadly’. Tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, oh freaking my! Okay, I’m not really sure when tsunami season is, but I’ve been through a few tornadoes and hurricanes. And I LOVE THEM! When no one gets hurt of course. That part is rather depressing and can make you all melancholy and prosaic about how Mother Nature both creates and destroys.
I don’t want to be gloomy like that and I choose to focus on the “WOOHOO! Grab the beer and put the kids in the cellar, there’s a tornado comin’ Ma!” aspect of amateur storm watching. To do that, I will employ high tech storm tracking software in true High-Tech Redneck™ fashion – it must be free. There is one caveat (that’s ‘warning’ for my redneck brethren and sistren) – there haven’t been any really good storms this season, so I haven’t been able to test this out as much as I’d like.
Of course, this is free storm tracking software, and they also provide versions for just about every platform – PC, iPad/iPhone, Android, and even Windows Phone 7. So you can have it on the big screen when you’re at work, or at home wishing you had a job. You can have it on your phone for your drive home from work, or to the unemployment office. No sense job huntin’ if there’s beer clouds in the air.
Being a lot more serious, this application has some very advanced features that are part of the free package. You can download historical storm data, such as I’ve done below for Sandy. There are many overlays that you can apply as well, such as the Geostationary Satellite’s (GOES) Infrared and Visible Spectrum images. The amount of detail available is really impressive.
You can also ‘play’ the data as an animation and see the storm develop and track to its final destination. The data provided comes from the NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, so that’s about as reliable as one can get.
In the Satellite Images tab, you can also view the most recent, as well as historical, images of GOES IR, Visible (Vis) and Water Vapor, for either a specific region or for a more global perspective known as ‘disk’. This means the part of the planet that would be visible to you if you picked a point on a globe and just looked at it from one side. The Interactive Radar Map option shows you a Bing-generated satellite view with the different radar stations highlighted as little round icons. Mouse over the icon and you get an overlay of what the radar station is picking up right now. Seriously, how cool is that?
Other tabs such as Recon Flight Plan, Tropical Weather Outlook, Tropical Weather Discussion, Summary, Forecast Advisory, Storm Discussions and Public Advisories give you text-based fresh-off-the-wire information for the region that you’ve chosen, either Atlantic or Eastern Pacific.
The software was definitely designed with helping the average Joe and Bobby-Jo out as well. There are three tools that are available in this application that can help you to prepare for the coming storm. Under Preparedness > Check List is a tool to help you track what items you have on hand to help you in an emergency storm situation. I don’t know why they have books on there and not beer, but I guess they have to think of the kids too. Of course, the list can be edited, so maybe I’ll have to add my Alexander Keith’s IPA on there and Appleton’s Rum for the wife. We’re fancy rednecks.
The Hurricane FAQ’s go over a bit of the technical details of different types of storms and what you might expect from any of them. You could probably get this information from Wikipedia, but if your Internet is out, then you have something to read. Again, for the kids. If your Internet isn’t down yet, you can e-mail a copy of the current storm map to all of your friends and family.
But wait! There’s more! There is also a desktop gadget that you can install as well. It will act sort of like a ticker to give you the most recent storm activity for the region that you have chosen.
The Android App
As one might expect in the Android App version of the software, it’s really scaled down. However, once you’ve used the desktop application, the Android application becomes very familiar. Nonetheless, you can get all the information you need right here as well.
In the image below, from left to right, you’ll see the Home screen. Right now, there are no storms to track and it states that clearly. Using the pinch and stretch maneuver you can zoom in and out of the map. Second to left, you can see a satellite image of the weather for a specific weather station. The number of stations available is limited on the Android, however the radar covers a pretty broad area.
Third from the left, you can read all the latest wire talk from weather traffic stations. This is where you’re likely to see information about a storm before anyone else. In the final screen, you can sign up for e-mail alerts.
Now, about the e-mail alerts on the phone…when I signed up, nothing came up telling me I had to be registered or anything like that. Unfortunately, there is no storm activity right now, so I don’t know if I’m going to get the alerts or not.
What’s The Downside?
Well, if you want the Email and Phone Alerts you need to register the software for about $15 a year. Cheap insurance in a way, especially if you live an an area prone to mayhem, which seems to be the only places I ever live. Also, the information is very much US-centric. Living in Canada fairly close to the border, the software still works for me, but not so much for our friends on the rest of the planet.
The other downside is perhaps that there is SO much information! If you want to extract all of the meaning you can from this software, you’ll need to be Googling a few terms and maybe visiting a few weather-related forums.
What Are My Other Options?
For free, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of storm tracking software out there. At least not like this. Now, I haven’t seen every website on the planet or downloaded and tested every piece of supposedly-free storm tracking software. Note I said supposedly-free. I did download some other storm tracking software that claimed to be free. In reality it was only free for download, which gets me right mad. Sure, download it for free, but if you want it to be usable at all it’s going to cost you $40.
One of them is StormPredator, which looks gimmicky, even more so than the very poor website design. Another is WeatherDefender, which appears to be a pretty full featured package with a decent interface, however I can’t even find out how much it costs without downloading the evaluation version.
Traditional Storm Tracking Methods
Some of these methods are newer traditions, like Twitter and Google, however the mainstream media and local, regional and federal government agencies are still some of the best sources for storm news. Search out your country’s national weather service and there’s a good chance they have some sort of program to get news from them. If not, your local news station very well might. Failing all those, look to Twitter and Google’s impressive storm tracking capabilities.
Twitter is breaking more news stories than Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, and Bill Clinton on a tag-team bender these days. Having TweetDeck set up to track storm tweets on your smartphone can help you be in the know before anyone else. After all, Tweeters will tweet about darn near anything – why not the weather?
Keepers of the world’s data, Google has the Google Crisis Map, which is pretty good at letting you know what’s going on with flooding, rainfall, air quality and other crises. One of the best features of it is that it shows where Red Cross stations are set up. This particular screenshot shows that there is heavy flooding in the area in red.
If you’re looking more specifically for your mobile devices, and that makes good horse sense, we’ve published several articles about several applications for all platforms that ought to help you find what you’re looking for.
If you happen to be Apple kind of folk, Tim has you covered with The 7 Best Storm Tracking Apps. Tim’s been kind enough to point you to some first aid and other emergency apps too.
The Take Away
With all the free methods to track storms, you might not get to be warned before everyone else, but you may get better quality information than everyone else. That can be the deciding factor between whether you hit the storm cellar or start filling sandbags. The best thing to do is to develop a sense of situational awareness and learn what nature can tell you about the weather. Remember, we had the Weather Channel when we were kids. It was called a window.
If you’ve used any of these free storm tracking software, I would really love to read your opinions or get tips on how to better use them, I’m sure the other MUO’ers out there would like to know as well. If you know of a great piece of software, by all means pop it in the comments! Remember, we’re all in this together.
Image Credit: Hurricane Igor by NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Flickr.