Not everyone is a weather enthusiast. But ever since I was old enough to start forming memories, I’ve been fascinated – even obsessed – with weather. For my science fair project, I predicted the weather for a week using nothing but homemade materials, like a simple barometer and hygrometer.
I was pretty darn accurate. I thought to myself: if I could figure out if it was going to rain or snow, or that the wind would soon be kicking up, with just some basic tools, couldn’t everybody? In fact, the only reason I’m not a meteorologist is because I hated my college physics class.
Now that I’m an adult, I’m a little more realistic about other people’s interest in weather. Most people don’t have any. But still, I’m often dismayed by how little the people around me know about basic weather facts. While my knowledge of weather has only deepened over the years, it seems to me that most people make no effort to comprehend even the most basic concepts about our climate, the atmosphere and how it all works. As a result, I often find myself “rain-splaining” the simplest stuff.
Sure, not everyone gets what the Greenland Block is, or how the North Atlantic Oscillation might impact the upcoming weekend, but we can all agree that there are some simple concepts that every layperson should know about our weather.
I therefore present the 10 weather facts that (I think) every layperson should know:
1. Hail is not sleet and sleet is not freezing rain.
Whenever it sleets in winter, and someone says “hey, it’s hailing out,” my skin really crawls. And when the sleet pinging on the window is mistaken for freezing rain, I can’t help but feel that our education system has let us all down.
Sleet is a partially melted snowflake that freezes into ice pellets before it hits the ground; freezing rain is rain that freezes when it hits the surface, and hail forms during intense thunderstorms, usually during the warmer months.
2. Weather and climate are not the same thing.
Rule of thumb: when it’s unusually cold for a week where you’re located, that’s weather. When it’s warmer than normal over the entire planet for a period of years, that’s climate. There’s a reason it’s called “climate change” and not “weather change.”
There are sayings/metaphors to help you here:
Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.
Climate is your personality, and weather is your mood.
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3. What causes wind.
To paraphrase Meghan Trainor, it’s all about those pressure gradients, those pressure gradients, those pressure gradients. You see, when high pressure gets too close to low pressure, like two people crammed on a subway train, the air needs to move somewhere, so it goes from high pressure to low pressure.
4. When we say “it’s humid,” we really mean “it’s relatively humid.”
The percentage of humidity in the air doesn’t mean much unless you know what the temperature is. Hot air holds a lot more moisture than cold air, so 50 percent humidity at 90 degrees is a much bigger deal than 50 percent humidity at 40 degrees.
5. It’s never too cold to snow.
Next time you hear someone say “it’s too cold to snow,” ask them: Why is it so white in Antarctica?
6. You can still get sunburn when it’s cloudy.
Believe it or not, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can penetrate cloud cover. OK, so maybe you can apply 20 percent less sunscreen.
7. Forecasting the weather is actually pretty hard.
Blaming the weatherperson for a botched forecast is like blaming an odds maker when your team loses. Predicting weather isn’t an exact science, and when you utter “but it was supposed to rain today,” you’re basically saying “I don’t know what the word ‘prediction’ means.” There’s no “supposed to” in weather. It’s all about probability, and chaos plays a large role in what kind of weather actually occurs.
8. Hurricanes, tropical cyclones and typhoons are all the same thing.
And they’re all different from tornadoes.
9. A snowstorm isn’t a blizzard unless it’s a blizzard.
A heavy snowfall isn’t a blizzard. The National Weather Service defines a “blizzard” as heavy snow with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibility of less than a quarter mile for more than 3 hours. Also, please don’t use “blizzard,” as a verb, as in “it’s blizzarding outside.”
10. There’s no such thing as “heat lightning.”
It can’t be so hot that lightning spontaneously happens, though that would be pretty cool. What you think of as “heat lightning” is really just lightning that’s coming from a thunderstorm far away.
And get the spelling right. It’s not “lightening,” which “involves ladies’ plumbing and pregnancy and things we don’t need to be talking about here,” quipped James Spann, the broadcast meteorologist in Birmingham, Alabama.
In summary, it doesn’t matter if you’re in school or in an old age home, the world would just be better place if more people could correctly talk about the weather.
[Cohen, is an Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director. He is the owner of Wanderlust Entertainment, which develops creative video content.]