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Weather by phone

Many people are familiar with weather reports through a variety of media. We all supplement our day-to-day weather awareness with forecasts from the newspaper and TV news. The Internet has become a very popular way to get sailing weather, as it delivers the right information at the right time. And as always, The Weather Channel and NOAA Weather Radio are big favorites with sailors. But how many people get weather information through the phone? Not many, I would venture. However, this is a fast and easy way to raise your weather awareness while out on the water, simply using any cell phone. While you can frequently get detailed weather data using wireless web browsing, it’s not always available due to limited time, limited hardware, or poor signal strength. The information here applies to the United States, although many other countries have similar systems in place for public weather information.

One way of obtaining current weather information is through the FAA/NWS METAR network. Almost every airport in the United States has an automated weather station now (called either ASOS or AWOS). Every airport that has an automated station also has a voice line to call for automated weather information. In highly populated areas, such as Long Island Sound, there are many airports near the usual sailing areas, so it’s easy to get a good mental picture of the weather conditions over a wide area. You may be able to see things like the sea breeze filling in, or an expected wind change starting to work through the area. There are a few important limitations to note when using the METAR reports. First, the observations are only reported once an hour some time in the ten minutes preceding the top of the hour. Second, airports are infrequently sited directly on the water, so there is typically some difference from the airport observations and conditions on the water. Third, these observations are from automated weather stations that are following reporting algorithms created for aviation, so they may not tell you exactly what you’re accustomed to hearing.

Another method of getting weather information by telephone is through the NOAA National Data Buoy Center Dial-A-Buoy program. This automated information line gives you the current conditions from the network of oceanographic data buoys maintained by NOAA NDBC. It can also provide the current NWS marine forecast for that location. Location is selected by one of two methods: you either need to know the buoy ID, or the approximate latitude and longitude in degrees and minutes. The buoy ID number can be found by clicking on the map on the front page of the NOAA NDBC; there are instructions on the Dial-A-Buoy page to enter buoy IDs with letters. It may be handy to have a small list of local buoys when calling the Dial-A-Buoy line. Otherwise, entering the lat/lon may not give you the buoy you wanted. The major drawback to getting data from the NDBC is the poor spatial resolution. There are not many data buoys out there, so the one closest to you may be some distance away. However, they are frequently located away from land, so you will see less of any land effect than if you check the airports. You also get sea state information from many of the buoys.

A third method of getting information is through the PORTS network. The PORTS network is limited to only 15 areas right now, but these areas also happen to have a lot of sailing activity. Some areas only have a few stations, but most have several. The availability of information varies by PORTS station; the web site details what is reported from each station. In addition to meteorological data, water data is also reported for most stations.

This list is by no means comprehensive. There are many automated information systems available for call-in access. The outlets listed here are a good start, and cover a large area of the United States. While checking out the web links here, click around to see what other weather and oceanographic resources are provided by the US government – maybe you can find something interesting!

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