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Symbols & Maps Used to Analyze Weather

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

In this lesson, you'll find out why we analyze the weather and learn the symbols we use to represent every possible weather condition. We'll talk about the station model, surface weather maps, and other air charts. See how well you work with symbols by taking a quiz.

Analyzing Weather

Knowing the weather is pretty important. While it can be useful for trivial things, like figuring out what to wear when you go to the park, it can also be the difference between life and death. People who study the weather are called meteorologists, and not only do they tell you whether it will be sunny, cloudy, rainy, hot or cold, they also give weather warnings. They warn us about hurricanes, flash floods and when you're likely to get snowed in. These warnings help us stay safe.

But weather is also complicated, and predicting it can be hard. There are so many factors that go into forecasting the weather and so many things that meteorologists measure. These include temperature, visibility, precipitation, wind speed and direction, and more complex things like due points, pressure, and humidity. That's a lot of information to take in. Sometimes things that are hard to understand become easier when we draw a diagram. And meteorologists are no different: they use diagrams to analyze the weather. In this lesson we're going to talk about the main symbols (or pictures) that meteorologists use.

The Station Model

The main way meteorologists draw diagrams of the weather is by using something called the station model. The station model is a symbolic drawing showing the current weather at a particular location. It's called the station model because it shows the weather measured at a particular weather station, or an area where the weather is measured. It lets meteorologists see a lot of information in a very small space. The symbols and numbers found there are the same across the world and have hardly changed in 75 years.

Example of a station model weather map
Station Model Weather Map Example

Each station on the station model contains a central picture that represents the wind speed and direction, a circle or dart to represent cloud cover, a symbol to the left of that to represent the current weather, a symbol above to represent the type of clouds, and then various numbers in particular positions around it including temperature and air pressure. Sometimes not all the numbers will be shown, but the position of each number tells you what it means. (Later on, we'll look at a close-up of one of these stations with all of its various signs and symbols in more detail.)

A simple example of a station model symbol - they can get much more complicated than this
A Simple Example of a Station Model Symbol

These maps can be drawn to represent the conditions on the ground, in which case it's called a surface map. They can also be drawn to represents the weather higher up in the atmosphere, in which case it's called an upper air chart or map. But either way the same basic symbols are used.

Next, let's go through each of the main parts of the station model.

Wind Speed and Cloud Cover Symbols

In the center of the station model is a symbol or picture that represents two things: the cloud cover, and the wind speed. The central circle represents the cloud cover. A black circle means the sky is completely overcast and cloudy, and a white or empty circle means that the sky is completely clear of clouds. The amount of black shown in the circle tells you the fraction of the sky that is covered. It's like cutting up a pie to represent one half, or one quarter.

Connected to the dot in the center is a line with various other lines and symbols coming off it. The direction that the line points tells you the direction the wind is coming from. Just like on any map, north is up, south is down, west is left, and east is right. So for example, if the line is pointing down on the map, that means that the wind is coming from the south - or in other words the wind is blowing north. The line will also have various other lines and triangles connected to one side of it. A triangle represents 50 knots of wind speed, a longer line represents 10 knots of wind speed, and a shorter line represents 5 knots of wind speed. So for example if there is one triangle, two long lines, and one short line, that's a wind speed of 50 + 10 + 10 + 5 which equals 75 knots.

Wind Direction Symbols
Wind Direction Symbols

So from that single picture in the center, you can tell the cloud cover and wind speed and direction at a glance.

Weather Symbols

To the left of the central symbol you often find another symbol. This represents the current weather conditions. This could be anything from light to heavy rain, light to heavy snow, thunder, fog, or hail. There are lots of possible symbols, but the main ones are dots to represent rain (more dots is heavy rain), and stars to represent snow (more stars means heavier snow), and our shaped zigzag symbol to represent thunder. A full list of common symbols can be seen below:

Weather Symbols
Weather Symbols

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