Mammatus and other cool words


“What are those clouds?”

“Occluded clouds.”

Thus ended my first real weather conversation. I was a new officer on the bridge, and was trying to learn how to “tell weather” from the Navigator, the official expert in all natural phenomena (according to the ship’s SORM, anyhow). It took me a decade and a Masters Degree in Meteorology to realize he had no idea what he was talking about.

But I did learn something. I learned that I should be a weather guy, because they have the coolest words.

They get to say things like “cumulus mammatus”.

Cumulus Mammatus (NOAA photo by George A. Mikulan, Gibsonia PA)

They get to replace normal words with techno-geek terminology. A “storm” becomes a discussion of Saffir-Simpson (for hurricanes), Fujita (for tornadoes), or Beaufort (for wind and seas). No thunderstorm can be observed without mention of the K-Index.

Speaking of index, there are a ton of index terms in weather. They are mainly used to distract the audience when the weather guy isn’t really sure what the forecast is. When backed into a corner, he (or she) will inevitably come up with an index to get out of the jam: the Heat Index, Lifted Index, SWEAT Index (no, really, it is an actual term), Total-Totals Index, Wind Chill Index, and my personal favorite, the Modified Surf Index, or MSI.

The formula for coming up with the Modified Surf Index is so complicated and so hard to explain that it has been reduced to a simple number so that everyone can understand it, kind of. If the number is too high, you can’t do certain things like perform well deck operations or conduct amphibious landings. Entire exercises have hung in the balance as everyone waits to hear the MSI value. It is the ultimate power trip for a forecaster, and because no one understands how it is computed, he is bullet-proof.

Not that being a forecaster is easy. You have to have a tough hide if you go into the business.

But for every negative there are plenty of positives. There are windows in the weather office, for one thing. And once an hour someone gets to go topside and “take an observation,” which is weather terminology for “hang out in the signal shack.” If nothing else, there comes a time in every weatherman’s career when it is appropriate to say, “Back off, man…I’m a scientist.”

So now, when someone asks me, “What are those clouds?”, I don’t panic. I can reach into my bag of scientific terminology and describe what they see, and I can do it in Latin. I can do that.

But usually I just tell them they’re Occluded Clouds.

It sounds better.


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  1. Postscript: John, a Navy veteran, reminded me of the mother of all weather terms: the Skew-T Log-P. Don’t ask me what it does or how it works (trust me), but you have to admit the name sounds pretty cool.

  2. Jeff failed to mention my all-time favorite prediction that meteorolgists at sea had to make every day, i.e. “Contrails at XX,XXX feet” which was always specified in the Ship’s POD in the 60s in Vietnam. I never could find anyone who could explain how they did that contrail forecast until I met Jeff and he gave me an explanation. Funniest part through the years was when I asked civilian meteorologists about it and they would totally ignore me and brush me off because they thought I was one of those consipacy freaks who thought “Black Helicopters” and the like were “dusting” us with some sort of chemicals as a test and they could see the “contrails” when it was happening. I now think they (the civilians) just don’t know and it was easier to write me off as a nut rather than admit their ignorance!
    Anyway, I finally had to go to a fellow Squid (Jeff Bacon) to get the answer about Contrail prediction which is a pretty good thing to know if you could be shot at!

  3. Thanks, Brad, but are you saying they AREN’T dusting us for mind control? NOW you tell me…I’ve been wearing this tin foil hat for a decade or so.

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