...about the Weather James May's Things You Need to Know


...about the Weather

James May asks the big questions about the weather, like why is the sky blue? What is a cloud? And how can you avoid being hit by lightning?


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Here is the forecast for the next 30 minutes. It will be an

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unpredictable start, giving way to clear blue skies. Later it there

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will be wind with rain and the occasional flash of lightning.

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There is also the distinct possibility of a hurricane so

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please stay tuned for further updates. And if you do decide to

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head out, here is the important things you need to know about the

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weather. First up, why it is the weather so

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unpredictable? We have probably all been victims of bad weather

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forecasts at some point. Believe it or not, you need a degree to be a

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meteorologist. In their defence, the planet's weather is in chaos.

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It is what scientists call a chaotic dynamics system. Dynamic

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because it changes all the time, and chaotic because it doesn't

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follow any set pattern. That is because the Alf has massive

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mountains, huge oceans and a thick atmosphere -- the earth. It is

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being constantly bombarded by heat from the Sun. This combination of

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limitless energy and lopsided landscapes provide -- produces

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large and violent weather systems, and they bump into each other as

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they stomp around the planet. This complexity makes the weather in the

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earth the least predictable in the phone system, but it has not

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stopped us from trying. In olden times, we relied on guesswork and

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folklore, like interpreting animal behaviour. Or entrails. But the

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only vaguely accurate method was observation. During the Renaissance,

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we invented machines like a barometer, which measures

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variations in air pressure. This helped us with short-term weather

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changes. Then Samuel Morse patented the electromagnetic Telegraph,

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which meant we could find out what the weather was like elsewhere, but

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that was still no guarantee that this weather was on its way to us.

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We were still stuck in observation mode. A major breakthrough came in

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1922, when a scientist, Lewis Richardson, developed a

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mathematical model for forecasting future weather, using information

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gained from observations of conditions around the world. This

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was great, except it would have needed 64,000 people working flat

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out to keep the forecast up-to-date. Luckily, we then invented computers

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that did the math for us and the idea took off. But even with all

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today's modern forecasting technology, meteorologists still

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struggle to stay on top of the chaos of the world's weather, which

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is why they can still be wrong about tomorrow. So now you know why

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forecasters make bad predictions. Not that we should best as they

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really give them a break about it. It does seem that all you need to

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do is press this button and the weather changes, and all anybody

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wants his sunny days and clear skies. Except they are not really

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clear. They are blue. Why is the sky-blue? This would be a strong

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contender for signs's dirtiest trick question because really, it

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isn't blue. It isn't any colour at all. It all comes down to how the

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human brain interprets visible electromagnetic radiation. Also

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known as sunlight. Although sunlight appears as white, it is

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actually a mixture of all the magical colours of the rainbow.

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Isaac Newton demonstrated this when he used a prism to separate them

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out, a nifty little party trick known as refraction. These colours

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form the visible range of what is called the electromagnetic spectrum.

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It includes super hero powers, like the Marais and X-rays, and the less

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sexy microwaves and radio waves. Like waves on the spectrum of so

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small they are measured in nanometres, and each colour have

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its own individual wave length and frequency. But in space, they

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combine to produce white lights and they all travel at the same speed.

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The speed of light. The action doesn't really begin until the

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light reaches the Earth and crashes headlong into the oxygen and

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nitrogen molecules that make up 99% of our atmosphere. It is then that

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the colours started separate, with some getting knocked about more

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than others. An effect known as Rayleigh scattering. The shorter

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the colour's wavelength, the more it gets bounced around and the blue

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light is that the shorter end of the spectrum. This means that when

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it hits the atmosphere, the air molecules scatter the blue light

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everywhere, while other colours pass straight through with barely a

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scratch. So the colour blue appears to be coming from all over the sky

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as it makes its way to your eyes. But here is why it is a trick

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question. This guy isn't really blue, we just think it is. -- the

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sky isn't really blue. The are his only pick up the wavelength and

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send that signal to be a brain. The brain and then decides what colour

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that wavelength should be, while painting a picture in real time. It

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is the original blue-sky thinking. This guy isn't the only vast

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expanse that appears to us to be blue -- the sky. The oceans do for

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the same reasons. They scatter at the Blue Light while absorbing the

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other colours and that is probably why the Earth is referred to as the

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Blue Planet. There are 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of water out there

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and that begs the question: How do oceans affect the weather? Water,

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water, everywhere and not a drop to drink. Unless, of course, you are

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one of these. Oceans cover 71% of the Earth's surface and contain 90

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tempers cent of its water. So it is not surprising that the ocean has a

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big say in the world's weather. Their most important role is in

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storing and distributing heat. In fact, over half of the heat we get

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from the sun is stored in them. Most of its days near the surface

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in the first few metres of what is called the epic pelagic zone. Ocean

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temperatures can reach up to 36 degrees Celsius and this warm-water

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it swims around in surface currents, created by passing winds. Other

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currents move about in water as Col des minus two, and this change

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helps to keep worldwide temperatures in balance -- as cold

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as minus two. The most well-known is the Gulf Stream. It starts out

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in the Gulf of Mexico and passes the tip of Florida, where it begins

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a 2500 kilometres migration across the Atlantic. Amazingly it shifts

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over 100 times more water than all the rivers on earth. Ocean's also

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supply around 90% of the water used to create rain. They are hugely

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effective at absorbing carbon dioxide, which manages the Earth's

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climate. They are also home to more slippery things, like hurricane.

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But perhaps the most slippery of phenomenon is a mean you have. It

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is a complex phenomenon in the earth's climate -- L Lemieux. It

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appears every three-- El Nino. Its arrival causes a number of strange

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things to happen, including a dramatic increase in rainfall in

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South America, while at the same time droughts in Australia, and

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these extremes caused upset to everyone. We still don't completely

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understand what causes El Nino but did implement on the weather is

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second only to the changing of the seasons. And we are never really

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totally sure when it will return. So you can think of the oceans

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might joined factories where a lot of the weather is manufactured --

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like joint factories. But it would not get anywhere without another

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vital component, the wind. Sometimes it is a gentle breeze,

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sometimes it is strong enough to blow you over, but how does that

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come out of thin air? Why does the wind blow? The wind is guaranteed

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to get you on the moves. The key is the Sun, which produces 386 billion

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billion megawatts of power every second. Some of this energy gets

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transferred onto the Earth's atmosphere. The equator receives

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the most direct sunlight while the North Pole and the South Pole have

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to make do with whatever they can get. To redress the imbalance, the

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warm air at the equator rises and heads off to the North Pole and the

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South Pole. Once there, it gets colder then goes back to the

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rises because the molecules get excited and begin to jump about so

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that the air expands. Colder temperatures, the molecules down,

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so the air contracts, becomes more dense and fought back to earth.

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These motions create regions of high and low air pressure and the

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air will always flow from where the pressure is high to where it is low.

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This results in wind. Added to that is friction, caused by the planets

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dips and bums. This helped to decide when speed and direction.

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Then at the Coriolis effect comes into the mix. As the Earth rotates,

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it sends the moving air into a spin, throwing it to the right in the

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northern hemisphere and to the left down under, leading to weather

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systems that rotate in opposite directions. But wind is not simply

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a global phenomenon. It also happens on a much smaller scale.

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With different surfaces, such as forests, mountains, deserts, Oceans,

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all been heated unevenly, it creates localised wind patterns.

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What you end up with are those funny circles on a weather map that

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look as though they have been drawn by a two-year-old. They represent

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regions of high pressure and low pressure, with the Arrows telling

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you which way things are going. The wind comes recommended by

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Christopher Columbus, geese and the Netherlands. But please remember to

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treat it with caution. As it can, in some cases, lead to extreme

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devastation. The wind is a fundamental part of Mother Nature's

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game plan for the weather, but occasionally she throws in a couple

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of other players as well, and almost, their least favourite

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opponent is the rain. Love it or loathe it, it is an essential part

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of the weather. The next question is: Where does all of the rain come

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from? Rain, rain, go away, come again another day. You might

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remember that one from your childhood. It is actually a good

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summary of the hydrological cycle. The never-ending journey mortar mix

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between the Earth and the atmosphere. -- water makes. It

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begins with water vapour, which is water in gas form that has been

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sweating of the planet's surface by heat from the sun. As it rises, the

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Weber calls off, ready to condense back into a liquid -- the vapour

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calls down. It uses condensation nuclei, the microscopic stuff that

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gets coughed up by dust storms, volcanoes, fire and pollution. The

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vapour condenses into these particles, forming water droplets

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or, if it has travelled where the temperature was below freezing, ice

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crystals. This process is repeated until then number in the trillions,

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forming what scientists call clouds. To fall as rain, the droplets have

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to be heavy enough to succumb to gravity and large enough to power

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through the rising warm air beneath a cloud. To do this, the droplets

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joined forces to create raindrops, which can be up to one centimetre

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in diameter. Some parts of the world are more prone to heavy rain

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and others because of the different way the climates work. India is

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famous for its monsoon season. There would monsoon actually

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referred to seasonal changes in wind direction -- the word monsoon.

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During in the year's summer, warm, wet air is drawn in from the ocean,

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In winter, the wind changes direction and blows the rain away.

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Although, like the Rhine says, it will come again another day. The

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high score for the most rain in 24 hours is held by a tiny island off

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the east coast of Madagascar. It was swamped by 73 inches in 1952.

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That is going to be tough to beat. Precipitation can come in other

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varieties besides rain. My least favourite example of this is snow.

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It always makes me think of my grandmother, who used to look out

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of the window and say things like "it is trying to snow but it is

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just too cold". I wonder if she was ever write about that. Can it be

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too cold to snow? Snow might look soft but don't be fooled, it can

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close down schools, roads, and even airport. It is hardly likely to let

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the drop in temperature get in the way. It can see no no matter how

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cold it is, but there is more to it than that. Just like rain, snow

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needs water vapour to rise up from the ground, which then freezes into

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snow crystals. However, the further the air temperature falls below

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zero, the less water vapour there is floating about. So any crystals

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that do fall will lack the moisture they need to get bigger. This makes

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it harder for snow to fall, but not impossible. It has been seen

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falling below minus 40 degrees Celsius. At these temperatures

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there is less of it about and the crystals are much smaller. Another

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commonly asked questions about snow is weather or not any two

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snowflakes can be identical. Let's find out. Snowflakes definitely

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seem to think they are too cool for school because they do look

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different when viewed close-up. The random way in which they fall as

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they fall through the atmosphere means there are more potential

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shapes than atoms in the universe, so the likelihood of two snowflakes

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being exactly alike is bordering on impossible. Apparently scientists

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came close in 1988 with two that were very much alike, but that is

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not the same as identical. Of course snow is not the only Ic

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:17:02.:17:02.

thing falling from the sky, there is also sleet and hail. When hill

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is earthbound, you had better watch out, otherwise you might end up

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losing some of your teeth. The largest hailstone on record that

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landed in Bangladesh in 1986 weighed over one kilo. Of course it

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did not travel alone. Incredibly, cold as it is, hill has been

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identified as a major contributor to the creation of lightning. Which

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is right off the other end of the temperature scale and more

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difficult to sidestep. Maybe I can give you a few pointers. How do I

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avoid being hit by lightning? Lightning flashes up to 100 times a

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second worldwide. You would think this would be enough for us to

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understand it properly, but it isn't. We can't predict when or

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were lightning will strike. We know Ben Franklin was very lucky with

:18:00.:18:06.

his kite experiment because lightning has up to 1 billion

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vaults of static electricity. It mainly appears during thunderstorms,

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which are named after the sound of a lightning strike. The big issue

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is that we don't fully understand how lightning forms. One of the

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leading theories is that in a storm tiny ice crystals and lumps of

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hailstones are crashing against each other. This causes electrons

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on some of the ice crystals to break off and attach themselves to

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some of the heavier falling hailstones. Then the hailstones

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become negatively charged. We know the electricity is divided into

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positive and negative charge. It was Benjamin Franklin who

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introduced this idea. The negative charge starts to collect in the

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base of the storm cloud. The ground below contains negative and

:18:56.:19:01.

positive charge, but the negative charges are repulsed by the

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negativity in the cloud base, leaving the positive charges or

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loan. Just like in a bad romantic comedy, opposite always attract.

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Eventually, this attraction becomes overwhelming and all the pent-up

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energy is released with a bold five times hotter than the sum.

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Lightning comes in several additions, including four Oct,

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streaked, rocket, and the very rare ball. Not all lightning strikes the

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ground, in fact most of the time it just fires around inside the storm

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cloud. It you see this happening, count the seconds from when you see

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lightning to when you hear thunder, and then divide that number by five.

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This will tell you how many miles away the storm is. If you get

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caught out, Steer clear of any metal. Water it is also a good

:19:59.:20:04.

conductor of electricity, so avoid that. Try to get indoors if you can

:20:04.:20:10.

but don't use the telephone to let people know you are OK. That is

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wind, rain, snow and lightning taking care of. It is getting

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lively but I can't help thinking that we have not yet hit on the

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real big movers and shakers, like Hurricanes for example. They are in

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a class of their own when it comes to big weather. When is a hurricane

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not a hurricane? They are dry rating mega machines with a minimum

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speed of 119 kilometres per hour. Really, they are just very big

:20:44.:20:48.

storms. And they are not the only storms that operate like this,

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there are also typhoons and tropical cyclones. Want to know the

:20:53.:20:57.

difference? There is not one, at least not from a meteorological

:20:58.:21:03.

perspective. To develop, all three need the water temperature to be

:21:03.:21:09.

26.6 degrees and they all have the distinctive look to them known as

:21:09.:21:12.

closed wind circulation. Simply put, they have been given different

:21:12.:21:18.

names according to where in the world they form. They are called

:21:18.:21:25.

hurricanes in the North Atlantic and the north-east Pacific.

:21:25.:21:32.

Typhoons occur in the north-west Pacific, and cyclones fall in the

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south-west Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Even though they have been

:21:35.:21:42.

given different names, they function in the same way. It begins

:21:42.:21:45.

with what experts call tropical disturbances in the atmosphere.

:21:45.:21:50.

Warm, wet air rises into the sky and cools rapidly creating

:21:50.:21:56.

thunderstorms. The Coriolis effect, caused by the Earth's rotation,

:21:56.:22:04.

blends these storms together, spinning them around together. This

:22:04.:22:12.

becomes the eye of the storm where it is actually pretty calm. These

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storm systems can only get upgraded when their wind reaches that magic

:22:19.:22:22.

119 kilometres per hour mark. But although they are not really

:22:22.:22:26.

different, they are all record- holders in their own right with a

:22:26.:22:31.

top wind speed of 408 kilometres per hour. Tropical cyclone of

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Bolivia, which struck Australia in 1996, was the fastest. Typhoon tip

:22:39.:22:45.

was the largest, but hurricane Catrina, which hit the US in 2005,

:22:45.:22:52.

caused the most damaged - $81 billion. So a hurricane is not a

:22:52.:22:57.

hurricane when it is a typhoon or cyclone. It is all a roller-coaster

:22:57.:23:03.

ride but it is not amusing. Things don't come much bigger than a

:23:03.:23:08.

tropical cyclone, but there are smaller forces at work, subtle

:23:08.:23:13.

forces all around you that you didn't even know existed. They are

:23:13.:23:19.

called micro-climates. Try to imagine the important stuff that

:23:19.:23:24.

can affect the weather, like wind, temperature, a humidity and

:23:24.:23:31.

rainfall. Then imagine cramming it into a small box. You are just

:23:31.:23:38.

about ready to build your very own micro-climate. Essentially, micro-

:23:38.:23:43.

climates are small areas where the climate is different from the one

:23:43.:23:48.

outside it. These differences are caused by the lay of the land in

:23:48.:23:52.

your plot and the way it influences the weather's behaviour. For

:23:52.:23:57.

example, if your plot has sandy coloured soil, it will bounce more

:23:57.:24:02.

heat back into the atmosphere than darker soil, which absorbs it. This

:24:02.:24:08.

will affect how hot it is. Trees can provide shade in the summer,

:24:08.:24:13.

which keeps the plot cool, but deciduous trees lose their leaves

:24:13.:24:18.

in the winter so the sun shines through which warms it up. Trees

:24:18.:24:25.

their leaves, making the air more moist. If your plot has a mountain

:24:25.:24:30.

near it, this will affect the way the wind blows through it and will

:24:30.:24:35.

force moist air to rise, creating rain clouds. You also need to think

:24:35.:24:41.

about what latitude you want to be on, and how far above sea level

:24:41.:24:45.

because for every 1000 metres you go up, the temperature can drop by

:24:45.:24:54.

10 degrees Celsius. These features have created countless natural my -

:24:54.:25:04.
:25:04.:25:04.

- micro-climate around the world. Cities can be several degrees

:25:04.:25:09.

warmer than rural areas. The pioneering amateur meteorologist

:25:09.:25:15.

Haward was the first to document this in 1818. He described London

:25:15.:25:20.

as having an artificial excess of heat, one of its many excesses that

:25:20.:25:24.

continues today, although scientists now refer to the place

:25:24.:25:30.

as an urban heat island. You can even change the micro-climate in

:25:30.:25:34.

your own garden, depending on what plants you have got, what the soil

:25:34.:25:41.

is like, the direction it faces and so on. Your DIY contribution to

:25:41.:25:46.

micro climate change. The weather works in time as well as space, and

:25:46.:25:52.

some aspects of it are as regular as clockwork. Four of them at any

:25:52.:25:59.

rate, these are the seasons. Why do we have seasons? Up close, the

:25:59.:26:03.

Earth looks like a well-built machine, but take a step back and

:26:03.:26:09.

you will realise it has a few flaws. For starters, it has a wonky

:26:09.:26:19.
:26:19.:26:19.

vertical axis, off by about 23.5 degrees so that North Pole does not

:26:19.:26:23.

point straight up. This tool was first measured accurately over 2000

:26:23.:26:31.

years ago by this Greek mathematician, a very smart man. It

:26:31.:26:36.

always tilts in the same direction, pointing towards the North Star, no

:26:36.:26:43.

matter where it is on its journey around the sun. And, depending on

:26:43.:26:47.

where you live, the tilt affect how much sunlight you get during

:26:47.:26:52.

different times of the year. This results in the four very different

:26:52.:27:02.

seasons. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The people in the

:27:02.:27:05.

northern hemisphere get more attention during their summer

:27:05.:27:10.

months when the Earth's tilt is in their favour. But they get the cold

:27:10.:27:15.

shoulder in winter, when the Earth is tilting away and the sun is

:27:15.:27:19.

shining on everyone below the equator. Although seasonal weather

:27:19.:27:24.

changes gradually, there are days when the polls of the Earth are

:27:24.:27:29.

tilted as near to or as far from the sun as is possible, and we call

:27:29.:27:35.

these the solstices. The summer solstice is the longest day of the

:27:35.:27:41.

year, and the winter solstice is the shortest. You will know when

:27:41.:27:46.

they are because you will see people dancing at World Heritage

:27:46.:27:53.

sites on the news. Not everywhere has four different seasons. If you

:27:53.:27:58.

live near the equator, you only get wet and dry seasons because you get

:27:58.:28:05.

a lot of sunlight nearly all the time. The polls only have summer

:28:05.:28:10.

and winter, but that does not seem to bother anyone who lives there.

:28:10.:28:15.

But they will be concerned by the fact that they are melting and the

:28:15.:28:19.

long-term forecast is for global warming. That will change things in

:28:19.:28:24.

Do you ever look up at the sky and wonder why it's blue? Or what a cloud is? Or how you can avoid being hit by lightning? In this programme James May asks the big questions about the weather.

To find the answers he is swept up in a storm of exciting, entertaining and sometimes downright bizarre motion graphics. The answers he comes out with are packed with facts that will surprise, amaze and entertain.


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