Eye of the Storm

Like mail carriers, truckers in general have an attitude about the weather: Nothing but the most severe storms can keep dedicated pros from doing their job and doing it on time.

Nevertheless, a self-respecting mailman doesn’t wear his shorts in a blizzard, and truck drivers carry boots in case the snow is too deep for flip-flops. But nasty weather does not always come in the form of snow and ice. Any kind of weather may become severe. A bright blue sky with no weather in sight may hold heat that boils coolant and blows tires. While there are times no amount of foreknowledge will help, smart truck drivers know how to read the sky is a way to prepare themselves against dangerous weather.

Jim Allsop of the National Weather Service notes, “The best way to stay abreast of heat and extreme cold is by accessing local weather channels before getting started in the morning.” Heat kills more people in the United States than any other kind of weather, experts say. Extreme cold and high winds can kill batteries, gel fuel, freeze air lines, put a van and tractor on its side, or, in combination with slick roads, cause even a lowboy to leave the pavement.

Howard Glass, a driver from northwestern Pennsylvania, relies on weather reports and information from home to keep him weather-wise, but has been caught out by winter weather. “I spent the blizzard of ’93 at the Neshaminy Plaza on the Pennsylvania Pike,” says Glass.

Just a few decades ago, most people got their weather by direct observation.

The earliest modern forecasting, beginning in 1837 with the telegraph’s invention, made it clear that most of our country’s weather moves from west to east. This lent some credence to folk forecasting rules of thumb like the old adage, “Red sky in morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” The rhyme, while not always true, demonstrates how you can understand emerging weather patterns. A red morning sky occurs when the eastern horizon is cloudless and clouds are moving from west to east. Since clouds bring storms, a storm might be on the way. A red night sky means possible storms have passed and are moving east, away from you.

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But Christine Krause, National Weather Service meteorologist in Chicago, warns red morning skies do not forecast thunderstorms developing in the afternoon, long after a cloudless morning.

Weather experts say the United States experiences every kind of weather on the globe. No other country can make this claim. Perhaps the most common storm in the continental United States is the thunderstorm. Lightning is the country’s second most lethal weather phenomenon, and along with tornadoes, flooding, high winds and hail, lightning is the product of thunderstorms.

Forecasters can tell you much more about large weather patterns than about more local events like a tornado. Tornadoes give no more than 20 minutes’ warning to the weather experts. The approximate distance of lightning from your location can be found by counting the number of seconds between a lightning bolt and a peal of thunder. Five seconds between the two means the lightning is about one mile away; 10 seconds, two miles, experts say.

Vehicles are one of the safest places to be in a lightning storm. The metal in your truck will carry a strike into the ground, perhaps blowing a tire, while not harming you. Glass relates, “I saw a trailer get hit by lightning once down in Texas. It opened the roof but the driver just kept on going.”

Ugly clouds follow a deadly tornado strike in West Alabama in December 2000. Constant weather forecasting updates and basic ‘sky-reading’ skills can lead you to shelter before a dangerous storm hits.

Tornadoes, however, can lift a fully loaded truck off the ground, according to Krause at the National Weather Service. Nor is it safe under overpasses, where a tornado’s strong wind tends to suck debris – and people – out. Since the greatest danger from tornadoes is flying debris, if you are caught in the open the safest possible place is in a ditch lying flat with your head covered by your hands.

The appearance and height of certain clouds can be a good indicator of approaching weather. Thunderclouds are called cumulonimbus, clouds that accumulate at low altitudes and rise to 50,000 feet or more. “Nimbus” means a cloud holding precipitation. Seeing cumulus clouds build from the ground up means a thunderstorm is forming, according to USA Today’s, The Weather Book.

Often cumulonimbus clouds become anvil-shaped as their soaring tops are flattened by upper-level winds and flow out from the main cloud. They signal the possible beginning of more widespread and lasting thunderstorms.

Wall clouds are much more dangerous.

These clouds are flat-bottomed and have very distinct sides moving up into the main cumulonimbus. They are often precursors of large tornadoes. Seeing a wall cloud means it’s time to take cover. But remember that cumulonimbus clouds alert you to the possibility of violent weather well in advance of seeing a wall cloud.

The National Weather Service issues watches and warnings for life-threatening tornadoes or severe thunderstorms. Watches mean conditions are favorable for severe thunderstorms or tornadoes over a wide area. A warning is much more serious. It means a severe thunderstorm or tornado has been spotted in the area. Watches require extra vigilance, while warnings signal the need to seek shelter.

Understanding forecasters can also help a smart driver. In particular, it’s helpful to know what a front is and what it does, because many storms develop there. Storms develop their energy from the difference in temperatures often associated with the meeting of cold and warm air along a front, says The Weather Book. As the temperature contrast expands, so does the potential for a stronger storm. Storms are essentially low-pressure systems with counterclockwise winds that form when cold air and warm begin to mix and agitate clouds into making some form of precipitation.

The National Weather Service’s Allsop says, “Storms associated with fronts usually occur along with or ahead of fronts. The leading edges of thunderstorms often have strong, gusty winds and low-hanging, dark clouds that are sometimes wedge-shaped.”

Alan Wechsler, a longtime owner-operator and member of Kenworth’s owner-operator advisory board, believes, “Drivers running in the South need to be as prepared for winter as drivers running in the North.” Certainly driving north into cold weather can wreak havoc with air and fuel systems that have not been maintained.

There are ways to defend against freezing temperatures. Wechsler carries extra bedding and clothing in winter, and takes pains to keep air and fuel systems in good order. “I carry methyl hydrate to put in my air lines and I charge and drain my system regularly even though I have a water separator,” he says. “I use the pull cords rather than the petcocks because the petcocks can snap off in cold weather. I do not buy fuel from small, out-of-the-way fuel stops. I stick to chain stops and keep my receipts. Buying fuel from the same vendor as much as possible gives you some leverage if you ever get a bad batch of diesel.”

The National Weather Service should pinpoint dangerous storms for truckers …

Invisible but potentially deadly extremes of temperature give no advance warning, according to Allsop. When traveling, Allsop depends on NOAA weather radio for temperature as well as other weather conditions. Weather radio can be heard using special radios tuned to stations throughout the United States between 162.4 and 162.55 megahertz.

Despite claims by some companies providing weather info, most meteorologists concur that large weather patterns and storms are much easier to predict than local conditions. Downdrafts in thunderstorms and snow that falls on the south side of town but leaves the north unscathed are examples of weather that is difficult to forecast. However, at least one website, weather.com, provides ZIP code predictions seven to 10 days in advance.

Weather remains unpredictable to some degree, but technology has created views into storms unavailable just a few years ago. Smart drivers who can read the sky and add this knowledge to broadcast weather predictions can help themselves avoid the havoc weather can cause.