Motorcycle Navigation: Keeping up With the Weather

Jun 20, 2017 View Comments by

As touring motorcyclists who are constantly exposed to the elements, weather is a major consideration for our safety and comfort. The term “weather” is actually an abstraction for many atmospheric conditions, and riders have different personal thresholds. For some, air quality might be the most important factor (e.g., people suffering from asthma). However, by and large, most care about air temperature and precipitation. Moderate heat or cold can be tolerated if prepared for in advance, but extreme temperatures or storms will deter most riders due to the increased danger and risk.

So how can riders stay apprised of changing weather conditions while traveling on a motorcycle?

Portable NOAA Weather Alert RadioWeather Stations

NWS, the National Weather Service, is a U.S. government agency that has weather stations distributed across the country that report to central NWS servers. A weather station is a device that measures and collects atmospheric metrics using different instruments. A thermometer, barometer, anemometer, hygrometer, rain gauge, and ultraviolet sensor are used to measure temperature, barometric air pressure, wind direction and speed, humidity, rain precipitation, and UV Index, respectively. WSR, or weather surveillance radars, measure position, intensity, and type of precipitation, and are useful tools for understanding local storm conditions. Weather satellites are cameras floating in space that provide top-level imagery (visible light or infrared), which is effective for analyzing conditions on a larger scale.

NWS combines all this information to generate weather warnings and forecasts. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is another U.S. government agency that cooperates with NWS. A special radio station named NWR, or NOAA Weather Radio, broadcasts continuous weather information, warnings, and forecasts. The messages are local to the region and sent on a special 162 MHz radio band that cannot be consumed by home or car radio receivers. But portable battery-powered NWR receivers can be purchased for under $50. Check with local electronics or sporting goods stores, or contact the NWS office closest to you. The downsides are basic and limited user interface and functionality. The receivers only work in the U.S., and even then with gaps in radio coverage.

PWS—”Personal Weather Stations”—are operated by individuals, private organizations, or companies. One of the biggest PWS networks is the commercial Weather Underground, which has more than 200,000 stations distributed globally and growing. All the Weather Underground units report the information directly to a central internet cloud server. Weather Underground acts as a backbone infrastructure that aggregates real-time, accurate, and global data.

Using Your Smartphone as a Weather Device Storm app radar The smartphone has established itself as the ultimate multi-tool: a camera, small computer, media player, and GPS, among other functionalities. It is therefore only natural to use weather applications, especially if a smartphone is mounted on the motorcycle.

There are many available. Most have user interfaces that consume and display data that comes from web services supported by networks such as the NWS, PWS, or a combination of both.

The Weather Underground, owned and operated by The Weather Company, offers two free premium cross-platform smartphone applications that utilize the same underlying weather data but present it in different forms. The Weather Underground app, or WU, provides a comprehensive and rich user interface that covers virtually all atmospheric metrics and includes an interactive radar and satellite map. WU displays a current status report, detailed forecast by day and hour, air health metrics (air quality, UV Index, and flu activity), sunrise and sunset times, and even live webcams. Google maps are embedded and are intuitive and easy to use.

Its sibling app, Storm, focuses on storm alerts and provides a minimal and functional user interface that provides only one main non-scrollable screen that has a map in the center. Only vital information is shown, in a compacted form. It is a tool for quickly assessing current conditions and watching for storms.

Both apps can run in the background, alert riders of changing weather conditions, and show a notification status bar icon if needed. Storm might be the tool of choice for most riders, as it requires little interaction yet shows what most riders need. WU has better and deeper analytic tools for pre-ride planning or when stopping to assess next steps.

Dark Sky
Dark Sky offers a cross-platform free premium weather application that started off as a crowdfunding project. It is an alternative to the apps mentioned above and has a very simple and minimalistic user interface that is easy and quick to master. Dark Sky takes a nonconventional approach that is numerical and statistical, rather than meteorological, by combining hyperlocal NOAA radar data with neural networks and other artificial intelligence techniques to calculate and predict weather conditions in the user’s location down to the minute. This is different than most other weather applications, which tend to report on a larger scale of location and time. Check out Dark Sky’s map section, which shows beautiful and useful animations of clouds on a 3D sphere that can be zoomed in or out.

Garmin_inReach_lineup2Satellite Communications
For global riders that can’t rely on cellular or Wi-Fi coverage and must always be able to get a weather forecast, the best solution is to use satellite communications, which are functional on virtually any given point on planet earth.

Garmin’s new inReach devices, leveraging Garmin’s 2016 acquisition of DeLorme, utilize the Iridium satellite constellation to provide riders with two-way messaging, international phone calls, GPS, offline topographic map navigation, and emergency services. It also has an optional weather forecast service local to the device’s GPS position.

This constellation is a commercially operated network of communication satellites that provide voice and data services for sat phones and other devices. The cost of a sat phone plus annual subscription can reach hundreds of dollars, but it provides critical functionality for hardcore adventurers. Look for a detailed article about this in the future.

With the advanced weather tools available today, it is easy to plan ahead, anticipate, and prepare for Mother Nature’s harshness. Tactically, riders can make informed decisions on how to handle the weather—for instance, wear extra layers and ride with a full rain suit. Strategically, we can decide what NOT to do. Staying in the hotel for a few more hours and waiting for a storm to pass while monitoring it on a weather app, instead of riding through it, is sometimes the smartest and safest move.

Text: Yuval Naveh
Photography: Yuval Naveh, Weather Underground, Dark Sky, Garmin, AcuRite


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