Each morning after I get up, I pour myself a cup of tea and turn on The Weather Channel to get prepared for the day. Long before televised weather forecasts were routine, people did their own short-range forecasting of the weather. One of the simplest tools they used was the weather vane.
Weather vanes date back to the time of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. In modern times, they are mostly used as architectural ornament, but they have always provided a means for showing the direction of the wind. With careful and consistent observation, a weather vane can help indicate a storm is coming, or that a cold snap is on the way.
Slideshow: 11 Weather Vanes to Point You in the Right Direction
Weather vanes have several parts: a rod, a rotating ornament with an arrow to point toward the wind direction, and a fixed directional piece that indicates north, south, east and west. A small and large globe are included to separate the ornament and directional from the rest of the features.
Weather vanes are generally designed so that the tail is larger than the head. When the wind blows, the force will be greater on the tail than the head, and thus the tail will swing away from the direction of the wind. So if the head of your weather vane is pointing east, the wind is coming from that direction.
If a weather vane is swinging erratically, it means the air is unstable and the weather is changing. You may be able to predict the nature of that change based on which way the wind ends up blowing. For example, if a weather vane indicates the wind has shifted to come from the south, warmer air may be on the way. And if it changes from west to east, that could indicate a mass of lower pressure overhead and storms on the way.
Great White Shark Copper Weather Vane. Photo: westcoastweathervanes.com
If you'd like to install your own weather vane, here are a few tips to help make it more effective:
• You can install your weather vane either on the roof or an exterior wall. Just make sure it is located away from buildings or trees that could interfere with the true wind direction.
• Use a compass to find true north, or orient your north toward the North Star, which is found at the end of the Little Dipper's handle.
• To make sure you have good movement, liberally apply grease or other lubricant to the topmost part of the spire, covered by the vane ornament.
If you consistently monitor your weather vane, you'll get familiar with the weather patterns in your area. Take notes and document changes in the weather, along with which direction the wind was blowing in the hours prior to a storm. In time, you might even become an expert in your local weather, able to predict storms for yourself and your neighbors, without any help at all from the Weather Channel!
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