Here Are the Best Websites and Apps You Can Use to Track the Weather
We already know that your weather app sucks, but the websites you use probably aren’t much better. One of the most common questions people ask about the weather is “what website/app should I use?” Here’s a list of great resources that will give you all the weather information you want, and more.
When it comes to weather forecasts, outlets have to strike a delicate balance between usability and accuracy. Forecast quality is useless if the organization’s website is a link-laden Rube Goldberg machine, and the most beautifully designed forecasts you could hope for are just as useless if they’re nowhere near accurate.
The best website to use for weather forecasts is the National Weather Service. The government agency creates solid forecasts with a website they’re working to improve every day—you’re getting quality without the added fluff or obtrusive advertisements or unrelated articles that you find on other websites. The two best features of the National Weather Service’s website are the Enhanced Data Display (EDD) and the NWS Widget they’re working to make public.
I’ve used the Enhanced Data Display heavily here on The Vane, showing everything from forecast low temperatures to forecast snowfall totals during last winter’s back-to-back-to-back blizzards. It’s a highly interactive and customizable tool that allows you to display, analyze, and understand weather forecasts issued by NWS agencies to help you plan your life around nature’s temper tantrums.
The EDD gets better with every update, constantly adding more useful features—it even allows you to find a detailed weather forecast for the entire length of a road trip. Shown in the screenshot above is a the rainfall forecast for the next seven days..
If you’re looking for a quick look at your local forecast without the need to play with different map layers, the new NWS Widget is great for all devices, but be aware that it’s still in the “experimental” phase, and could stop working or go offline without any warning. It’s basically the same data you would see if you were to go to your city’s local forecast page on weather.gov, but organized in a cleaner format that gives you everything you need to know all in one spot.
The only downside to the National Weather Service’s website is their point forecast page, which you get when you click on your location on the static map on the main weather dot gov website.
Here’s what you first see when you arrive on a local forecast page:
They recently overhauled it to resemble what you’d see on a mobile device, which means it sucks on desktop. It looks like someone infused it with bubbles and ordered all the boxes to stay a court-mandated 25 feet from each other at all times. Too much space is hell in website design, which is what makes the NWS Widget even more useful.
Current Weather Observations
If you’re more interested in what’s going on right now instead of what’s going to happen in a day or two, the best site (and app!) you can use is provided by Weather Underground (commonly shortened to Wunderground). Most weather sites and apps give you weather observations from the nearest major airport, which could be 30 or 40 miles away in some cases. The weather is local, and there can be a huge difference in weather over short distances.
Over the past couple of decades, Weather Underground has amassed a network of tens of thousands of weather stations around the world that give weather on a local level much better than taking a peek at the airport a few counties over. These weather stations are run by average people, so you have to be wary of some of the observations (especially precipitation and wind) because of the location of the station. If the station is too close to paved surfaces, buildings, trees, or other obstructions, some of the data might be a little off. Most of the time, though, it’s pretty close to reality.
The organization’s mobile apps are just as good as the website— they have three apps: one that lets you look at individual weather stations and forecasts, one that gives you access to the Wundermap that’s available on the desktop site, and another app called “Storm” which gives you a juiced-up weather radar with all sorts of layers on top of it. We’ll get to that in the next section.
Weather Underground is now owned by The Weather Company, the parent company to The Weather Channel, so the forecasts you find on their website is pretty close to what you’d get from The Weather Channel or weather dot com. If you’re more loyal to TWC than the NWS, getting your weather forecasts from Weather Underground will give you the same data without the screaming headlines and ridiculous slideshows surrounding it.
We’ve previously looked at the best programs to use for weather radar images, but few of them are free. If you’re looking for quality radar images that you use without having to squint at the underlying map—or deal with the comical level of smoothing that makes it look like someone drew it with three markers—here are some of your best options.
Desktop: Weather Underground
One of the best features on Weather Underground’s website is their radar page, which gives you detailed radar data at almost the same level as many of the payware or subscription sites. You can click on individual radar sites to analyze data down to your county’s level. It also allows you to see the algorithm-generated hail and mesocyclone (broad rotation) icons placed over storms, along with arrows showing their movement and speed. These hail/rotation icons aren’t always accurate, but they can give you a good idea of what a storm is doing without having to buy a $250 radar program and learn to analyze data yourself.
Desktop: NWS Enhanced Data Display
The NWS EDD also shows you pretty good radar data, almost on the same level as what you’d find at Weather Underground. The benefit here is that you can overlay numerous other variables to help you understand the environment in which the storms formed.
App: Storm by Wunderground
Wunderground’s new Storm app is pretty good. The radar imagery is smoothed, but still allows you to see the most intense parts of the storm. The best part of the Storm app is that A) it’s free and B) you can overlay helpful layers over the radar data. You can show temperatures, winds, upper-level data, surface observations, satellite images, and even storm tracks, giving you the ability to get a better idea of what’s going beyond the storms. Storm is only available on Apple products right now, because we Android users are always the last to get the good stuff.
App: RadarScope ($9.99)
RadarScope is the best radar app available for both Apple and Android smartphones and tablets. It costs $9.99 ($29.99 for the desktop version on Macs), but it’s worth every single penny. The app allows you to use “super-resolution” Level II radar data to analyze precipitation, winds, echo tops (the top of the storm), and dual polarization data that tells you the size and shape of the objects the radar detects.
Desktop Programs: GRLevel3/GR2Analyst
Almost all of the radar images I post on The Vane are from GR2Analyst, which is part of a suite of radar programs available from Gibson Ridge. I went into these programs (and their competitors) in great detail in a post a couple of months ago, but the line of Gibson Ridge products are the top-of-the-line when it comes to using and analyzing radar data.
GR2Analyst allows you to use super-resolution radar data, create three-dimensional radar images (like the one above), and take cross-sections of storms, which is an incredible tool to study and forecast any type of weather event, but especially high-intensity severe thunderstorms. Its less-powerful (but still useful) companion GRLevel3 has lower-resolution data but a couple of features GR2A doesn’t have, such as radar estimated rainfall totals, and a much faster load/response time.
Here’s the downside: GR2Analyst costs a $250 one-time fee, while GRLevel3 costs a $79.95 one-time fee. You can integrate even more data into these programs by purchasing subscriptions from a great weather data company called AllisonHouse.
Looking at satellite imagery has a wide range of uses, from checking to see when the clouds will clear out to spying on a powerful hurricane halfway around the world. Also, as I pointed out during a short-lived series on The Vane, it’s just cool to look at fresh pictures of our incredible Earth taken from space.
The best site for downloading satellite imagery in/around the United States is from NASA, which provides up-to-date images from the GOES satellites parked over the Western Hemisphere. The most useful tool is provided by the agency’s Earth Science Office, which allows you to zoom-in on different parts of our half of the world and look at visible, infrared, and water vapor imagery.
You can also click over to the GOES Project Science page to look at processed visible/infrared satellite imagery superimposed over an awesome colorized background. These images are updated every half-hour or so.
Historical Weather Information
Searching for current and future weather information is always useful, but what if you want to check to see what happened in the past? It’s hard as hell to find data about past weather events on the internet if you don’t know where to look. There’s climate data on the National Weather Service’s website, but it’s vague and only provides you with information valid for the past month or so.
The best website to use for climate information is a nifty tool called xmACIS2. There’s a bit of a learning curve to use the tool, but it’s extremely useful if you want to look up historical data like past temperatures and precipitation. It would be impossible to list all of xmACIS2’s features in a post like this, so here’s an example to give you an idea of how to use this excellent tool.
Say you wanted to find how much snow fell near Washington D.C. in February 2003. You would go to the “single-station” dropdown menu and select “daily data for a month.” You would enter 2003-02 in the date box, then go down and enter Washington Dulles’ code in the ID box. Once you click the “go” button, it’ll bring up all of the data for that month, including snowfall data on the right side of this page. Snowfall is the second-to-last column on the right.
You can find just about anything from just about any airport and cooperative reporting station around the United States using xmACIS2. The best part is that all of this data is easily copied into Microsoft Excel or your favorite spreadsheet program, so you can tweak and analyze all the data you want. Above is an example of data I retrieved from xmACIS2 and arranged to show the stark difference between warm weather in the west and cold temperatures in the east this past winter.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of great weather resources, but it’s a great start to help you build a solid list of bookmarks and apps to help you stay on top of whatever nature can throw at you.
What are some of your favorite places to get weather information? Tell us in the comments.
[All screenshots are via their respective websites/programs. Top image of lightning via gerlos on Flickr.]