Continually evolving technology has given us better access to weather data than ever before but it has also brought about a curious new behaviour.
Not only do we use forecasts to decide what to wear and how we should prepare for an impending storm, but an ever increasing number of cameras in the field means we can be spectators to incredible weather phenomena in another state or even country in virtually real time.
Despite the recent increase in Facebook weather pages run by people with little actual weather knowledge, some pages do form a useful source for community involvement, especially regarding real-time weather reports and photos. The reward of likes and instant feedback on Facebook encourages users to post images as quickly as possible, which is particularly useful during rapidly changing weather events.
While some people like to garner as much online attention as possible despite very little actual forecasting skill, there are those who are happy to tinker away behind the scenes contributing more to the weather community than many people realise, even those within it.
Brisbane resident Ben Quinn, 35, is one such tinkerer. Founding BSCH or the Brisbane Storm Chasers Homepage in 1998, his initial aim was to create a hub for other weather watchers. "I started it because no-one really had their own website back then and I wanted to give people somewhere to share photos," Quinn said.
Today, BSCH has become the go-to site for weather models, storm forecasting, and real time storm photos via an impressive network of weather-purposed webcams.
Stormcast, as it is known, is an easy-to-use interface for displaying computer generated weather charts which, while requiring a certain level of weather knowledge, tell you much more about upcoming weather events than what the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) will. It is the online bible to which virtually all Australian storm chasers turn, including those outside Queensland, as well as many professional forecasting organisations. It helps users determine whether a storm is likely, which area to target, how severe a storm will be, which way it will move, whether hail is likely, if lightning will be more prevalent, and a myriad other details. The data for the charts is generated automatically by third parties like the National Weather Service in the US, however, BSCH converts this data into a visual chart and their interface makes them easily accessible.
The Storm Probabilities page is aimed at normal humans without the same level of weather obsession, but gives a good indication of how likely a storm is for a given area and its possible strength, displayed visually that couldn't be easier for your average punter to read.
In 2003 Ben met another weather enthusiast Michael Manning, 30, who asked Ben to host his small personal website at BSCH. In 1998 as part of a high school project, Mike had developed a computer application to display BoM observations with a simple interface. Since then he incorporated weather charts, forecasts and an experimental storm tracker system similar to what chasers in Tornado Alley in the US now use. The app was called Australian Weather Monitor (AWM) and quickly became an essential tool for local storm chasers.
Ben invited Mike to contribute his programming knowledge to BSCH and he quickly moved the site from its troublesome overseas host to Matilda Internet where Mike worked, and continues to do so as Senior Technician and Network Engineer. Mike ported his soundings code from his AWM project to the BSCH website to produce the interactive soundings chart which exists today.
Ben created Stormcast in early 2005. "Ben has always been a hard worker and he's one of those unsung heroes - the amount of time and effort he puts into BSCH (especially with the Webcams side of things) is incredible. Without the help of Ben, the weather community wouldn't have access to such a great resource," Manning said.
Ben installed the first weather focussed webcam in Spring of 2006. Not your cheap Dick-Smith style offering but a camera that produced high quality images. He then invited members of the public around south east Queensland who had access to good views to come forward, providing the camera and all necessary equipment to install a webcam on their premises. Mike developed special software to process and display the images. With a clever interface you can easily view custom timelapse animations or archived photos. The system is intelligent enough to adjust the camera's shutter speed to get great long exposures at night, and they even capture lightning (as per the image at the top of this post).
Want a still photo or timelapse from a storm or sunset within the last week? It's all there, it's easily accessible and it's free thanks to the Australian Weathercam Network.
The webcams generated so much interest there are now 53 cameras right across Australia, including - thanks to help from fellow chaser Jason Harris - the storm hotspot around Darwin. The network is used not only by storm chasers and the general public, but the aviation industry (six cams were set up specifically for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter) and the Bureau the Meteorology.
"The Webcams section is the most popular part of the site, especially during the storm season," Manning revealed.
The Early Warning Network's (EWN) National Operations Manager, Michael Bath uses the BSCH service professionally and personally. "We do use the BSCH charts for EWN forecasting work and have some custom branded maps that go into our mobile website and some other things," Bath said.
Actively "pursuing weather" for close to 30 years, and with a general interest that stretches even further back, Bath has been a regular BSCH user since the earliest iterations of Stormcast. "That made it much easier to forecast things, that's for sure - including snow events which I like nearly as much as storms," Bath revealed.
"The clickable soundings were the main advancement though, prior to that we had to rely on a few analysis charts from the BoM weather balloons. The interface has continued to evolve and become easier to use, and we have a huge suite of charts for just about everything."
But there's a problem. Such a large camera network is becoming increasingly difficult to manage for one person. Of the 53 cameras, 11 are currently out of operation and in need of repair. Considering the age of the remainder of the network, other cams will inevitably follow.
Ben is honest about his predicament: "Covering the cost of the installation and giving my time to the cause is one thing; having to re-visit installations at 6-12-18 month intervals to repair components or constantly debug problems which are related to using the cheapest possible components is another - it's expensive and extremely time consuming."
With no funding and always maintaining BSCH as a free service, Quinn finally needs cash to keep the Australian Weathercam Network alive.
A new Kickstarter campaign is aiming for $10,000 to improve and expand the network, "to take advantage of new locations offered to me on an almost daily basis but perhaps more importantly be in a position where I can pro-actively look for new locations that fill gaps in the current network, that provide a service to the local community or simply has a great view that I'd love to share with the rest of the world," Ben outlines on his Kickstarter page.
Supporters will get to vote on the location of future cameras.
If the fundraiser reaches its goal, not only will the Weathercam network be improved but BSCH will be overhauled, according to Manning, "to bring it up to date with the latest technologies that will allow interactive charts and animated loops." Mike hopes to also make use of a 3m dish at Matilda Internet to retrieve satellite images directly from the source, virtually eliminating downtime. "It'll be a project for next year but could definitely be feasible."
Higgins Storm Chasing founder Jeff Higgins admits he would struggle without BSCH. "They supply HSC with 75% of forecast data and maps; without them I'd be lost and forecasts would become very difficult to produce and share with you all on HSC," Jeff states on his Facebook page.
"HSC uses BSCH every day for forecasts, and references the web cams on thunderstorm days," Higgins said.
Here's the plan for the camera network if the cash target is reached:
Repair all offline cameras and solidify existing installations that are approaching their end of life.
Take advantage of a large pool of hosts offering great views, in great areas and with enough enthusiasm to approach me to host a camera. There are locations on offer in all corners of the country.
Pro-actively seek out new camera locations where they're most sorely needed. In most cases that will quite literally involve getting in the car and driving to that location, knocking on doors, approaching businesses.
Ben and Mike intend on expanding Stormcast to include other weather models. Mike has also been updating his AWM app to run on current platforms with added functionality. He plans on launching it in the new year.
If the Kickstarter doesn't reach its $10,000 goal Ben gets nothing, but whether he reaches it or not, he's sure to continue tinkering. "He's the type of bloke who never says no when someone makes a suggestion and just keeps plugging away silently in the background without ever wanting any recognition. This man deserves a medal or at least some recognition for all the hard work he has done," Manning said.