Think of the trouble Dorothy could have avoided if only she had access to the World Wide Web. With a click of her mouse, she would have gotten wind of any impending twisters and skipped an unplanned flight to Oz.
Today, you can use your personal computer to track tornadoes, inspect Doppler radar, and pore over historical weather data. If you're a true weather buff, you can visit Web sites to buy everything from digital weather stations to maps that chart the path of hurricanes.
Fortunately, getting the current weather just about anywhere on earth is a breeze. Most major Web sites, including AccuWeather, USA Today Weather, Weather Underground (www. wunderground.com), and weather.com, supply local and international climate conditions and two- to five-day forecasts (table).
DETAILS, DETAILS. The best sites I've sampled go beyond telling you whether you'll need a sweater or galoshes. At weather.com, run by cable TV's Weather Channel, areas are divided into boat and beach, gardening, and aviation, to name a few. In the golfer's guide area, meteorologist Bruce Edwards selects places that promise great golfing conditions this time of year. Bend, Ore., and Cape Cod, Mass., were two locales that made the cut. You can also find forecasts for communities holding PGA and LPGA tournaments.
Weather.com's travel section, meanwhile, lets you check delays at the nation's 40 busiest airports and gives you the current weather along major U.S. highways. By clicking on Interstate 80, for example, I was able to peek at conditions at two dozen towns listed between San Francisco and Caldwell, N.J. You can get five-day forecasts by clicking on any of the cities along the route.
I liked the simple design of USA Today's weather site. A colorful U.S. weather map is prominently displayed, resembling the paper's weather page. On the left side of the screen, you can click on beach guides, ski reports, UV forecasts, and other topics. One useful feature was a mosquito-infestation forecast. And if you're puzzled by such terms as heat index or Northern Lights, the Ask Jack section allows you to fire off a message to Jack Williams, USA Today's weather editor. On the downside, my local New York City forecast was not as current as data presented elsewhere.
That wasn't the only glitch I encountered. Intellicast (www.intellicast.com) displays the temperature of foreign cities in degrees Celsius--confusing unless you remember conversion formulas from high school. Most other sites use Fahrenheit, or both. Moreover, it may be steamy across the country this summer--but it's not 999 degrees in Atlanta or Pittsburgh, as indicated in one area of the Intellicast site I landed on.
If timeliness counts, you may want to subscribe to the premium services at the AccuWeather Web site. The Personal AccuWeather service costs $39.95 a year or $4.95 a month and includes real-time local Doppler radar (measuring the velocity and speed of moving objects, such as precipitation), satellite information, and detailed hour-by-hour forecasts. It's one thing to discover that there's a 60% chance of rain; it's another to learn that showers are likely to hit at 4 p.m. Premium subscribers also have access to extended, 10-day local forecasts, although AccuWeather President Joel Myers, a meteorologist, admits that long-range forecasting can be spotty.
If you're the type who likes to figure out the weather yourself, you can buy weather stations that measure temperature, humidity, and wind chill at AccuWeather's online store. But a more complete selection of weather-related gizmos can be found at the Weather Affects site (www.weatheraffects.com or 800 317-3666). Products range from $60 emergency weather radios and $100 handheld anemometers for reading wind speeds to $75 sundials and $319 rooftop weather vanes. You can also download a flurry of weather-oriented shareware programs at WeatherNet (cirrus.sprl.umich.edu/wxnet). These include Digital Atmosphere for displaying weather charts, and Tracking the Eye, which lets you follow severe storms. Between all the Web sites and the gadgets and software, you'll be able to get a decent handle on whether those black clouds on the horizon are brewing a dangerous twister or a mere thunder shower.