Reader Marcus from Louisville wrote in to ask, “What’s the difference between ‘mostly sunny’ and ‘partly cloudy’ (or for that matter, ‘mostly cloudy’ and ‘partly sunny’) in weather forecasts? Are any of those even specifically defined terms?”
The short answer: about 1 to 4 oktas.
What’s an okta? That’s a unit of measurement that meteorologists use when they’re forecasting cloud conditions, equal to 1/8 of the sky (though sometimes 1/10 is used). When the forecast is delivered, the number of oktas covered by opaque clouds (meaning that you can’t see through them, and the sun/moon/stars/sky are hidden) is described using “mostly sunny,” “partly cloudy” and other terms we’re used to hearing. Each of these is defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service in terms of oktas of cloud cover. The NWS Operations Manual breaks it down like this:
Day or Nighttime Forecast
8/8 opaque clouds
6/8 - 7/8 opaque clouds
3/8 - 5/8 opaque clouds
1/8 - 2/8 opaque clouds
0/8 opaque clouds
The difference in terms is a matter of how much cloud cover there is. Interestingly, partly sunny and partly cloudy mean the exact same thing—but partly cloudy is the correct term for nighttime conditions because you can’t see the sun.
“Fair” skies is another cloud cover term that’s sometimes used. Technically, it means that less than three oktas are covered with opaque clouds, and that there’s “no precipitation, no extreme conditions of visibility, wind or temperature, and generally pleasant weather.” If you don’t know that definition, though, “fair” sounds pretty vague on its own, so the NWS discourages forecasters from using it.
A lot of terms used in precipitation forecasts are also precisely defined by the NWS and are less subjective than they sometimes sound. The qualifying terms that express uncertainty about rain and snow (like “chance of snow” or “scattered thunderstorms”) are laid out like this:
Chance of precipitation
Expression of uncertainty
The area qualifiers are used when the chance of precipitation somewhere in the forecast area is very high, and correspond to the the expected coverage within the area (so “scattered thunderstorms” would mean that rain is very likely, but will affect only 30 to 50 percent of the area).