It’s easy to forget that there was a time in the not-too-distant past when we only had one or two ways to check the weather forecast. If you wanted to know tomorrow’s chance of rain, you had to wait for the evening newscast, or for the morning newspaper to show up on your potentially soggy front step. Not only have our forecasts improved by leaps and bounds since those seemingly dark days, but today we have the opposite problem—there are now so many ways to get weather information that it’s hard to pick just one. Here are some of the best sources you can use on your smartphone or tablet, along with some tips to help you make better decisions to stay a few steps ahead of whatever storm looms on the horizon.
The one question meteorologists and amateur weather geeks face more than any other is which apps they should trust for weather forecasts. Unlike “will it rain tomorrow?” or “how much snow will we get?” this is a tough question to answer, and few people agree on which one is truly the best.
Asking which app provides the best forecast isn’t the right question. People should care about which apps they can trust. The trustworthiness of different apps depends on the source from which the app draws its data. The accuracy rates of outlets like The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, and the National Weather Service are similar to one another, and they’re all trustworthy. However, a significant number of those off-brand weather apps available for download are not all that great. Many of them show you data straight from the weather models without any quality control from experts in the field. Contrary to popular belief, weather models don’t spit out the forecasts you see every day. Those models only provide guidance; it takes a trained professional to use that model guidance, among other tools, to come up with an accurate forecast.
Picking a weather app to check your daily forecast is mostly a matter of personal preference and which one does best in your area. (Accuracy-tracking websites like ForecastAdvisor can help you if you’re not sure.) When you choose an app, make sure it’s from a brand you know you can trust.
THE BEST APP FOR CURRENT WEATHER
If you’re more interested in finding out what the weather is like right now instead of what it’ll be like in a day or two, it’s hard to go wrong with the apps you choose to use. Most weather apps will give you current conditions for the nearest major airport, which is good for a ballpark estimate, but if you live in a small town dozens of miles away from the nearest city, what the app shows could be way off from what it’s really like at your location.
The best app to use for current conditions is Weather Underground, more commonly known as “Wunderground” these days. This popular website, owned by The Weather Company (which, for now, also owns The Weather Channel), is unique because they’ve fostered a network of thousands of personal weather stations around the world, giving you much greater odds of finding the weather nearby instead of at an airport a long drive down the highway. I live in a small town in North Carolina where our nearest major airport is 30 miles away. The nearest personal weather station linked to Weather Underground is one mile up the road from me. While you sometimes have to be cautious of the quality of this data, it’s good to use in a pinch.
Choosing an app to check the radar depends on your level of weather geekery. If you’re just looking to see if you need an umbrella, any app that offers updated radar data is usually a good deal, and many of them are free of charge. Almost all radar data in the U.S. comes from a single source—the National Weather Service—so aside from different color tables or the possibility of delayed data, it’s hard to mess it up like they could a forecast.
If you’re a hardcore weather enthusiast who needs all the gritty details to be satisfied, the best app you can use for iOS, OS X, and Android is RadarScope. At $9.99 for the mobile version, it’s a bit pricey as far as apps go, but it shows you “super resolution” radar data, plus all of the products you’d need to evaluate factors like wind in a storm, as well as look for different hazards like large hail or even debris swirling around in a tornado.
On a computer, the best way to get free radar data is from Wunderground’s website, which offers high resolution data that lets you see the storm as it is, without the smoothing or quality-degrading artsy effects that many other sites use. If you’re a Windows user and you’re willing to drop some serious money on a software program, Gibson Ridge offers high-caliber radar software (ranging from $80 to $250) for deep analysis, suitable for meteorologists or the weather geek who wants to see it all.
If you have a relatively new smartphone, you likely don’t need an app to know if you’re under any urgent weather alerts. Most smartphones built within the last five years have a feature known as Wireless Emergency Alerts, or the annoying screeching that occasionally scares you in the middle of the night. The notification is activated when the cell phone tower your phone is connected to is placed under an AMBER Alert (missing child), a tornado warning, a flash flood warning, or any of several other critical messages that require your quick action.
These alerts have already saved lives, but unfortunately, many people have disabled them due to too many annoyances. Inconvenient as they may be, make sure you keep them turned on. The only thing worse than falling victim to dangerous weather is being surprised by dangerous weather.