The Log of Moira

The 5% You Need to Know (to be an intelligent consumer of weather forecast products)

Effect of land and sea breeze upon coastal (gradient) wind

This class will help you understand:

This class will NOT teach you:

Topics are arranged in order of decreasing “bang for the buck” or increasing return for increasing effort.


1.      Text forecast (“offshore”)

a.       Gradient wind offshore, mostly powered by highs/lows/fronts

b.      Wind speed is average, figure gusts 50% above average, more if wind off land

c.       “Significant wave height” quoted is average of highest 1/3 of waves, so some will be higher (see “Breaker, Breaker”)

d.      Cape effect upon coastal windNo consideration for “coastal effects” (see below)

e.       Average over a large area (>300 nm x 300 nm) and time (24 hours)

f.        Pull reports every day, at the same time every day

g.       Pay attention to issue time and valid time (true for all products)

h.       Watch out for changes in forecast especially increases (e.g., on Monday, the 72hr forecast/Thursday is for 15 kt, but on Tuesday, the 48 hr forecast/Thursday is for 20 kt). NWS tends to “undercorrect”

i.         Absolute numbers are less important than trend (if the forecast for Tuesday is for 15 kt and Wednesday is for 20 kt, but you only see 10 kt on Tuesday, you’ll likely see “more” maybe 15kt, on Wednesday)

2.      Modifying the forecast for coastal effects

a.       Land and sea breezes out to about 20nm may: (Fig 1)

                                 i.     Reinforce

                               ii.     Counteract

                              iii.     Shoreline effect upon coastal windChange direction

                             iv.     Closer to coast, effect is stronger and longer

                               v.     Strong sea breeze depends on sunny day: watch for a roll of cloud on the coast

                             vi.     Examples:

1.      LA afternoon breeze vs. Santa Ana (katabatic)

2.      Coastal lift off Punta San Blas

b.      Cape effects (Fig 2)

                                 i.     Acceleration

                               ii.     Bending

                              iii.     Wind and wave refraction

c.       Shoreline effects (Fig 3)

                                 i.     Onshore winds nearly parallel to coast become more parallel

                               ii.     Onshore winds nearly at right angles to coast become more perpendicular

d.      Gusting, especially winds coming off the land

e.       Wind against current (see pilot charts)

3.      Wind and wave forecast (24, 48, & 72 hours)

a.       Gradient wind and significant wave height as for text forecast

b.      Wind arrows

                                 i.     Short feather = 5 kts, long feather = 10 kts, pennant (triangle) = 50 kts

                               ii.     Arrow head points toward direction wind will blow toward, feathers are at end wind will blow from

c.       Symbols for types of weather frontMust modify for local/coastal effects as for text forecast          

d.      Fronts (Fig 4)

                                 i.     Seldom dip below 20 degrees latitude

                               ii.     Warm: rounded bumps (“melted”), usually gentler

                              iii.     Cold: triangles (“frozen”), often violent

                             iv.     Occluded (cold catches warm)

                               v.     Stationary

                             vi.     Wind often suddenly shifts 90 degrees (clockwise in northern hemisphere) on passage of cold front

1.      Cross sea

2.      Untenable anchorage

e.       Highs and lows discussed below

4.      Wave period and swell direction forecast

a.       Long period swell from distant storm

                                 i.     Max swell period for 20 kt wind is 7.5 sec. Add 2 sec. for each 5 kt above 20 kt. E.g., 35 kt = 13.5 sec. (typical period about 60-75% of max)

                               ii.     Speed of a wave group (not individual waves) is 1.5 knots x period (sec.)

b.      Storm may be approaching

c.       Anchorage or passage may become uncomfortable

5.      Surface analysis and surface forecasts (24, 48, & 72 hours)

a.       Surface analysis (“nowcast”) and surface forecasts vs. wind/wave forecasts

                                 i.     Wind arrows on surface analysis are actual ship reports, warts and all

                               ii.     Wind arrows on wind/wave forecasts are model output

                              iii.     Wind shifts with passage of a LowIf no arrows on surface analysis, no local reports, so be cautious about validity of forecast

b.      Pressure centers

                                 i.     High (“H”)

1.      Cooler air, more stable

2.      Clockwise rotation in northern hemisphere

3.      Ridge with wind shift

                               ii.     Low (“L”)

1.      Warmer air, less stable, sometimes violent, strong wind shift, veer vs. back

2.      Counterclockwise rotation in northern hemisphere

3.      Fronts stem off of low

4.      Trough (“TROF”) with wind shift

5.      Thermal vs. frontal lows

                              iii.     Center symbol also shows

1.      Acceleration of geostrophic wind by velocity of movement of the center of a LowCentral pressure in millibars (mb/hPa), underlined, e.g. “1008

2.      Where center will be in 24 hours, and underlined forecast pressure, last 2 digits only “95”=995, “10”=1010

3.      Watch trend in pressure (low will be more vigorous if pressure deepens!)

4.      Watch acceleration due to motion of center

a.       “Dangerous quadrant” on front right side of Low in northern hemisphere

b.      Higher winds on front left side of High in northern hemisphere

                             iv.     NEW (new high or low will appear within 24 hrs after valid time of forecast)

                               v.     DISPT (dissipating)

                             vi.     STNRY (stationary)

                            vii.     RAPIDLY INTSFY (rapidly intensifying)

Geostrophic Wind Force (after Dashew P.113)

Wind speed (Kts) given latitude and spacing in degrees between 4mb isobars (“G” = “gusting to”)

Degrees Between 4mb Isobars

Latitude of observation













78 G 116

54 G 80

42 G 62

36 G 52


76 G 115

39 G 58

27 G 40

21 G 31

18 G 26


50 G 75

26 G 39

18 G 26

14 G 20

12 G 18


36 G 55

19 G 30

14 G 20

10 G 15

9 G 13


29 G 44

16 G 23

10 G 16

8 G 13

7 G 10

c.       Isobars

                                 i.     Lines of equal pressure

                               ii.     Usually every 4mb

                              iii.     Compare with calibrated barometer

1.      To adjust timing of passage of a center or front

2.      Must know local diurnal barometer pattern (e.g., in tropics barometer rises 3mb 4am-10am, falls 3mb 10am-4pm, etc.), compare to 24 hrs earlier

                             iv.     Wind blows mostly parallel to isobars, clockwise around High/ridge, counterclockwise around Low/trof (northern hemisphere)

                               v.     Isobars closer together = more wind

                             vi.     Cyclostrophic acceleration/deceleratoin of winds depending on High or Low pressure “Squash zone” where low and high are close together (barometer may not change)

                            vii.     Wind accelerates (10-20%) at bulge (ridge) around a high, decelerates at concavity (beyond what isobar spacing would forecast)

                          viii.     Wind decelerates at bulge ("trof") around a low, accelerates at concavity

d.      Intertropical  Convergence Zone (ITCZ)

                                 i.     Moves 0 N to 10 N with seasons

                               ii.     In ITCZ squally, unsettled weather, cloudy, with light/variable wind

                              iii.     N of ITCZ, winds mostly out of N

                             iv.     S of ITCZ, winds mostly out of S

6.      Pilot charts

a.       Passage planning, statistical averages drawn from ships’ logs over several centuries of observations

b.      Percent of time with wave heights > 12 feet (8 feet in Caribbean—see notes)

c.       Currents

d.      Wind rose

                                 i.     Percent of winds from each direction, with average wind strength. Number of feathers = Beaufort force number (BFN)[*]

1.      Wind speed and wave height for BFN 1-8, approximately,
   wind speed (knots) = (BFN - 1) x 5)
   max deep-water significant wave height (feet) = ((BFN - 1)2) / 2
(for BFN 9-10, don’t “subtract 1”)

2.      Duration needed (hours) from flat calm approximately,

a.       For 90% of max wave height, 24 hours

b.      For 75% of max wave height, 12 hours

c.       For 50% of max wave height, 6 hours

3.       Fetch needed (nautical miles) for BFN ≥ 4 from flat calm approximately,

a.       For 90% of max wave height, fetch = ((BFN - 3) x 100) - 50
(for BFN 9+, don’t “subtract 50”)

b.      For 75% of max wave height = ½ of formula value

c.       For 50% of max wave height = 1/6 of formula value

4.      With pre-existing swell, duration needed may fall by 3-4 hours

5.      If you don’t want to do the math, 2/3 - 3/4 of max height is a good guess

                               ii.     Number in center of wind rose is percent of calms

e.       Separate charts for percent of gales, fog, etc.

f.        Note that ships avoid forecasted bad weather, so bad weather is statistically under-reported

7.      GRIB files

a.       “GRIdded Binary”, not “Gospel wRitten In Bits”

b.      Output of a single computer model

c.       Always cross-check with NWS forecast—at least some human has looked at the forecast!

d.      Useful for

                                 i.     Interpolating from above reports for land effects

                               ii.     Driving performance/routing software

8.      Forecast discussion

a.       Forecaster may discuss uncertainties about forecast, e.g. computer models disagree, or forecaster disagrees with model, and alternative possibilities

b.      Forecasts generally show only “most likely” weather, with no mention of low-probability outcomes

Breaker, Breaker!


A short summary of information about breaking waves in shallow water.

Whether a wave will break in shallow water is primarily a function of its height and of the water’s depth, though other influences apply.

A consensus value for the critical depth that will cause breaking is 1.5x the wave height.

But what is the wave height? Any sea state is a spectrum of heights. Most forecasts and descriptions of sea state use the significant wave height (also called “H3”), the average of the heights of the highest 1/3 of the waves. Most observers, when asked to state how high the waves are, report a value close to significant wave height. But some waves will be higher than the significant wave height, and those will be the waves that break first. The following adjustments apply:

·        The average of the heights of the highest 10% of the waves (also called “H10”) is 1.27x the significant wave height. (Statistically, one in every 80 waves—about 13 minutes, assuming a 10 second period—will be 25% higher than H10. One in every 800 waves—about 2 hours—will be 50% higher than H10, or about twice the significant wave height.)

·        As waves move into shallow water, their height increases, reaching 1.33x the deep water height before breaking.


Taking these three factors together (1.5 x 1.27 x 1.33):

èA sea state described as a certain significant wave height will begin to break when the water depth becomes less than about 2.5x the (deep-water) significant wave height.


For example, a 25-knot breeze (force 6) can generate a significant wave height of about 12 feet. The highest 10% of the waves in the spectrum will average about 15 feet. As the 15-foot waves move into shallow water, they will grow to about 20 feet before breaking in water about 30 feet deep. A harbor entry with a 30-foot depth, or a 30-foot deep shoal, would have breakers.


Other influences


The other influences on wave steepness are based mostly upon the wave length (crest-to-crest distance), which can be calculated from its period (crest-to-crest time in seconds) as:

length (feet) = 5 x period2

(Note: If you attempt to time the period from a moving vessel, the velocity of the vessel will artificially increase or decrease the observed period and must be adjusted for.)

·        When depth = length/3, the wave height and steepness (height/length) locally decrease slightly. If you are paralleling a coast, you may be able to find a smooth avenue at the right distance off the beach, traveling on the surface above this depth contour.

·        When depth < length/4, the wave steepness climbs past its open-ocean value and continues to increase as depth decreases.

·        Also when depth < length/4, refraction begins. A convex depth boundary (e.g., a round shoal, or a river bar that sticks out like a tongue) will bend (focus) wave energy from either side into its center like a lens, causing breaking to occur over deeper water than otherwise. A concave boundary (e.g., a trough, or a deep river mouth with shoals on either side) will cause energy from the central axis to be drawn away to either side, reducing or postponing breaking.

·        Wind against current will cause steeper seas and earlier breaking. Entering a river mouth with an onshore wind should be done with a flood current if the situation is in doubt.

[*] Wave height, fetch, and duration formulae loosely based on W. G. Van Dorn, Oceanography and Seamanship, 2nd edition, Cornell Maritime Press, 1993