September 22, 2021
And Now For a Look at the Weather. Introducing Meteorologist and Photographer, Michael DeYoung
Words & photos by Michael DeYoung
I’m Michael DeYoung, and I am a former Air Force meteorologist. For the past 30 years, I have been a travel and adventure photographer with a commercial career that’s seen thousands of publication credits in magazines, books, calendars, and advertisements. Two years ago, I began teaching weather and forecasting for photographers to find the best light and conditions to create impactful imagery. The good folks here at Hyperlite Mountain Gear have asked me to offer my meteorological knowledge and skills as a resource for adventurers.
At first, I used my meteorological expertise to find the best light and warmest conditions for demanding commercial tourism clients in Alaska; a place with a harsh climate, even in summer.
Over time with an ever-improving set of tools and data available over the internet, I studied which weather patterns and clouds produced the most dramatic and salable light for outdoor photography.
Frequent sojourns into wild places by backpack, ski, or paddle are a huge part of my photography. We have spent weeks exploring the wilderness of Alaska, the Cascades, Rockies, and the Desert Southwest. I began to use modern forecasting tools on our adventures, too, figuring optimal times to go so we could either avoid or intercept challenging weather for photo impact.
Learning and understanding the climatology of the areas we were exploring and using model forecasts became valuable planning and decision-making tools for our adventures.
Case in point, in our 13 multi-day Grand Canyon backcountry trips, mostly in spring and fall, I have seen as little as ten minutes of rain, total! On our 14th trip, which was our third time on the Royal Arch Loop, that changed. Most of our crew was planning to cowboy camp our fifth night out on the western Tonto trail. After all, it was a clear, calm day, and we were anticipating another night of stargazing. In the dusk hour, I watched cumulus clouds forming and building on the western horizon.
There was nothing threatening at first, but the fact this was happening now at this time of day was concerning, and it signaled a significant change coming. The only way cumulus clouds develop with night approaching is if there is large scale mechanical lift caused by an approaching front or upper-level short wave. I warned the crew that even though it was clear now, the rain was coming by morning, and they should put up their rain fly and tarps. The steady rain started shortly after midnight and continued non-stop until 9 am, with off and on showers the rest of that day. New snow emerged on both rims. It was one of the most delightful days I’ve ever had in the Grand Canyon backcountry. Thanks to diligent observation, we didn’t have to scramble in the middle of the night to rig rain flys to stay dry.
So, what can I offer outdoor adventurers and enthusiasts? A series of blogs and tutorials to increase your knowledge of the basic mountain, desert, and even coastal meteorology.
Let’s start small. One of the best skills any wilderness traveler can have is a solid foundation of basic meteorology and cloud identification skills. Observing what clouds are telling you and understanding what is happening on location can prove invaluable in making short-term forecasts aiding in decisions when the weather is a factor for safety or comfort.
Next, we will move into common mountain and valley weather patterns, exploring what patterns normally take place in between weather systems that might influence where you camp and how much time you can safely spend high and exposed above tree line.
A critical concern for desert travel besides heat and exposure is flash flooding. Not all wet weather patterns produce flash flood risk. I will write about what conditions mean high risk and minimal risk.
Severe weather associated with thunderstorm activity and lightning is a big concern for adventure travel in many mountain ranges. I will talk about the dynamics and anatomy of convective weather and how to recognize a potentially dangerous storm situation.
Another useful topic is discussing seasonal climate patterns and how to look at and get useful climatological data for specific mountain and desert locations. And, of course, no weather curriculum would be complete without a discussion of winter weather.
Eventually, we want to build our knowledge base that will show outdoor adventurers how to get accurate and useful site-specific forecasts for anywhere on the globe using the most comprehensive app and site that I have found: windy.com. We want to move past relying on simple weather graphics common on our smartphone apps.
All the tools I used for forecasting that were the exclusive domain of weather stations with dedicated phone lines and machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars are now available on-line, in real-time to anyone who wants them! Global atmospheric modeling is more detailed and accurate today than ever, and forecasting models keep improving with artificial intelligence integration into weather modeling.
From my experience as a photography guide and teacher, I strive to take complex subjects, like meteorology, climatology, and forecasting, and break it down into digestible chunks that people can make practical use of. Repeat the process, keep applying skills, and little by little, you can build up a sizable knowledge base that guides you into good decision making on any outdoor adventure or trip outdoors. Weather forecasting is 90% pattern recognition and correlation.
Michael DeYoung is a photographer, a wilderness traveler, and a weather guru who, together with his wife and adventure partner Lauri, has bucked corporate tradition and forged a life as a freelance adventure and travel photographers in the ’90s. They have shot campaigns for a wide variety of tourism clients and outdoor publications, including many assignments promoting Alaska as a visitor destination. When not out in the wilderness, they spend their time near Taos, New Mexico, in a 100% solar powered, sustainable straw bale home and office. Michael has turned more toward leading and guiding photography workshops and uses his meteorological expertise to teach others forecasting for wilderness travel and finding the best photographic light.