How critical is the weather to athletic field operations? Simply put, ask anyone who manages an athletic field. If the surface is natural, you worry about growing conditions. For both natural and synthetic surfaces, your concern is playing conditions on the day of a game. So, how do you deal with rain, snow, ice, etc.? What about the crew, outside in the elements? Are conditions dangerous? Is it too hot? Too cold? Is lightning a threat?

When it comes to weather, there’s a lot to think about. But the more you know about it and what to expect, the better off you are.

Trusted sources

There’s no better source for weather information then the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, the NOAA collects pertinent weather information and produces useful resources and timely forecasts.

There’s a difference between weather and climate – and each is important. Weather refers to the current conditions, for example temperature, humidity, etc. We use the term weather out to as far as one year. Beyond that, we use the term climate, which refers to past conditions. Typically, we talk about averages over longer periods of time; 30 years is the standard. But beyond just averages, climate data also highlights the weather extremes that have occurred in the past. Often, it’s the extremes that are useful in future planning.

Helpful Weather Websites

Sports turf specifics

If you’re dealing with turfgrass, temperature is a major concern. What are typical summer and winter temperatures in your area? How hot or cold can it get? When is frost possible? As for the game/event itself, what kind of weather has occurred in the past on this date? What types of weather must you allow for? All of this is in the realm of climate.

Climate data for the U.S. and many other countries is collected and processed at the Center for Weather and Climate, which is part of the National Centers for Environmental Information located in Asheville, North Carolina. Here, you can find the long-term averages and weather extremes that have occurred near your location in a variety of formats, from tables to maps to interactive displays.

Available data includes average high and low temperatures and precipitation for individual stations on an annual, monthly, daily and even hourly basis. In addition, for most stations, there are complete weather records going back years, so you can check for various extreme weather occurrences. There are specific products dealing with frost occurrence.

If you’re interested in soil temperatures, especially in terms of freezing, these records are also available.

More local climate data is available from six regional climate centers and 47 state climatologist offices.

Day to day

Climatology helps with planning, but what about day-to-day operations? Here, we’re interested in weather and the weather forecast. The official source of weather in the U.S. is the National Weather Service (NWS). If you go to their website and click on your location on the interactive map, it will take you to your local NWS office. There you can find all types of information on the weather from the past, present and future.

The standard forecast will include temperature, wind direction and speed, sky condition (sunny, cloudy, etc.) and precipitation (if any is expected). Although the standard written forecast covers 12-hour periods, there are digital and graphical displays that depict expected hourly changes in these variables.

The precipitation forecast has two components: the probability of precipitation (PoP) given as a percentage, and the expected amount of precipitation during a given three- or 12-hour period.

A couple of things to keep in mind about the PoP – it has no relation to the expected amount of precipitation or to real coverage of precipitation. A PoP of 40 percent means that any one location has a four in 10 chance of precipitation, not that 40 percent of the forecast area can expect precipitation.

Forecasts are broken down into time periods. The “near term” goes out 36 hours and will include forecast precipitation amounts and timing of precipitation occurrence, if applicable. “Short term” goes out another 24 hours and just gives temperatures and precipitation probability.

The “long term” forecast goes out to seven days.

If you’re dealing with cold-weather events, forecasts will highlight the possibility of frost, snow, sleet, or freezing rain as necessary. Watches and warnings can also be issued. A watch means hazardous weather may occur within 48 hours. Warnings are issued when dangerous weather is ongoing or expected within hours.

The NWS also issues even longer-range forecasts. There are products that go out to two weeks and give a general idea (not day to day) if temperatures and precipitation are going to be near normal or above or below normal. There are also monthly and three-month outlooks that go out a year. These are very general forecasts of temperature and precipitation relative to normal.

Of immediate concern on a given day is the forecasted weather conditions for the next few hours. Whether it’s for typical outdoor activities or especially on the day of a game/event, you need to know what to expect in the short term. The NWS refers to this as “Nowcasting” – it’s a different type of forecasting for them. It involves not so much mathematical models and computers; more so “old-school” forecasting techniques and a healthy input of the forecaster’s knowledge and experience.

Talking about precipitation

Precipitation is a primary concern for athletic field managers. Will it rain or snow? How soon will it start and when will it end?

The best tool for short-range precipitation forecasting is weather radar. To check your area, just go to your local NWS website or commercial weather provider. Meteorologists will use radar trends to make the short-range forecast and you can look at the radar information and make your own determinations. Thunderstorms, of course, pose a great threat to any outdoor activity. Weather radar is a great way to see and track thunderstorms (they show up nicely in red).

Right or wrong?

How accurate are weather forecasts? Short-range forecasts, out a few hours, are reliable especially when radar is used to track precipitation. Standard forecasts out to 36 hours are good for temperatures and precipitation occurrence, but forecast precipitation amounts are less accurate. By five days out, temperature forecasts are typically good, but timing of precipitation events becomes problematic. The general forecasts for the second week are reasonably good. Weather forecasts beyond two weeks are questionable the further out you go.