Kids learn about our planet's wild weather from NPR commentator

Where does the weather come from anyway?

"The wind," offered one youngster.

"The ocean," suggested another.

"Hamilton," announced a third.

Bryan Yeaton's heard just about every answer in his travels for Mount Washington Observatory and National Public Radio.

But Hamilton?

Turns out, there's some truth to all of the above, although the answer - correctly provided by a Paxson School fifth-grader Thursday afternoon - is the sun.

"Yes," Yeaton replied. "Can you believe it? The sun is responsible for all that snow outside."

The explanation, he said, begins with the sun heating the earth and hot air rising from the equator, leaving a vacuum that is quickly filled by cooler air from higher latitudes, creating circulating loops of wind and weather.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the resulting winds come out of the south, then are bent by the rotation of the earth into westerly winds - or southwesterly winds, Yeaton told his 100-plus youthful charges at Hawthorne, and then Paxson, schools.

Which is why, sometimes, it does indeed seem like Missoula's weather comes from Hamilton.

From his office atop Mount Washington, Yeaton sees all manner of meteorological comings and goings. Snow. Ice. Lightning. Wind. Lots and lots of wind.

In fact, the New Hampshire mountaintop where Yeaton writes and produces "The Weather Notebook" for National Public Radio is the windiest place on the planet.

"How fast do you think the wind blows on Mount Washington?" Yeaton asked fourth- and fifth-graders at Paxson.

"120 miles an hour?"

"More than that."

"150?"

"More than 150."

"250?"

"Just a shade below that. On April 12, 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory measured winds of 231 miles an hour," Yeaton said. "That's faster than NASCAR."

That's wind strong enough to create "breakfast issues" - should you try to pour a bowl of cereal out-of-doors, he said, showing students a video of "breakfast" atop the mountain.

"And that day, the winds were light," he said. "Sixty-five miles an hour."

Yeaton stopped in Missoula for school, radio, television and one public presentation Thursday en route to the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting in Seattle.

He's driving the coast-to-coast route, talking to children and adults alike about weather - much as he does in his two-minute daily radio show.

(Montana Public Radio runs "The Weather Notebook" at 6:19 a.m. Monday through Friday.)

In an hour's time, Yeaton schooled his audience in not only the origin of weather, but also its measurement: by thermometer, barometer, anemometer and licked hands.

What's humidity? Lick your hand and then blow on it. What happened to the temperature?

"It's colder," came the chorus.

Yeaton's finale, though, was the big-time crowd pleaser.

"This is called a Van de Graaf generator," he explained, pulling an oddly shaped contraption into the middle of the room. "It's a big spark. It makes lightning."

Whereupon he invited one student and then another and another to form an "electrical conduit" around the room, with sparks - and squeals - passing from generator to children.

Of course, electricity is nothing to fool around with, Yeaton cautioned. Just look at what happens when lightning strikes.

Electricity has a hard time going through air, he said. That's why a lightning bolt takes the closest possible route to the ground.

"So where don't you want to be during a lightning storm?"

"On the Empire State Building."

"Under a tree."

"On top of a mountain."

"And where do I work?" Yeaton asked.

"On top of a mountain."

So what do the weather watchers atop Mount Washington do when a lightning storm approaches?

Turn off all things electrical, Yeaton said. Stay indoors. And watch out the window.

To see what kind of weather the sun has delivered today.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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