It’s not something you’d think of as visual poetry, but here they are, at the home of Greg Johnson. Weather webcams.
He has four cameras in a wooden box nailed outside the second-story bedroom of his family home. He used shims to line up the cameras just so to have a straight-out view to Admiralty Inlet. Every container and cruise ship coming to Seattle goes through here.
The main cameras – three Olympus SP-500s – are working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
They take a picture every 20 seconds during the day, and at night about every 40 seconds because of the extended exposure time.
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So far Johnson has accumulated something like 12.5 million images for his Skunk Bay Weather site.
The poetry comes not only in his collection of stunning color images of sunsets, sunrises, clouds, storms, asteroids, lightning and rainbows, but in time-lapse videos in which Johnson can compress three hours into 18 seconds.
It’s all here.
When Johnson added a Canon T3 camera with its higher definition to his webcam collection, he started producing quite astounding and detailed images of the night sky.
He says proudly, “It was a big step. With the other cameras you see a smattering of stars. With this one the sky is full of stars. It picks up everything.”
Regular viewers of the videos have gotten used to seeing the 30-foot flagpole on the left side, and a madrona tree in the middle. They give perspective to the big storms as they sway.
Since he started the site in 2006, Johnson has built up an avid following in this region, and worldwide.
One fan is University of Washington weather guru Cliff Mass.
“I love the guy. I call him ‘The Poet of Weather Cams,' “ Mass says.
Mass has Johnson play his time-lapse videos as the finale at the annual Pacific Northwest Weather Workshop.
Up to then, the weather aficionados have been listening to talks about subjects such as “Stratiform Precipitation Processes.”
Then the videos show thundering weather in all its glory.
“He puts music to them. They’re so profoundly moving that some people start crying before they’re over,” says Mass
Followers of Greg Johnson’s website include not only weather buffs but also the CIA and NSA. (Provided by Greg Johnson)
On a slow day, skunkbayweather.com gets 500 hits. When a big storm comes through it can jump to 4,000 hits a day. (His location got its name in 1792 when the Vancouver Expedition came across the odoriferous animals and wrote about their “intolerable stench.”)
Sometimes Johnson finds out after the fact that a media outlet has used one of his videos. Back in 2012 he noticed he was gaining French followers. It turned out that Huffington Post France featured one of his lightning time lapses.
His regular fans also include the Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense Network, the National Weather Service and operators of small planes. Johnson says he can tell that from the IP addresses – the unique strings of numbers that identify a computer – that are accessing his site.
Perhaps the Department of Defense has people interested in the poetry of weather.
More likely is that Skunk Bay Weather is one of the most complete weather sites around, feeding 24/7 information from embedded links to real-time marine traffic worldwide to weather satellite images.
The webcams provide “ground truth on what is happening in the area including where the Puget Sound convergence zone is often born,” says Ted Buehner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service here.
Johnson uses software to line up the webcam images to get a CinemaScope view that takes in 148 degrees.
More than a hobby
Johnson is 65, retired from working as an IT director and in finances for Town & Country Markets.
He remembers exactly when he became interested in all things weather. He was in fifth grade at Magnolia Elementary when the Columbus Day storm of Oct. 12, 1962, hit the Northwest. Winds of 83 mph were recorded in Seattle.
Johnson remembers the teacher only as “Miss Smith.”
“She spent the day talking about the storm, what it was like being in a windstorm, how to prepare,” he says.
Teachers never know when the enthusiasm they show for a subject might somehow stick with a kid for decades.
Nicci Johnson, his wife of four decades, stoically puts up with his passion.
Her husband’s weather system runs on six computers. They have a 6,500-watt generator in case the power goes out. They have two internet connections.
“I need Comcast for blazing-fast internet to push up a ton of materials. But two or three times a year, when there is a big storm, the power goes out and Comcast goes, ‘Bye.’ Then I roll over to CenturyLink, which is slower but way more stable,” says Johnson.
Johnson begins his day with some coffee and looking over the previous night’s images. He says he typically spends two hours a day on his site.
“On big days, it’s 8 to 10 hours,” says Johnson.
He says, “What really jazzes me up is realizing there is something that big and powerful. I’m just amazed by the power and vastness that Mother Nature puts in front of us.”
He shows an image of noctilucent clouds.
“It’s a very rare event. It’s just amazing to be able to see it!” says Johnson. “They are ice crystals 35 to 70 miles above the North Pole.”
He shows a picture of a “moonbow.” It’s a rainbow caused by the light of the moon.
Here is a sunset. “Incredible!”
He talks about all the images that you sleep right through.
“The reality is that we may see 2 percent of a day,” he says. But now they are all here, recorded.
Nicci listens to Greg talk weather, and more weather, and goes off to read.
“He’s too addicted,” she says. When they went to Florida on vacation last year, one of the first things Greg did was take a video of palm trees in a storm.
Greg says, “Hey, I’m not in some tavern. And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than being on the golf course every day.”
Anyway, if it weren’t for Nicci maybe the website wouldn’t have gotten going.
With their two kids grown, she went to work as a hairstylist.
The first $500 she earned she gave to Greg.
“Here, go buy that thing,” she told him. The thing was a Davis Vantage Pro2 weather station that Greg had been longing for but thought was too expensive.
Especially in a winter like we just had, Nicci would have entertained thoughts of moving someplace warmer, like Palm Springs.
She knows it won’t happen.
On a recent afternoon, wind and rain outside, Greg talks about videos of the “really stormy stuff.”
He says, “That’s eye candy.”
Later he sends an email: “Thought you might enjoy this.” It’s the weather the afternoon of the interview.