It has never been easier to get updates on the weather. If you have a smartphone, a few taps will pull up forecasts quicker than you can say "colder than a witch's tit" three times fast. Technology! But there's a much older, low-tech option for figuring out whether to bust out the umbrella, and it's still on display in many cities.
Built on top of tall buildings, weather beacons are beautiful relics of an older way of communication. These beacons changed colors and flashed their lights to signal what kind of weather was on the way. And plenty of them are still operational.
Weather beacons started cropping up on buildings in the 1950s and 1960s, serving as a weather warning service for the public. Though they have the whole flashing-light-to-denote-hazard thing in common with lighthouses, they aren't navigation tools, which is a common misconception.
Yeah, they were more functional before we all got tiny pocket computers, but the sky-high beacons remain a bright spot in skylines, an excuse to look up, and a good backup in case your phone ran out of batteries and you're trying to decide whether to walk or jump in a cab. Here are some of the most beautiful weather beacons still up-and-running:
Canada Life Building - Toronto, ON
The spiralling beacon on top of Toronto's Beaux Arts Canada Life building was the first of its kind in Canada. It's updated four times a day by Environment Canada's weather service. The top light flashes one of four colors to denote weather changes or upcoming precipitation. The lights leading up to the top run up or down depending on whether the weather is warming or cooling.
Gulf Tower - Pittsburgh, PA
People who look up at the colorful weather beacon on top of Pittsburgh's Gulf Tower are looking at a resurrected public service. The beacon operated from 1932 to the 1970s, until the Gulf Oil Company turned off the neon tubes during the oil crisis.
The Art Deco building eventually changed owners, and the new ones decided to bring back the beacon in 2012. They brought in a team to revamp the design using a Philips Color Kinetics LED lighting solution. The LED lights make this one of the most energy-conservative weather beacons, and a true asset to the city's skyline.
Berkeley Building - Boston, MA
Formerly known as the Old John Hancock Tower, the Berkeley Building has a skinny beacon on top to tell people about the weather. And, occasionally, whether Red Sox games are canceled. The beacon has been lit since 1950 (apart from an off stint in the 1970s during the energy crisis) and inspired a mnemonic song to help Bostonians memorize what it means:
Steady blue, clear view.Flashing blue, clouds due.Steady red, rain ahead.
Flashing red, snow instead.
The only times the beacon flashes both red and blue is when the Red Sox win the World Series.
Tempozan Ferris Wheel - Osaka, Japan
The colored lights on this large ride aren't purely ornamental. They are color-coded the reveal the weather, which Osaka's tourism website claims that the 1997 Ferris Wheel boasts "the world's first transmission of weather information by 100-meter-diameter illumination."
Beyazit Tower - Istanbul, Turkey
The current version of this tower was built from stone in 1828 during the Ottoman Empire. It originally functioned as a fire watch tower, alerting firefighters when one of Istanbul's many old wooden buildings when up in flames. Since 2010, the top of the tower has served as a weather beacon, lighting up to indicate snow, fog, rain, or sunshine. It's a beautiful reinvention of a historic building.
One Rincon Hill South Tower - San Francisco, CA
A far more modern example than the Beyazit Tower, San Francisco's South Tower was completed in 2008 and uses a band of 25 LED floodlights to project weather forecasts on the building's crown. For a famously foggy, unpredictable climate, it's surprising it took so long to get a weather beacon in the San Francisco Bay area. The tower has also been lit up in orange to support the Giants during their playoffs.
Images via Creative Commons