Weather watchers have existed in some form or another for over a century. From the basic observations of temperatures and barometric pressure in the late 19th century to the modern day weather observation network today weather continues to play a critical role in our everyday life. Compared to a few decades ago technological advancements have allowed modern and automated equipment to replace what was previously done manually. One such advancement is doppler weather radar which is an amazing feat in itself. Not only can doppler radar see inside thunderstorms but it can see which way the wind is moving and at what speed. That allows meteorologists to monitor every aspect of a thunderstorm’s strength whether it be how tall the storm rises or how fast winds are inside of it. Dual polarization technology introduced over the past five years even allows us to see previously undetectable features such as tornadic debris and the shape of ice crystals inside a cloud. Even with all of that amazing technology nothing can replace trained weather observers and spotters for a very good reason.
Even the most advanced weather radar cannot overcome the fact that the surface of the earth is curved. A beam from a weather radar emanates as a straight line out mile after mile but since the earth is curved it gains altitude as you add distance. About ten miles away from the radar the lowest beam is looking at about 500 feet above the ground. At 40 miles that altitude increases to over 3,000 feet. At 100 miles from the radar it can only see above 10,500 feet. While a powerful thunderstorm can extend over 50,000 feet a potential tornado is in the lowest few hundred feet of the thunderstorm. So what does that mean? Weather radars can detect rotation in a thunderstorm but under most circumstances only a set of eyes on the ground can observe what’s occurring under a thunderstorm. Without installing weather radars about every 20 miles there is no way to overcome that issue. In some parts of Texas the closest weather radar is over 120 miles away. In those cases the only way to observe low-level features of thunderstorms or to know what type of precipitation is falling is by those on the ground reporting it to their local National Weather Service office or by sharing information on social media (Twitter is the best way to share reports in real time).
Trained weather spotters are not meteorologists. Many times they’re just folks who are wanting to learn more about weather or provide a service to their local community. While trained spotters were most commonly associated with amateur radio during from the 1970s through the early 2000s the advent of mobile technology has changed that. Today many trained spotters simply file reports via their cell phone or an online application. We personally file our reports using Spotter Network which is an online-based platform that utilizes our GPS data fed over our laptop while chasing. Other ways of filing reports include by phone, online platforms, or amateur radio. You do not have to be associated with a group or organization to be a spotter.
A storm spotter is a volunteer who attends free training that usually taken about 2 hours. The basic training teaches individuals how to identify different thunderstorm features, how to tell the difference between cloud features and what is/isn’t dangerous, and other information that helps individuals know what they’re looking at when out actually looking at a thunderstorm. Trained spotters are typically members of the public who file first-hand reports when severe weather is impacting their area. That can include flooding, large hail, wind damage, rotating wall clouds, funnel clouds, or a tornado. Specific reporting criteria varies based on your location and National Weather Service office which would be explained during the training session.
What is the difference between a Storm Spotter and a Storm Chaser?
A weather spotter typically remains stationary or local to their home location. Spotters will report as a storm passes over/near their location and can quickly move to shelter if needed. A storm chaser will often travel hundreds to thousands of miles a year in the hunt for severe weather. Storm chasing is inherently more dangerous than spotting because a chaser is mobile and must be able to forecast and safely navigate around storms. Individuals who attend a Skywarn training class are not automatically storm chasers nor should they assume they can chase storms without further training or experience.
How much does a Skywarn class cost to attend?
Skywarn classes are free to attend and are scheduled by local National Weather Service offices. Most in-person classes in Texas are scheduled during the late winter and early spring months.
Spring 2016 Storm Spotter Training Classes
The time of year has once again arrived when most in-person storm spotter training classes take place! Typically classes run about two hours but there are select days/locations that offer a more advanced course that can last up to four hours. Those classes are identified so you can plan accordingly. Usually no advanced registration is required but in some cases that may not be true and all classes are free with no attendance fee. Please select the National Weather Service office closest to your location for a list of classes in your area. Some of these offices also conduct online training using live webinars. The National Weather Service in Norman conducts several online classes that can be attended by anyone regardless of their location.