SKYWARN Spotters: Talking on the Radio, Eyes on the Storm

February 21, 2013
By

VORTEX2 intercepts a tornado in SE Wyoming on June 5, 2009. Wyoming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article is a special contribution by journalist Kelly Fetty.

 

It’s 10 p.m. on a humid spring night in Texas. To the east of highway 78, flashes of lightning reveal glimpses of a massive thunderhead. A car pulls off the highway. Inside, the driver scans the horizon and speaks into a ham radio.

“This is KE5AYC, I am mobile and I am in Sachse, Texas.”

The National Weather Service has forecast severe weather in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the local SKYWARN spotter network has been activated.

What Is SKYWARN?

SKYWARN is a collaboration between the National Weather Service (NWS) and amateur storm spotters. All SKYWARN spotters are volunteers trained by National Weather Service personnel. When hazardous weather threatens their community, SKYWARN spotters form a comunications network, reporting current weather conditions and helping the National Weather Service track the behavior of developing storms.

The idea of organizing amateur spotters to report hazardous weather conditions first took shape during World War II, when the military sought ways to protect installations such as supply depots and ammunition dumps from lightning and tornadoes. By June 1945 there were over 200 spotter networks nationwide.

Today, Warning Coordination Meteorologists in 122 National Weather Service offices across the United States coordinate with over 290,000 trained volunteers to report weather conditions on the ground in real time.

KE5AYC is the amateur radio call sign of Scott Whitfield. Whitfield was raised in Wichita Falls, Texas, a community with a long history of surviving tornadoes. One of his earliest memories is the sight of mud spattering across the windshield of the car as his family fled the path of a tornado.

Whitfield, a SKYWARN spotter for 12 years, explained, “I do it primarily just as a community service.” He added, “You know, growing up where I grew up and seeing what I’ve seen, the more people that know this type of weather is fixing to affect them, the better off we are.”

Ground Truth and Doppler Radar

An Internet connection and a few mouse clicks are all it takes to view National Weather Service NEXRAD images. NEXRAD stands for Next Generation Radar, a nationwide network of over 150 high-resolution Doppler units operated by the NWS. Watching the colorful, animated images form, mutate and migrate across the screen, it’s easy to wonder why human spotters are still needed.

One reason is a phenomenon called the radar horizon. Although the earth’s surface is curved, radar beams can only travel in straight lines. This means that as the distance from the transmitter increases, the earth’s surface fall further and further beneath the radar beam, creating a blind spot.

In addition, radar can’t always distinguish between types of precipitation. Light drizzle can be mistaken for snow. Even flocks of migrating birds can create misleading radar echoes.

Human spotters can tell NWS officials what is actually happening on the ground. Their eyewitness reports are called “ground truth.”

Meteorologist Gary Woodall has worked with the National Weather Service for 12 years.

“The electronic tools that we have are great,” he said, adding, “They let us see storms in ways that we never could before- but we still need that human element giving us the visual and environmental pieces of the puzzle as to what the storms are actually doing.”

“And so that’s why they need eyes on the ground,” Whitfield explained. “To give them that ground truth and give it to them in real time as the storm passes.”

Training SKYWARN Spotters

All SKYWARN spotters are trained by National Weather Service personnel. Classes are free and usually offered between January and March. Aspiring spotters learn about storm structure, safety and how to report key details of severe weather. They can earn Basic or Advanced certificates (some NWS offices offer Intermediate and Elite certificates as well).

By his own estimate, Gary Woodall has trained thousands of SKYWARN spotters. Woodall was the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the NWS office in Fort Worth for over 9 years and has developed training materials that are used nationwide. A good storm spotter, he says, “must be trainable. They must be willing to learn not only about the weather but about the reporting procedures and methods that are used in their area.”

All spotters are required to refresh their training regularly.

“We recommend at least every other year, preferably every year,” Woodall said. “It’s kind of like when you go back and watch a movie the second time. You’ll pick up a lot more details and a lot more supplemental information that may have been missed the first time.”

The Role of Ham Radio in SKYWARN

SKYWARN spotters are also encouraged to earn an amateur radio license.

Amateur radio operators (also known as ‘hams’) have been forming organized groups since the Federal Government began issuing licenses in 1912. The American Radio Relay League, with a roster of over 156,000 members, was founded in 1914. By the early 30s, subgroups of the ARRL began to specialize in emergency communications.

Today SKYWARN relies on local chapters of ARES (the Amateur Radio Emergency Service) and RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) as the communication framework for spotters.

Scott Whitfield describes spotter communications as “very structured.” During a weather emergency spotters report to a net controller, who acts “sort of like a traffic cop, if you will,” acording to Woodall. The net controller in turn communicates directly with the National Weather Service.

It’s a relationship built on mutual respect. During severe weather events many NWS offices reserve desk space for amateur radio operators “in the operations area, literally right across the desk from the warning forecasters,” says Woodall.

As a weather event develops, the net controller may ask for reports from particular locations or relay forecast updates.

“We don’t clog up the line with chatter,” said Whitfield. “We give them only the information they want.”

If this reliance on ham radio seems dated in the Internet age of Facebook, Twitter and smartphones, consider this passage from an official SKYWARN spotter training manual:

“…if you think there is a tornado not far from your location…search along the horizon for bright flashes of light as the tornado destroys power lines and transformers.”

The tagline at the top of the official website for NC ARES Area 13 puts it succinctly: “When all else fails, ham radio works!”

Storm Spotting is Not Storm Chasing

The popularity of the 1996 film Twister and the Discovery Channel television series Storm Chasers has lead some people to confuse storm spotting with storm chasing.

Although SKYWARN spotters and storm chasers may sometimes work together during a weather event, storm chasing and storm spotting are two different things.

Storm chasers are mobile teams that follow a particular storm. Often they are engaged in scientific research and sponsored by a university. Other chasers regard storm chasing as a hobby and will travel hundreds of miles to be at the scene of a developing storm.

Ask a storm chaser what motivates them to pursue dangerous storms and you can get a variety of answers from scientific research to simple thrill seeking.

Ask a SKYWARN spotter what motivates them and you’ll always get the same answer: protecting lives and property.

“It’s very much like a battle zone,” said Whitfield, who added, “…the enemy is coming.”

On April 3, 2012 a massive hailstorm accompanied by a series of tornadoes slammed into the heavily populated Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Scott Whitfied was among the many SKYWARN spotters activated that afternoon.

“When those tornadoes set down and started tracking straight up though Dallas and Tarrant county, we were all afraid that this was The One. This was the Tuscaloosa or this was the Joplin or this was the Greensburg,” he said.

The storm caused 1 billion dollars in damage but no deaths, thanks in part to the work of local SKYWARN spotters.

“Talking on the radio,” said Whitfield, “and eyes on the storm.”

Sources

  • Charles A. Doswell III, et. al. (Online): “Storm Spotting and Public Awareness SInce the First Tornado Forecasts of 1948” (Weather and Forecasting, Vol. 14, No. 4).
  • NWS Weather Forecast Office, Louisville, KY (Online): “WSR-88D Doppler Radar Sampling Issues” (Staff, June 2004).
  • NOAA Magazine (Online): “Weather Development Highlight of National Severe Storm’s Laboratory’s First 40 Years.” (Susan Cobb, Staff, 2004).
  • Spotterguides.us (Online): “Storm Spotter Guides Online Version 2.0” (Staff, 2011).
  • NOAA.gov (Online): “What is SKYWARN?” (Staff, 2011).
  • al.com (Online): “Technology Has Altered the Way We Get Severe Storm Information” (Kenneth Carter, The Birmingham News, April 2012).
  • USAToday (Online): “Officials Asess Damage After Tornadoes Pummel Dallas Area” (Rick Jervis and Doyle Rice, April 2012).
  • University of Illinois (Online): Radar Meteorology: (Department of Academic Sciences, 2010).
  • Chattanooga County SKYWARN (Online): “Spotter Safety Tips” (Staff, accessed June 2012).
  • American Radio Relay League (Online): “About ARRL” (Staff, accessed June 2012).

 

Copyright Kelly Fetty

Kelly Fetty is a freelance writer living in Winston-Salem, N.C. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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