Have you ever wondered how the National Weather Service knows when a tornado touches down? Or how it determines a densely populated area is about to be flooded?
Sure, the NWS has satellites, Doppler radar and a host of other highly advanced technologies at its disposal. But an essential, but often overlooked, element of weather reporting is the ranks of local citizens — more than 290,000 strong — who have volunteered to be the NWS’s eyes and ears on the ground.
Trained by the NWS and described as its “first line of defense against severe weather,” these volunteers are known as storm spotters. (The official name for the NWS storm spotter program is “SKYWARN.”)
The NWS encourages anyone with an interest in public service and access to communication, like a HAM radio, or with responsibilities for taking care of other people (teachers, nursing home workers, etc.), to volunteer as a storm spotter. Beyond private citizens, volunteers include law enforcement and fire personnel; emergency dispatchers; public utility workers; and emergency medical services workers, the NWS says.
Storm spotters have formal training. Classes are conducted by one of 122 NWS Weather Forecast Offices around the country. The training is free and typically takes about two hours, covering everything storm spotters need to know:
Storm spotters may have different methods of working, depending on their location, expertise and mobility. However, it’s important to note that they’re generally not storm chasers like the guys you see driving toward tornadoes on cable TV. Instead, it’s a storm spotter’s job to observe and report the weather that happens in their own area. Things they report include sightings of funnel clouds and tornadoes; reports of hail, heavy rain or flash flooding; and any weather-related damage (e.g., snapped trees, downed power lines, etc.) or even injuries.
Each year, more than 1,000 tornadoes, 5,000 floods and 10,000 thunderstorms move across some portion of our nation, the NWS says. And though satellites and other technologies are used heavily by the NWS, they can’t always alert the agency to situations that may be threatening people and property moment-by-moment, on the ground. Storm spotters’ real-time reports allow the NWS to provide critical weather warnings to the public.
You can locate a SKYWARN storm spotting class by checking the NWS website and searching for training centers in your area. The best part? While each local office runs a bit differently, the NWS says you don’t have to become an official storm spotter if you sign up for a class; you can even attend out of a pure interest in the weather.
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