Friday, April 05, 2019

COLUMN: Storm Spotting

Fear not, Quad Cities. Sleep well. You are safe.

At great personal sacrifice, I am now officially certified to protect you all. I've even got a fancy secret identification number to prove it.

What were YOU doing last Thursday after work? Maybe making dinner. Maybe hanging out with your family. Maybe getting an early start to your St. Patrick's Day weekend.

Me? I journeyed to the distant land of Cambridge, Illinois, in order to sit in a windowless basement full of other earnest wannabe protectors of humanity, learning how to warn citizens of eminent danger and ensure that everyone find safety and shelter in times of crisis.

That's right, after a two-hour class, I am now a certified Skywarn Storm Spotter with the National Weather Service.

Pretty cool, eh? You're welcome, Quad Cities. The next time a tornado bears down upon our area, rest in the knowledge that there exist a number of us, perhaps even your friends and neighbors, who are officially trained and certified to proudly and confidently state, "Yep, that's most definitely a tornado." I have found my calling.

In all honesty, it was one of the coolest things I've ever done, and it's a training class that EVERYBODY should take.

As an amateur weather nerd, this was something I'd wanted to do for some time. The annual classes are free and voluntary and occur sporadically throughout the early spring. I hadn't been able to attend any of the ones closer to home, but when I saw there was a class in Cambridge I could get to, I was all in.

Frankly, I'm glad I made the trip. The class was held in Henry County's newly furbished Emergency Operations Center, which is pretty impressive. It's something straight out of the world-ending apocalypse movie of your choice -- a brightly-lit concrete bunker full of tables, chairs, screens, and phones. I felt important just sitting there. If, God forbid, Henry County were ever to fall victim to Something Really Bad, this is clearly the room where shots would be called, decisions would be made, and zombie uprisings would be thwarted.

So what IS the role of a Skywarn Storm Spotter? Essentially, I've now got the training to hopefully identify serious weather threats before and as they develop. And if I notice something potentially dangerous, I've got an ID number and the unpublished phone number required to call a meterologist at the local National Weather Service office, who can use the information to issue severe weather watches and warnings. In the 36-county bi-state area covered by our regional office, there are over 3000 trained spotters that the NWS relies on for eyewitness accounts.

That took me a little by surprise. Why do experts who live and breathe weather and who sit in rooms full of fancy radar screens and satellite imagery need call-ins from locals? As it turns out, radar doesn't always tell the whole story.

"Radar isn't a magic crystal ball," explained Rich Kinney, NWS Warning Coordination Meterologist and our class leader. "We need your eyes to see what's happening on the ground."

Radar is a literal life-saver, but its returns can vary based on distance, elevation, and even the curvature of the Earth. If the radar is miles away from a storm's center, it may only see what's way up in the sky and not what's happening on the ground.

"Spotters are the most vital link in terms of ground truth information," Kinney stressed. "Your calls matter. We could be on the fence about issuing a warning. You could also prevent us from issuing a false alarm."

Much of the class was spent learning how to identify dangerous weather conditions, but almost equal time was spent learning what ISN'T considered a severe weather situation. For the National Weather Service to issue a Severe Thunderstorm Warning, one of two scenarios has to be in play: Either the storm has to be producing 58 mph winds, or it has to be dropping 1" diameter hailstones. Anything less, by current standards, is just a storm.

We've all seen clouds in the sky that look super spooky and a potential one-way trip to Oz. But thanks to the class, I should now be able to identify a storm's updrafts and downdrafts and hopefully spot the difference between something that looks spooky and a supercell with actual rotation and a wall cloud capable of producing funnels.

If I was better at math, I might have considered meteorology as a career. Instead, I'm happy to have a little bit of training under my belt. Maybe one day it'll come in handy and a phone call from me might make a difference to get a warning issued in time for folks to get to safety. That's honestly pretty cool. I can't leap tall buildings in a single bound, but if I can help somebody with a single phone call, I'm proud to be a Skywarn Storm Spotter.

It's not too late to join the fun. There's still a few classes being held in the area. You don't need an advance reservation, you just have to show up. To see the remaining schedule for this spring, visit

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