Storm Spotter Class

Friday, May 24, 2019 3:07 PM

This morning we joined the chasing group for a storm spotter session run by the meteorologist Sam Lashley (left) of the Northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service (NWS). The NWS helps train regular people to become storm spotters. These weather observers learn how to identify dangerous weather conditions and report them to the NWS. Citizen science at its best! The on-the-ground reports that storm spotters call in are important for issuing severe weather warnings. While meteorologists use the NWS radar network to predict and track storms, there are limits to its coverage. Storm spotters help fill in the gaps. And it makes a difference.

A tornado WATCH means that conditions are favorable for storms that may produce tornadoes. Anyone under a tornado watch needs to have a plan in case of a tornado and should be checking for weather updates. But a tornado WARNING is the biggie. It’s the alert that demands action. A tornado warning means take shelter now. Head to the basement or an interior windowless room. Get off the road and abandon your vehicle. Immediately! Minutes save lives. 

The decision to issue a tornado warning isn’t taken lightly by the NWS. “We consider three criteria,” says NWS meteorologist Sam Lashley.

  • Is the environment favorable for tornado formation? Is there a current tornado watch issued?
  • Does radar indicate a tornado? Modern radar has tell-tale indicators for the rotation within severe storms that likely mean a tornado is happening.
  • Is there a credible report of a tornado? Did a trained storm spotter send in a report, video, or a photo of a tornado?

“Two of the three gets a tornado warning issued,” says Lashley. That means what a storm spotter sees and reports can play a big part in saving lives.

Tornado or Not? 

How do you know if that tornado-ish shaped thing you’re seeing is a tornado? Here’s some tips I picked up in today’s class.

TIP: Look for rotation in the storm cloud. If you see something with a funnel shape hanging down from a storm cloud it’s easy to think that it’s a tornado in the making. But if nothing is spinning, if the lower part of the cloud isn’t rotating at all, then it’s not even a funnel cloud. 

**Remember that a tornado isn’t a tornado until it has contact with the ground. If it never reaches the ground, it wasn’t a tornado. It was only a funnel cloud.**

TIP: Look at the ground below the funnel cloud. What’s going on down there? Can you see dust or debris getting kicked up? That means it’s a tornado. It’s connected to the ground. Even if you can’t see the elephant-trunk or ropey funnel cloud reaching down to where the dust cloud is. 

That’s all for now. Heading out tomorrow early toward the best chance of severe weather—KANSAS!

Chat with you Day 2 (that means “tomorrow” in weather geek speak), I’ll post early in AM.