This is a “reprint” of an article I submitted to the March issue of Allen County HamNews, the monthly newsletter of all three Fort Wayne-based ham radio clubs.
An unusually large crowd of 135 people attended SKYWARN storm spotter training at the Public Safety Academy on the south side of Fort Wayne Feb. 21. That compares to 87 in 2016 and 91 in 2015.
This year’s presentation included video and images from the Aug. 24, 2016 tornado outbreak. Some interesting tidbits from the presentation included:
• The tornado that struck northeastern Allen County Aug. 24 was stronger than the one that demolished the Starbucks coffee shop in Kokomo.
• 14 tornadoes touched down in Indiana and Ohio counties covered by the northern Indiana National Weather Service office (IWX).
• Of those, every single tornado touchdown was preceded by a tornado warning from (IWX).
• The average time lead time for IWX tornado warnings was 16 minutes (i.e. on average, IWX issued tornado warnings 16 minutes before the first touchdown).
• When spotters use the web form to make a report, meteorologists in the NWS office hear an alarm as soon as it’s submitted.
Meteorologist Sam Lashley reminded spotters that the NWS does not wish to receive reports of shelf clouds or SCUD (scattered cumulus under deck) clouds. Shelf clouds can come with damaging straight-line winds, so spotters should take cover when they see one coming. The NWS will want to know about any damage those winds cause, but it does not need to know about the cloud itself. SCUD clouds can look scary, but they’re harmless, so the NWS doesn’t want to spend time taking reports of those, either.
For anyone who missed the Feb. 21 event, three more are planned close to Fort Wayne:
March 7, 7 p.m., 22491 Mill Street, Defiance, Ohio
March 9, 6 p.m., 200 W. Washington Street, Bluffton, Indiana
March 13, 7 p.m., 503 Fairground Drive, Paulding, Ohio
A significant number of non-hams attended this year’s sessions, in part because Fort Wayne TV meteorologists promoted the event to their audiences on social media. Expecting this, the Fort Wayne Radio Club set up an information table just outside the auditorium, from which it distributed numerous pieces of literature about ham radio and its advantages for storm spotters.
First activation of season Feb. 24
Severe weather season arrived early this year, as Allen County received its first severe thunderstorm watch Feb. 24. Allen County SKYWARN activated in standby mode at about 4 p.m., after the NWS issued the watch at 3:45. W9GGA, N9HRA and KC9EZP took shifts monitoring the frequency for any spotter reports. Fortunately, not all the necessary ingredients for severe weather arrived at the same time and the watch ended early, at 7:11 p.m.
OSU Severe Weather Symposium to discuss August outbreak
Several presenters during the 2017 Ohio State University Severe Weather Symposium, scheduled for Friday, March 24 in Columbus, Ohio, will talk about the August 24 outbreak. The line-up includes:
Mark Frazier – Meteorologist in Charge, NWS Northern Indiana, Indiana
Rick McCoy – Director of Van Wert County EMA, Ohio
Nick Greenawalt – NWS Cleveland, Ohio (formerly of NWS Northern Indiana)
Other speakers of note include:
Greg Forbes – Severe Weather expert, The Weather Channel
This symposium is free and is often attended by storm spotters, storm chasers, emergency managers and many OSU meteorology students. If you’re willing to drive to Columbus on a Friday, the symposium provides a good chance to learn more than normal spotter training covers. Follow the link above for more information and to pre-register.
Much of Indiana has a moderate risk of severe weather tonight, including an elevated risk of strong tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) Storm Prediction Center.
Especially disconcerting on Feb. 28 is the forecast that much of the severe weather might arrive after many Hoosiers have gone to sleep.
That makes now a good time for Hoosiers (and everyone else who lives an an area that ever receives severe weather) to make sure they have good ways to know about any warnings their local NWS offices issue.
So here’s my list of the best ways to get tornado, severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings.
Wireless Emergency Alerts
If you have a modern smartphone, the ability to receive tornado and flash flood warnings via the wireless emergency alert (WEA) system is built in. It should have been enabled when you bought the phone. Unless you have since turned WEA off, it will scream at you if you’re under or near a tornado or flash flood warning.
Severe thunderstorms are often deadly, in part because their straight-line winds can blow trees down on houses, cars, etc. But you won’t get severe thunderstorm warnings via WEA, so you’ll need one of the warning methods below for that.
Several smartphone apps can give you warnings with even more geographical precision than WEA. Plus these apps can warn you about severe thunderstorm warnings, as well as tornadoes and flash floods. My favorites are:
The first two are not free, but they’re inexpensive and effective. The FEMA app is free.
Your local television station might also offer a free app that can provide warnings. Visit your favorite stations’ websites to find out.
The American Red Cross also has a free app, but I do not recommend it. In my experience, its tornado warning alerts have arrived several minutes late.
NOAA Weather Radio
This is a special radio that receives spoken weather information directly from the NWS. Models are available for around $30. You can find them lots of places, including your corner Walgreens pharmacy. You can set these radios up so they remain silent until and unless the NWS issues any kind of warning for your county.
One disadvantage of NOAA Weather Radio is that it only provides county-wide alerts. So, if you live in a large county, you could receive an alert for a storm that won’t affect you. But that’s better than being in the path of a dangerous storm and not knowing! Plus, NOAA Weather Radios might be the best at waking you when severe weather threatens late at night.
I do not consider Twitter to be a primary way to receive weather warnings, but it’s a good supplement, especially if you follow your local NWS office and set your smartphone to give you a push notification every time that office sends a tweet.
The map above shows the coverage area of every NWS office that covers any part of Indiana, as well as the Twitter handle of each office.
Here’s a clickable list, for easy reference. You can use these links to monitor the tweets of each WFO, even if you don’t have a Twitter account:
If you’re not in Indiana, you can identify the appropriate WFO and social media feeds for any location in the U.S., by ZIP code or city and state name by entering them on the NWS “Social Media” page.
Twitter hash tags can also yield helpful information. Commonly used for posts about the weather in Indiana is #INwx.
Text messages and phone calls
If you don’t have a smartphone, there might be other ways to get alerted of weather warnings, depending on where you live.
Some local governments operate “reverse 911” systems that can text or even place a voice call to you when a warning is issued. To find out if this is available where you live, check the website of your municipal and/or county government and/or emergency management agency, or call the administrative number for your local police department (don’t call 911 for this information!).
Another possibility is that some local TV and radio stations provide weather alerts via text messages. Check the websites of your local stations to see if they do.
What about tornado sirens?
It’s very important to understand that tornado sirens — known in the emergency management community as outdoor warning sirens — are designed to alert only people who are outdoors. You’re not likely to be outdoors late at night. Even if you can sometimes hear tornado sirens inside your house, the sound isn’t likely to be loud enough to wake you (unless you live very close to a siren).
Therefore, you must not rely on tornado sirens to warn you of late-night storms while you’re indoors and possibly asleep. Instead, acquire one of the warning methods described above.
For 11 years, Alabama broadcast meteorologist James Spann (ABC 33/40, Birmingham) and several of his friends in the weather enterprise have produced a weekly podcast (internet talk show) called WeatherBrains. It was the first in what has become a group of weather-related podcasts that are jointly celebrating the first-annual National Weather Podcast Month in March.
The weather brains normally record WeatherBrains on Monday evenings. Audience members can watch the discussion live on YouTube, watch it later on YouTube or download the program as an audio recording for listening at their convenience.
W9LW’s Ramblings had chance to talk to Spann about the show that started the weather podcast genre and now has an audience in the tens of thousands. Watch the 14-minute interview on YouTube or read it below. The transcript includes a few helpful notes and hyperlinks.
W9LW’s Ramblings: What prompted you to get into the podcast business?
Spann: I’m kind of an early adopter. I got my ham license when I was 14 and I just get into things early. And I saw some people doing these shows on the internet; audio shows. And I thought it was fascinating and thought, “Goodness, we ought to try this.” And, at the time, I really needed a creative outlet. Television weather is harsh. You’re on TV for two minutes, three minutes, you’re in, you’re out, it’s very structured. And I think everybody, I don’t care what you do for a living, you need some type of creative outlet. So, we gathered together some Weather Service people and broadcasters that do weather, very structured weather, and just started a 30-minute audio show, just to have a little fun. We never expected anybody to listen! I mean, you know, nobody knew what it was back then. But we’ve enjoyed it so much, we’ve met so many people and we’ve developed this family over the years, that it’s a joy. I look forward to it every week, even though it’s been on the air for 11 years.
W9LW’s Ramblings: How did you pick the first panel and how did you convince them to get involved in this thing?
Spann: Well the first thing, I didn’t want to be the host. I did not want to be the main guy, because my background is engineering and meteorology. My first major in college was electrical engineering and I finished in meteorology. I’ve never taken a class on how to be some host of a media show. So, we brought in a guy named David Black. David actually did weekends with me years ago, weekend weather, and David had a good background in broadcasting. So, he was the first host of the show, and I was just a panelist. We brought in my mentor, who worked for the Weather Service here for a long time, who was retired at the time, and a couple of other local guys. And then, we just decided to expand it, as we heard more people listening away from this (Birmingham) market, we thought, “why limit ourselves?” So, it has morphed from this little local show, to now, our people are in Oklahoma, in Texas, in Virginia, North Carolina, and it gives it kind of a national flavor.
W9LW’s Ramblings: How was the show different then than it is now?
Sometimes, in the weather enterprise, we need to talk. There are some big issues we’re facing right now. And I mean, big.
Spann: Originally, it was a 30-minute audio show. That’s it. Thirty minutes, audio, I mean, David wrapped that sucker up. He wrapped that thing up 30 minutes after we started. And now, it’s a two-hour, video and audio show. That’s the biggest difference. We kept pushing the time back because some of this stuff we need to talk about. Sometimes, in the weather enterprise, we need to talk. There are some big issues we’re facing right now. And I mean, big. And it’s very frustrating for me, because my limiting factor is television. I have to go do the late news. And most nights on our show I’ll leave the post here and just let the other guys finish it out. So, we morphed into a two-hour show, that is audio – and most people still listen. I’d say about 75 percent, about 25 percent watch. We just, looking at the numbers, that’s the way it shakes out. We put it on video, because my boss here, wanted to put it on our local, digital weather channel. He thought it’d be a good supplement to that channel. So, we’re on the local television and cable systems with the show. So, it’s kind of a local TV show now, a YouTube show, but mostly, mostly still an audio podcast.
W9LW’s Ramblings: Why has it lasted so long? What have you guys been doing right?
I look forward to it every week. I can’t wait for Monday night.
Spann: I think, number one, we just enjoyed doing it. And of course, now, with social media, you can have creative outlets in different ways. But still, we love getting together. And the people that have come on the show over the years, we’ve met the most remarkable people in the weather enterprise that I didn’t know, and I’m old as dirt! I know most everybody, but a lot of these people I met along the way on this show and they’re marvelous people.
And we’ve had very emotional shows. We had a show here after a horrible tornado outbreak six years ago. We had 252 people that died in one day here. And that show was hard, but it was healing for me and for the others on the show, because we were still in like this state of shock.
We’ve had shows that have been kind of bizarre, where there’s a little conflict, and you know, sometimes conflict makes for good radio, television, podcasts. So, we don’t necessarily agree, but we try and be straight shooters and give people a fair chance. The Mike Morgan episode: Mike is an Oklahoma City meteorologist. We gave him the chance to come on and share, after he took some criticism after the El Reno tornado out there. And he came on, and that was an interesting show.
But they’re all interesting, they’re all good. I look forward to it every week. I can’t wait for Monday night, mainly not for my participation, but just to listen to the guest we have on.
W9LW’s Ramblings: Have you ever felt like stopping? Has there ever been a week when you just didn’t feel like doing the show?
Spann: Nah, no. And again, you know, my job has changed. Television weather, we used to worry about being on television at night. Now, with social media, digital platforms, it doesn’t stop. I don’t sleep. I haven’t slept, really, since 1973. It’s just, I need that. I need to come in here for 90 minutes and have some fun, and laugh, and cut up a little bit, and just be yourself. I’ve never thought about stopping. I figure, as long as I’m on television, I’ll keep doing this. I want to work about eight more years. I’m 60, so I figure I’ll work maybe until I’m 68, maybe a little longer. And I’d like to hand it off to one of the other guys. We’ve got some younger guys on the show that would just be great, I think to take it and keep running. And again, my part is small. The only reason I’m considered the host is because I’m the guy with the football here. We do the show, and I’m the button-presser buy, I’m the producer, the engineer, the bottle-washer here, the sound effects guy, and if I’m not here, they really can’t do it right. So, I pretty much have to be here. But, again, I’ve never thought about stopping.
You know, sometimes we think about, “Are we gonna run out of guests?” No! There’s always somebody. There’s the new generation getting in this, in the weather enterprise. There’s always somebody new. And quite frankly, some of the guests we’ve had in years past need to be on a regular basis. Some of these are characters, like Chuck Doswell, goodness, I’d love to have him on every month, just to hear Dr. Doswell and some of the others in the weather enterprise. So no, we’re not stopping, we’re just getting started.
W9LW’s Ramblings: So, you’re just having a blast.
We try and make it technically clean. I think the big problem with podcasts is bad technology.
Spann: I am! And you have to have fun to do this. And the other thing, too, is that we try and make it not only fun and decent guests and good content, but we try and make it technically clean. I think the big problem with podcasts is bad technology, where people maybe have bad audio, or you know, it’s not clean, and there’s a lot of break up. And look, we’ve had our problems with our guests, that’s the main problem, because, you know, they’re having to you know, come on a show and they might not have one of these fancy microphones like this (pointing to the professional mic that he uses during WeatherBrains) and all this equipment. But we try and make the show clean, technically and I think that’s a help, too. People expect that. You know, they’re used to seeing broadcast-quality content and we think the content here should be the same.
W9LW’s Ramblings: Is there anything that the WeatherBrains podcast hasn’t achieved, that you’d still like to see it do?
I would like to do the show on remote a little more.
Spann: I think, the one thing we need to learn, is the remote stuff, to do that a little better. We have taken the show to annual meetings, the National Weather Service annual meeting, we did the whole show in Norman, Oklahoma, a couple of years ago. And almost every major weather convention, we are live, somehow. Typically, it might be one or two of our folks, but some years, it’s everybody. And I think what we probably need to do is invest in a strategy to do that where it’s clean. I love a clean show, and it’s very hard to do that on location, especially when people are watching. At the NWA (National Weather Association annual meeting), we had, like this auditorium full of people, and we were on these big screens. And so that’s the one thing I’d like to be able to do, is to take the show on the road and do it in a more professional manner. And again, it was OK, I mean, you go back and listen to those shows and it was OK, but I don’t think it was quality the way I’d like it. And I’d like to do more of that. I’ll be speaking in Chicago in a couple of weeks (DuPage County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Advanced Severe Weather Seminar), I’ll be at Valparaiso (Great Lakes Meteorology Conference, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana) in about a month. We’re empty nesters now. Our children kids are grown. And for years and years, I was at the ballpark in the spring. I couldn’t get out. I had to be there for the kids. And now, I’m free to do that. So, I would like to do the show on remote a little more.
We are on the verge of a collapse of the watch-warning system in this country.
And, again, I’d like to use it as a platform, to maybe, you know, push some topics that maybe we haven’t pushed. And people accuse me sometimes of being too hard on the guests, and sometimes I’m too easy on the guests. I don’t know what the right answer is. But we’re gonna have a show coming up soon, where these guys, they’re gonna start doing their own warnings, and they’re claiming they can do polygons down to one or two houses. We can’t do that! It’s not ethical to do that.
I’m telling you, we are on the verge of a collapse of the watch-warning system in this country. All the TV stations are about to start doing their own warnings. I’m telling you, that horse is leaving the barn. The train is out of the station. And if we don’t stop it, we’re gonna have mass chaos. And I’ve got empirical evidence, research in my hand from social scientists that will show that inconsistent messaging and confusion will lead to deaths. Period. And so, we’re gonna try and tackle this thing in the summer, but you know, so many of our shows are just fun, and they need to be fun. But every once in a while, we need to do the hard shows, and I think we need to do the hard shows a little more often, instead of doing the fluffy, easy shows. So, that’s something else I’d like to do. We’ve just got some issues. We’ve got some issues in the weather enterprise we have to tackle. And if our show can be an outlet for that, great.
And we know a lot of people listen. I mean, let me tell you what, if we make somebody mad, we hear about it.
W9LW’s Ramblings: How many are there? Tell me about the audience. What do you know about the audience?
The audio download’s running about 30 to 40 thousand every week.
Spann: You know that’s the other thing. It’s fuzzy math. Podcasting is fuzzy math. You get downloads. You don’t know if somebody listened for one minute, or the whole show. You don’t know! You just don’t know. And we’ve not tried to monetize this show. We all have jobs, we have a salary, we don’t need to. There are some expenses involved with it, but whenever we do a fund-raiser, like, we sold t-shirts and hoodies; that money goes to a scholarship fund to honor one of our panelists that passed away, J.B. Elliot. He was my mentor. So, we’ve done things like that. So, we really don’t care if one person watches, or you know, 10,000, or 50,000, 100,000. The latest numbers that I’ve seen, the people that watch on YouTube, that’s probably in the 5,000 range every week, after a month, after one month. A lot of people watch later. One thing we’ve learned, they will watch and listen weeks after you do the show. So, you have to remember that, that people don’t always listen the next day. It might be the next month, or even the next year. But about 5,000 on YouTube and the audio download’s running about 30 to 40 thousand every week.
You know, it’s creepy! You know we started this not expecting anybody to listen and you know it’s — there’s a lot of people that listen to this thing. And again, we don’t want that to bother us or, I don’t even want to think about it. We call it the digital mahogany table. We sit around, it’s like we’re sitting at a coffee table, just chatting about the weather. Again, will we ever monetize it? I don’t know, maybe, if I get fired, we’ll have to. In this business, you never, you’ve been in this business (referring to interviewer’s previous career as a TV newscast producer), you never know.
I support a lot of podcasts. I listen to podcasts driving down the road.
And again, there’s nothing wrong with monetizing these things. You’ve got the two big models. You’ve got the advertising model, and then the value-for-value model, which is where listeners just send donations. You have a Patreon account, or a Go Fund Me or something and people just send in some donations. It’s great. The people that need to do that, that’s great. I support a lot of podcasts. I listen to podcasts driving down the road. But in our case, I don’t think we’re gonna do that.
W9LW’s Ramblings: Last question: What advice, if any, do you have for anybody who might be thinking about starting a podcast, whether it’s about weather, or anything else?
Be consistent. If you’re gonna do it, do it every week.
Spann: Be consistent. If you’re gonna do it, do it every week. Don’t do a show once a month, or once every two months. You’ve gotta do it consistent, on a consistent basis. I don’t think we’ve missed a week in 11 years. So be consistent, be sure the quality is good. Invest in a mic. You don’t have to spend money on this kind of thing (pointing to the Heil Sound model PR 40 mic that he uses during WeatherBrains), or even what you’ve got (referring to the interviewer’s CAD Audio GXL2200 mic). You know, spend at least 20 or 30 bucks on a decent, little mic, to make it sound good. And be sure your guests sound clean.
You don’t have to be some professional radio announcer guy, just be yourself!
And then, just be yourself. Don’t try and be somebody else. That’s the beauty of podcasting, you don’t have to be some professional radio announcer guy, just be yourself! And have fun and talk about what you have a passion for. Everybody has a passion, everybody loves something. In my case, it’s weather. I was born with it. I don’t know why. But just find a subject and follow your passion and talk about it. And if you do that, and do it consistently, you’ll be successful.
While it seems like there’s 10 million podcasts, and there probably are, I still think the door is open for some people to take some niches that maybe haven’t been filled, and do shows. So, it’s a fun thing to do, there’s no barrier to entry. Just go do it and have fun.
And promote it. Get on social media. And that’s the other thing, you know, with social media, now you’ve got free promotion. You’ve gotta be careful with that. That’s the one thing, you know, I dabble in it pretty heavily. But I don’t do politics over there, I don’t do anything but, if you follow me on Twitter, or any of those platforms, Instagram, Snapchat, Google+, whatever, there’s no politics, no volatile stuff, it’s just weather stuff. But build up an audience on social media and boom, there’s your promotion. You’re automatically able to promote yourself across your social media platform.
The National Weather Service (NWS) plans to change its website, www.weather.gov on March 7. When the change takes place any bookmark you’ve created to a specific forecast will no longer work. You’ll have to go to the home page at the URL above, enter the location for which you want a forecast and create a new bookmark for the page that appears. For more information, see the message below that the NWS sent to all Weather-Ready Nation ambassadors.
Dear Weather-Ready Nation Ambassadors,
As part of our continued effort to modernize weather.gov, the National Weather Service (NWS) is upgrading our point forecast, zone forecast, and product pages. Once these changes go live on March 7, all existing bookmarks to forecast.weather.gov will change. Links to a forecast page will display an error message that includes a URL to the new location. You will need to update your bookmarks to continue to access our forecasts quickly after the upgrade. After March 7, the new URL can also be found by searching for your location from forecast.weather.gov or www.weather.gov. These changes will not impact office pages located at www.weather.gov
If you run an automated process to get NWS data from forecast.weather.gov, you will need to switch to the new developer API by March 7. Specifications for the new API can be found here.
The primary focus of the upgrade is to make the forecast pages more reliable during weather events, but there are some new benefits of new forecast pages that include:
Addition of 7-day hourly forecast information to the point forecast page
A new mobile-friendly landing and graphical/tabular forecast page
Low-bandwidth optimization for all pages, on a partial roll-out at launch
Option to automatically detect your location on a mobile device
A new widget mode that allows you to customize the information on the point forecast
We overhauled the architecture of our application platform to provide a more stable and consistent service to meet the demand of severe weather events. The platform also introduces a modernized API that will make it easier for web developers to create high-quality applications and services to share NWS data. The updated web site now provides a complete mobile-friendly experience with optimizations for low bandwidth and customized weather widgets. We also have new data centers located in College Park, MD, and Boulder, CO, to provide 100% backup capability for the operational data used within the forecast process.
We look forward to providing you with useful and timely information using our improved connectivity and new design.
The amateur radio SKYWARN net based in Fort Wayne will undergo slight changes, effective Feb 1, 2017. Formerly known as the IMO SKYWARN Quadrant Two Net, it will now be referred to as the Allen County SKYWARN Net. The net will continue, however, to accept and relay reports from spotters outside Allen County, including stations in places like DeKalb and Defiance County, which were not officially part of the former quadrant net’s responsibility.
The de facto demise of the IMO SKYWARN organization led to the change. IMO SKYWARN’s fade from existence was symbolized by the recent disappearance of the organization’s website and further indicated by its board’s lack of activity for the past few years (a conference call in 2012 was the board’s most recent meeting).
IMO SKYWARN originally formed to implement an organized system to get reports from trained SKYWARN storm spotters to the Northern Indiana National Weather Service office via amateur radio. That system continues to exist. An amateur radio station at the NWS office (WX9IWX) can still simultaneously monitor four repeaters, including one in Fort Wayne, although recent difficulty staffing WX9IWX with volunteer hams has hampered the system. IMO SKYWARN also organized biennial advanced spotter training seminars in the past, but has not produced such an event since 2011.
Amateur radio continues to be an important resource to the NWS SKYWARN program as evidenced by a memorandum of understanding between the ARRL and the NWS. Spotter reports to many local ham radio nets, however, no longer travel all the way to the NWS via amateur radio. Instead, many local nets send their reports to the NWS via a private NWS internet chatroom known as NWSChat. In fact, our local net has used that method during several activations when WX9IWX was not on the air, including the August 24, 2016 tornado outbreak. Despite the popularity of NWSChat, the leadership of the Allen County SKYWARN Net intend for the net to remain a viable alternative in the event of internet failure, assuming WX9IWX can be staffed at such times.
Speaking of net leadership, it remains in the hands of the same people, with former IMO SKYWARN quadrant director Jay Farlow, W9LW, continuing the functional role of net manager, and the following experienced hams continuing as designated net control station (NCS) operators:
Rich, Andrew N9HRA
Chad Beach, W9GGA
Fred Gengnagel, KC9EZP
Steve Haxby, N9MEL
Bernie Holm, K9JDF
Brian Jenks, W9BGJ
Jim Moehring, KB9WWM, Allen County ARES Emergency Coordinator
Joel Tye, KB9RH
Woody Woodbury, KC9CGN
The net continues to seek additional NCS’s. Contact Farlow at the email address below for more information.
Other than the net name, the only change operators might notice is that the net repeater might enter “standby mode” less often. As a quadrant net, it entered standby mode for any severe thunderstorm watch or tornado watch that affected any of the 11 counties in its quadrant, if an NCS was available. NCS’s will continue to have discretion about when to enter standby mode, but revised net procedures will no longer require standby mode for watches that do not include Allen County. To repeat, however, the net will continue to accept reports from any station that can reach the net repeater, regardless of location. And spotter traffic from a nearby county may continue to prompt a directed net, even if severe weather isn’t threatening Allen County.
Winter weather is just around the corner in Indiana, which means so are authentic-looking but bogus long-range snowstorm forecasts on social media.
It won’t be long before we see claims that a storm a week or more away will bring huge snow accumulations. Many will have official-looking forecast maps, like the one above (which turned out to be wrong, by the way).
But these posts won’t be the work of professional meteorologists. Many will be the creations of school kids, passing themselves off as weather experts.
This is Winter Weather Preparedness Week in Indiana, so it seems like a good time to prepare readers for the ominous-looking but unreliable snow forecasts they’ll soon see.
To understand what amateur weather enthusiasts put on social media, it helps to know something about the computer programs that professional meteorologists use to guide their forecasts. These programs are called numerical weather prediction models. They simulate Earth’s atmosphere by describing it in a complex series of very complicated mathematical formulas.
The programs built on these formulas run several times a day on supercomputers around the world. Much of the output of these programs is available on the Web, in both numeric and graphical form.
The output of computerized atmosphere models is inherently inaccurate for several reasons, including:
It’s not yet possible to completely describe our chaotic atmosphere in mathematical equations and
The programs don’t have access to enough data about what our atmosphere is doing at the time they run (e.g. what the temperature, wind speed and wind direction are 10,000 feet over any given part of the planet).
Nonetheless, these programs kick out predictions of what the weather might be at any location at any time, as far in the future as 16 days, despite that fact that no computer or human can reliably forecast the weather that far in advance.
Now, imagine a young weather enthusiast who craves attention and loves snowstorms (because they get him out of school). When he sees an indication of heavy accumulations in the output of a single computer model, he might paste that model’s map into a Facebook post in which he writes a dire forecast of impending doom. Such an amateur forecaster might not be aware of (or care about) the model limitations described above. But she’ll love all the “likes” and shares her post receives!
So how do I know what to believe? First, I’m automatically suspicious of any social media post that forecasts specific snowfall amounts more than a couple days in advance. Second, I ignore any forecast that doesn’t come directly from professional sources I trust, such as:
For some time, I’ve looked at amateur storm chasers with some disdain. I believed that too many were putting themselves into too much danger, just to see, photograph and/or video record tornados. I doubted that many chasers were truly motivated by improving public safety and even fewer were doing real science, no matter what they said. I was concerned that many chasers set poor examples for the general public and that their “antics” encouraged lesser informed people to take uneducated and unwise risks.
I’ve been a SKYWARN storm spotter for more than a quarter century. When talking to friends, family members and even journalists about my volunteer service to the National Weather Service (NWS), I was careful to make sure they understood that I’m not a chaser, like the people they’ve seen on TV or on the Web. My ultimate goal, I’d explain, isn’t to see tornadoes, it’s to help protect my community from possible storms by staying close to home and relaying valuable information to the NWS.
So it was with some trepidation that I attended an event in November, 2015 called INChaserCon, a one-day convention in the Indianapolis area for storm chasers. I’m glad I went. Some of the people I met there subsequently changed my thinking. They are admittedly driven by a desire to see tornadoes. But my subsequent experience with them demonstrated that they’re also very passionate about getting reports to the NWS.
After the chasers learned that I have access to NWSChat – a private, internet-based text chatroom run by the NWS – they invited me to join them on Zello, a smartphone app with which they communicate with each other—so I could relay their reports to the NWS via NWSChat.
That’s exactly what happened during the August, 2016 tornado outbreak in Indiana and Ohio. As a tornadic storm moved east from Kokomo into the county warning area of my local NWS office, storm chasers John Tinney, Eric Lawson and David Buell reported wall clouds, funnel clouds, etc. via Zello. I relayed those reports via NWSChat.
Then, a storm over my own home in Fort Wayne, Indiana received a tornado warning. Storm chaser Michael Enfield immediately headed toward that storm. Via Zello, he promptly reported a wall cloud, then funnel clouds and then a tornado for me to relay via NWSChat. The NWS survey report recorded the time of the tornado’s initial touchdown as 5:27 p.m. – the same time as Enfield’s report, confirming that he saw and reported the tornado when it first touched down. That storm eventually did EF-3 damage to a rural part of Allen County, Indiana.
Throughout the event, any time the chasers had something to report, if I wasn’t immediately available on Zello, they’d keep trying until I acknowledged their reports. Getting reports through to the NWS was clearly very important to them. By the end of the event, I had typed 50 reports into NWSchat. All but about 15 of those came from storm chasers on Zello. The rest came from storm spotters via ham radio.
By aggressively chasing storms, my new friends put themselves in positions to immediately report weather that was not near any traditional SKYWARN spotters at the time. By religiously reporting, they played significant roles in protecting people in the paths of the storms.
A Facebook post by Lawson sums up pretty well how this particular group of storm chasers sees things:
“I noticed a developing supercell heading towards Kokomo was looking really strong and rushed out the door. By the time I was on interstate 69 southbound the strong EF3 was already in progress and heading towards the town in which I have spent many days of my youth, and is home to many great friends and their families. Hearing reports of the devastation in progress on the radio made my heart sink. I was rushing south in horror wondering if anyone I knew had been hurt. This is the moment that things really changed for me, I felt less excited about seeing tornadoes, and much more concerned with providing accurate information to keep people informed.”
I have no doubt there are other storm chasers out there who rarely report their observations to the NWS. There are likely some that don’t care about anything but the excitement of seeing a tornado.
But I’m convinced that the storm chasers I know are not among these. They’ve changed my attitude about chasers.
When the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for northeastern Allen County, Indiana at 5:14 p.m. Aug. 24, 2016, more people in the county got their initial alerts from mobile phones than any other information source, according to an informal, online survey conducted by the publisher of this blog.
Of people who indicated they were anywhere in Allen County at the time of the warning, slightly more than 32 percent said they first learned of the warning via their mobile phones (including “Wireless Emergency Alerts,” alerts from apps, text messages, social media, etc.). Television was the second-most-frequently cited initial warning source, at nearly 21 percent. Outdoor warning sirens, commonly referred to as “tornado sirens,” came in third, at 17 percent. Just under eight percent of respondents credited NOAA Weather Radio as their initial warning source.
The warned storm created a tornado in northeastern Allen County at approximately 5:27, according to a report from the northern Indiana weather forecast office of the National Weather Service. That was about 13 minutes after the NWS issued the warning. The tornado stayed on the ground until approximately 5:39, cutting a five-and-a-quarter-mile path to the northeast and doing damage consistent with the EF-3 rating on the enhanced Fujita scale.
Nearly 62 percent of the survey’s 167 respondents indicated that they received the warning “immediately.” Another 19 percent said they received the warning with 10 minutes of its issuance, which would still have been a few minutes before the tornado touched down. Nearly 20 percent of respondents did not learn of the warning any sooner than 30 minutes after the NWS issued it, well after the tornado had lifted.
The NWS drew a five-sided polygon that enclosed 144 square miles to indicate the portion of northeastern Allen County to which the tornado warning applied. As a whole, Allen County encompasses approximately 660 square miles, so the warning polygon included less than a fourth of the county’s total area. The tornado’s entire path remained within the warning polygon, so people outside the polygon were not in danger.
Nearly half of all respondents indicated that they knew immediately whether they were within the warning polygon. Another quarter of respondents knew within five minutes whether they were in the warned part of the county. Nearly 18 percent, however, never knew with certainty before the storm passed whether they were in danger.
Best sources for location information
Among respondents who knew immediately whether they were within the warned area, nearly a third received their initial warning via their mobile phones, 24 percent via TV, 11 percent via NOAA Weather Radio and eight percent each via broadcast radio, amateur “ham” radio or outdoor warning sirens.
Among those who never knew with certainty before the storm passed whether they were in the danger area, there was a tie for the top response on how they first learned of the warning; 26 percent each reported TV and outdoor warning siren. A fifth received initial word of the warning from someone they know and 17 percent received it via their mobile phones.
Performance of outdoor warning sirens
Every operating outdoor warning siren in Allen County, including sirens miles southwest of the warning polygon, sounded shortly after the NWS issued the tornado warning.
Slightly more than 59 percent of respondents reported hearing an outdoor warning siren sometime during the hour of the warning, even if it wasn’t their initial warning source. Nearly 41 percent of respondents never heard an outdoor warning siren. The survey did not ask respondents whether they were outdoors at the time of the warning.
Respondents whose initial warning came from outdoor warning sirens were nearly evenly split with regard to their awareness of whether they were actually in the warned area. Slightly more than 24 percent reported knowing immediately, nearly 28 percent reported knowing within five minutes, nearly 21 percent said they knew within 10 minutes and nearly 28 percent indicated that they never knew with certainty before the storm passed whether they were in the warned area.
Of respondents who got their first notifications of the warning from outdoor warning sirens, more than three fourths were within the city limits of Fort Wayne at the time. Seven percent were in the city of New Haven and no more than four percent reported being in any other location within Allen County. The vast majority of the county’s outdoor warning sirens are located within Fort Wayne and New Haven. Approximately 71 percent of Allen County’s population resides in Fort Wayne and probably even more are employed in Fort Wayne.
People close to the warning
Only seven percent of respondents reported that at the time of the warning, they were in the city of Woodburn, the town of Leo-Cedarville or rural northeastern Allen County (in other words, in or near the warning polygon) at the time of the warning. Of those, the initial warning source was more evenly divided, with 25 percent each reporting mobile phone or television and nearly 17 percent each reporting NOAA Weather Radio, outdoor warning siren or amateur “ham” radio.
Only a third of these respondents reported ever hearing an outdoor warning siren, even if it wasn’t their initial warning source. Eight percent never knew with certainty before the storm passed whether they were in the warned area.
Readers should use caution drawing conclusions from these data, because the survey that generated them was informal, not scientific, and the number of respondents fell far short of the number required for a representative sample of people who were in Allen County at the time of the warning.
In terms of improving the tornado warning system, it would appear that steps to increase awareness of warned locations could be helpful. Outdoor warning sirens, of course, do not provide location information. For that reason, it’s surprising that some respondents who reported initially receiving the warning via outdoor warning sirens also reported knowing immediately whether they were in the warned area. Because Allen County activates all of its sirens for every warning, citizens cannot assume that their ability to hear a siren indicates that they are near the warning polygon, but it’s possible that some people do not realize this and that additional public education might be helpful.
Readers might be surprised that a number of respondents who initially received the warning via television were not immediately aware of whether they were in the warned area. If we assume the TV meteorologists who were on the air live at the time described the warned area, it is possible that those respondents initially learned of the warning not from live meteorologists, but from on-screen textual information.
Finally, it appears that a significant portion of people initially learned of the warning via their mobile phones. The time of day might have skewed those results, because many people were likely commuting at the time, and therefore away from TVs and weather radios. Also, commuters would have been more likely to hear outdoor warning sirens than would be people inside workplaces or homes. Still, it’s possible that the Wireless Emergency Alert system that’s enabled by default on all modern smartphones proved itself to be a valuable source of warning information.
The tweet above from Valparaiso University meteorology student and Fort Wayne resident Matthew Hayes points out something a lot of Allen County, Indiana residents probably don’t know. The county’s outdoor warning siren system is all-or-nothing. That means that when a tornado warning covers any part of the county, sirens sound throughout the county, which encompasses 660 square miles (making it the largest county by area in the state).
That’s what happened at about 9:06 p.m. last night, when the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning that included a small part of southwestern Allen County. A very small part:
The Fort Wayne-Allen County Consolidated Communications Partnership center dutifully followed protocol and activated Allen County’s outdoor warning siren system. People throughout the county who were close enough to a siren would have heard it sound. Presumably, this included people 26 miles away in Harlan, where the storm wasn’t forecast to travel. See a map of all Allen County’s sirens. Remember, sirens are designed for outdoor alerting only, but people can sometimes hear them from inside their homes, if their homes are close enough to a siren.
Ironically, if anyone was in the small part of Allen County that the warning covered, it is unlikely they heard a siren. The nearest operating outdoor warning siren is at least four miles away, at the headquarters of the Southwest Allen County Fire Department on Indianapolis Road.
So, last night’s tornado warning demonstrated two weaknesses of outdoor warning sirens as primary means of learning of such warnings:
Outdoor warning sirens cannot be heard in many parts of Allen County, even by people who are outdoors.
Sirens are often activated where warnings are not in effect.
What should you do? For geographic precision, your best bet is a good smartphone app, like Storm Shield or Weather Radio. These apps use your phone’s GPS to determine whether it is within the actual warning area. The next best thing is the Wireless Emergency Alerts that are built into modern smartphones. As I explained in another blog post, the geographic precision of such alerts is imperfect, but it’s better than countywide, doesn’t require installing an app, and it’s “on” by default on modern smartphones.
When you’re home, weather alert radios provide very reliable alerts but have the disadvantage of alerting an entire county for any warning that includes any part of that county. At least weather radio alerts — unlike outdoor warning sirens — come with voice messages the explain what part of the county is affected.
The bottom line, as I’ve written before, is don’t rely on tornado sirens. Not hearing one does not mean you don’t need to take cover, because you might be in a place where it’s impossible to hear a siren. Hearing one does not necessarily mean you need to take cover, because your neighborhood siren might sound for a warning that doesn’t affect you. Find a better way to know if you are in danger!
Side note: Based on what I know about how the National Weather Service generates warnings, I highly suspect that the meteorologist who issued last night’s warning probably intended to keep the warning polygon out of Allen County entirely, but accidentally overshot the county line when drawing the warning polygon.
And the Beaufort wind force scale is flawed, says storm data researcher
As an avid kite flier, I’m often out in windy conditions. More than once, on a particularly windy day, I’ve guessed at the wind speed, only to be surprised when a handheld anemometer shows a speed as much as 10 mph lower than I guessed. It’s easy to think the wind is blowing stronger than it is. And a recent scientific study proves that.
“Storm reporters overestimated the speeds of wind gusts—on average, by about one third of the gusts’ actual speeds.”
The resulting paper, “Quantitative Assessment of Human Wind Speed Overestimation,” appears in the April, 2016 issue of the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology (JAMC). Its authors report that “storm reporters overestimated the speeds of wind gusts—on average, by about one third of the gusts’ actual speeds,” according to a report on the study in Eos. (Members of the American Meteorology Society may view the full text of the original, JAMC article.)
I learned in SKYWARN storm spotter training that if I don’t have an anemometer, I can estimate wind speeds based on what I see the wind doing, using the Beaufort wind scale as a reference. Supposedly, an estimate based on whether the wind is (for example) causing large tree branches to move (32 to 38 mph, according to the Beaufort scale) is more reliable than an estimate based on how the wind feels against my body.
That might be true, but Beaufort-based estimates are still unreliable, because the Beaufort scale is flawed, study lead author Paul Miller told Eos.
What’s a SKYWARN storm spotter to do? I’ve heard a National Weather Service (NWS) warning coordination meteorologist say many times that damage reports are much more valuable to NWS weather forecast offices than are wind speed estimates. Now that I know my wind speed estimates — even those based on the Beaufort scale — are probably wrong, here’s what I’ll send NWS instead; a detailed description of damage I see the wind doing.
I encourage my fellow storm spotters to likewise report wind damage, rather than estimated wind speeds.