The title of this post is one of the main points of a presentation I heard at the DuPage County (Ill.) Severe Weather Seminar March 11. College of DuPage meteorology professor Paul Sirvatka reminded spotters that the key to spotting a tornado in a classic supercell is knowing where the updraft is. As Dr. Sirvatka put it, a tornado is a “big sucky thing” that forms under an updraft.
Unfortunately, updrafts are not always easy to find. Depending on your location, important storm features can be obscured, making spotting difficult. And the closer you get to a storm, the more difficult it becomes to identify the important features.
The DuPage County (Illinois) Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management hosts an annual severe weather seminar in Chicago’s western suburbs to provide advanced training to SKYWARN storm spotters. This year’s 25th-annual event was March 12 at Wheaton College and was attended by approximately 500 people. Here are a few tidbits that I took from the seminar.
Spotters continue to be essential
“A dead spotter does no good for anybody,” said National Weather Service (NWS) Storm Prediction Center lead forecaster Roger Edwards. He reassured spotters that they continue to be important, even in this high-tech age, but that it’s better to miss seeing something than to risk getting hurt.
Edwards suggested that spotters plan spotting locations in advance, so they’ll know where to go for the best safety as well as the best views. He also provided a list of questions spotters should ask themselves on a severe weather day, such as what types of storms to expect, how to expect them to move, etc.
Edwards instructed spotters that if they can hear a tornado, it’s too close and they should be in shelter. He also pointed out that even the inflow from a big tornado can damage or roll a vehicle.
Spotters can help protect others by sharing preparedness info
Warning coordination meteorologist Mike Bardou of the Chicago NWS office spoke about severe weather preparedness. He described a preparedness framework based on four verbs: Plan, Practice, Monitor and Act.
He encouraged spotters to spread the word and help others prepare, especially employers, fellow employees, families, neighbors and friends. As I have written in this blog, it’s often the case that such people don’t know anyone else who knows as much about weather as do spotters. If spotters are passionate enough about weather safety to spend hours watching storms, they should be equally motivated to help others learn how to protect themselves from severe weather. That, in fact, is one of the main reasons I created this blog.
Busy interstate highways are a major concern
During a presentation on storm structure, NWS Chicago meteorologist Ben Deubelbeiss spoke on the danger of getting trapped by a tornado on a busy interstate highway. Imagine what any of Chicagoland’s busy interstates would be like if a tornado hit it during the afternoon rush hour! Deubelbeiss said many people have no idea what to do in that situation. He reminded the audience that crouching under an overpass is the worst thing to do, because the Venturi effect increases the speed of the wind as it blows through. This often leaves no option but to get as low as possible in a ditch while remaining mindful of the possibility of a flash flood during a high-precipitation storm.
Deubelbeiss encouraged spotters to always call in reports, even if the NWS has already issued warnings for the area. The NWS might have no other way to know about the tornado or other phenomena spotters see.
And when spotting typical supercells, Deubelbeiss reminded spotters that they should follow the “right-hand rule”; positioning themselves with the storm’s heavy rain and hail to their right and updraft to the left.
Time-lapse storm photography aids education
College of DuPage meteorology professor Victor Gensini demonstrated how time-lapse photography of storms facilitates identifying features. Here’s an example:
Gensini uses a digital SLR but he said that even a smartphone on a cheap tripod can suffice.
Gensini also spoke about his recently published research on forecasting tornado activity weeks in advance. A recent interview of Gensini in “Forbes” provides a good explanation.