It’s amazing how much information I can get on my smartphone, especially weather information. The app stores have dozens — maybe hundreds — of weather apps. They offer much more than today’s forecast. Some even claim to tell users when it will start raining at their locations.
Regardless of how valid or accurate is the information such apps provide, I wonder if they’ve led people to (incorrectly) believe that technology has the weather covered — that there’s little need anymore for human input, such as that provided by trained, SKYWARN® storm spotters.
Do people assume that the same technology that tells them what time the rain will begin can also automatically sense such hazards as tornadoes and severe thunderstorms?
If so, that could help explain why registration is down this year for free National Weather Service storm spotter classes in northern Indiana, northwestern Ohio and southern Lower Michigan.
For example, as of Jan. 25, fewer than 10 people had registered for spotter classes scheduled in Columbia City, Ind. and Glandorf, Ohio. This, despite frequent promotion on social media and other channels by the northern Indiana NWS office and others.
The entire severe weather warning system continues to rely heavily on the first-hand reports of trained spotters.
The truth — as any meteorologist will tell you — is that the entire severe weather warning system continues to rely heavily on the first-hand reports of trained spotters. Why? Because they can see things that radar and other technology cannot.
Radar, for example, can detect rotation in a storm, hundreds to thousands of feet above the ground. But it cannot tell meteorologists whether a funnel cloud has formed or whether a tornado is on the ground. Also, technology cannot tell meteorologists what damage a storm is doing. The NWS needs eye-witness reports from trained spotters for that.
If you’ve ever looked up a scary-looking cloud and wondered if you should worry;
If you’d like a better understand of severe weather to help allay fears;
If you’re a weather enthusiast and would like to apply that interest in a way that provides a life-saving service to your community;
Consider taking the free storm spotter training. You can find a session near you on the website of your local NWS office (type in your ZIP code at www.weather.gov and then look for the link on the forecast page that follows the phrase, “Your local forecast office is”). Some sessions begin as early as next week, so don’t put it off until storm season begins!
As good as weather technology is, it has not replaced they eyes of trained, volunteer storm spotters. Your community needs you!
For the first time in a couple years, meteorologists from the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service (NWS) personally conducted training of SKYWARN storm spotters in Fort Wayne Feb. 17. Warning coordination meteorologist Michael Lewis, KG4KJQ and meteorologist Michael “Skip” Skipper presented the training to an official total of 91 attendees. Approximately half of audience members raised their hands when Lewis asked hams to identify themselves.
The session included the usual information on the role of the spotter, storm development, local severe weather climatology, recognition of various weather phenomena, spotter safety and reporting procedures. A detailed description of the training is beyond the scope of this article, which will instead touch on a few of the highlights, especially those portions that were new this year. If you missed the training, NWS plans two sessions near Fort Wayne this month:
One new feature of the training this year was audience participation via electronic polling. The presenters evaluated audience knowledge before and after the training by asking them to respond to questions via text message, Twitter or Web page form. Responses appeared on the projection screen in real time.
Thunderstorm spectrum discussed
One highlight of this year’s presentation was a discussion of the thunderstorm spectrum (see figure 2). It ranges from single-cell “pulse” storms, to two forms of multi-cell storms, to the classic supercell thunderstorm. Large, strong tornadoes originate from supercell storms, but such storms are rare in the 37-county warning area (CWA) of the northern Indiana NWS office. Multi-cell storms, especially “derecho”-type squall lines can produce winds as strong as weak tornadoes, which is why spotters and the general public should not ignore severe thunderstorm warnings. It’s important for spotters to understand that, especially in the northern Indiana CWA, storms can change type one or more times during their existence.
When it comes to tornadoes, 82 percent of twisters in the northern Indiana CWA create damage at the EF0 or EF1 levels of the enhanced Fujita scale (see figure 3). Note that EF0 tornadoes can have winds as week as 65 mph. Severe thunderstorms can and often do produce much stronger winds. Also note that EF0 and EF1 tornadoes are very difficult for NWS Doppler radar to detect, sometimes developing and dissipating between radar scans. Less than one percent of storms in the northern Indiana office’s CWA reach the EF4 damage level, with wind speeds of 166 mph or greater.
Convective outlooks change
Situational awareness is an important part of spotter preparation and safety. The NWS Storm Prediction Center’s (SPC) convective outlooks are important situational awareness resources. Those outlooks look different now (see Figure 4). The new day one through day three convective outlooks have three risk categories between “general (non-severe) thunderstorms” and “moderate risk,” instead of the former single “slight risk” category. A “marginal risk” category now falls between “general thunderstorms” and “slight risk” and new “enhanced risk” category falls between “slight risk” and “moderate risk.” An SPC video briefing that fully explains the change in convective outlooks is available on the SPC’s website.
Also related to situational awareness is the announcement that the NWS office’s home page layout – and possibly navigation and URLs – will soon change. If you have bookmarked, for example, the severe weather briefing page on the northern Indiana office’s website, you might need to update your bookmarks after the change.
New spotter mnemonic: T.E.L.
This year’s training presentation uses a new mnemonic acronym to help spotters remember what the NWS needs to know (see Figure 5): “T.E.L. us.”
The “T” stands for “time.” Spotter reports should contain the clock time at which the spotter observed the event, even if it’s happening while the spotter sends the report. For example, rather than saying “now,” or “two minutes ago,” spotters should say “4:38 p.m.” or “1638 Eastern time.”
The “E” stands for “event.” This is the part of the report that contains detailed information about what the spotter saw, for example, hail (by size), a wall cloud, funnel cloud, tornado, wind or lightning damage (described), flooding, etc.
The “L” stands for “location.” This part of the report should contain a specific location, for example, “Allen County, Indiana, two miles northwest of Grabil,” or “In Fort Wayne, near the intersection of Coliseum Boulevard and Vance Avenue.”
Note that the reporting criteria are different than NWS warning criteria. For example, the NWS issues a severe thunderstorm warning for any storm that it expects to produce either winds of 58 mph or greater or hail of one inch or more in diameter. But the spotter reporting criteria are winds of 50 mph and hail of any size.
Finally, the NWS included in this year’s presentation a new reporting method matrix (see Figure 6). As in previous years, the meteorologists strongly recommended the use of the Twitter social media channel, while taking care to avoid discounting the importance of ham radio.
A primary advantage of reporting via ham radio is that others listening to the same frequency will simultaneously hear the report, aiding in the situational awareness of those who are monitoring. Another advantage is the resiliency of ham radio and the fact that it continues to work during Internet and cellular telephone failures. Disadvantages of reporting via ham radio include:
Inadequate volunteer staffing of the ham station at the NWS office often means that net control stations must re-file the reports by other means (e.g. telephone or an internal NWS Internet chat system).
When the ham station at the NWS office is staffed, the operator there must write down each report and then hand it off to a meteorologist, creating a certain amount of delay.
Until and unless the NWS issues a “local storm report” based on the spotter’s report, the information in the report is available only to those who are monitoring the frequency, which often includes few of the many spotters who are not hams and have no equipment with which to monitor.
Ham radio systems currently in use for SKYWARN provide no means of including photographic data with spotter reports.
Advantages of the Twitter social media channel include:
The channel does not rely on the limited availability of volunteer operators at the NWS.
Reports show up immediately on a computer in the NWS office, without relay or transcription.
Reports are visible immediately to anyone who has access to the Internet, including other spotters, emergency managers, members of the news media and the general public. As Lewis put it at one training session this year, “Call me and you and I know. Tweet me and the whole world knows.”
Reports can include photographs or video of events being reported, aiding in the NWS’ ability to validate the reports
The capacity of Internet channels is virtually unlimited, enabling the NWS to encourage sub-criteria reports.
Note that on the reporting methods matrix, the NWS encourages spotters to report winds of less than the normal reporting criteria of 50 mph (the approximate speed at which structural damage begins to occur) when using social media or the “mPing” app (more on that below). But for ham radio and telephone reports, the minimum wind is 50 mph. This is a sign that NWS really wants much more information from the field than it has received in the past but understands the limited capacities of channels such as ham radio and telephone.
For spotters who choose to use their Internet-connected mobile devices to file reports, a relatively new option is the Meteorological Phenomena Identification Near the Ground (mPing) app from the National Severe Storms Laboratory. The app is available for both the Andoid and iOS platforms and originally only accepted precipitation reports. The current version also allows users to send hail, wind damage, tornado, flood and other reports. Reports sent via mPing show up directly on Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) terminals in NWS offices. A disadvantage of mPing is that all reports are anonymous and as such, users cannot identify reports as coming from trained spotters.
In conclusion, I encourage all hams who are spotters to become familiar with Twitter, especially those who have Internet-connected mobile devices (e.g. smart phones). At the same time, I also encourage all hams to continue to make reports via ham radio, even if they’re also reporting via Twitter. This will assist in the situational awareness of spotters who are on the ham frequency as well as those who are only able to monitor Twitter.
I have become active on Twitter (@RadioW9LW, if you’d like to “follow” me) and will be happy to provide any assistance I can to any spotters who want to know more about Twitter. You can reach me via the “Contact W9LW” form in the right-hand column of this blog.
About 35 people attended SKYWARN spotter training Feb. 26 at the Allen County Public Library. Here are some highlights:
SKYWARN Spotters receive training at the Allen County Public Library, February 26, 2013
Warning Coordination Meteorologist Michael Lewis reminded spotters of the importance of their reports. He pointed out that studies have shown that members of the general public pay more attention to weather warnings when they include eyewitness reports. In other words, if a tornado warning says a spotter has seen a tornado on the ground, it’ll get a lot more response from the public than a possible tornado indicated by radar.
Lewis covered the preferred and less preferred reporting methods.
Twitter. Lewis said Twitter is not only the fastest way to get a report in front of meteorologists’ eyes; it’s also supported by software that automates the process of creating a local storm report (LSR). That means news media and emergency managers see it faster. To send a report via Twitter, include the “hash tag” #nwsiwx. If possible, attach a photo to the tweet.
Facebook. This is the second choice of the NWS. Lewis said it’s a bit slower than Twitter and requires manual retyping to create an LSR. “But it’s still pretty darn fast,” Lewis said. Another advantage of Facebook is that it archives photos and videos, making it easier for meteorologists to look at them after the event. To report via Facebook, Log into your Facebook account and go to the National Weather Service Northern Indiana Facebook page (www.facebook.com/US.NationalWeatherService.NorthernIN.gov). Click on “Write Post” and enter your report. If possible, include a photo.
SpotterNetwork.org. NWS likes this web-based spotter organization (www.spotternetwork.org), in part because it requires spotters to complete the organization’s own online independent study training before it accepts reports from them. Also, SpotterNetwork.org conducts quality assurance on reports and suspends people who make inappropriate reports. Michael says SpotterNetwork.org is fast but depends on the speed of the weather forecast office’s (WFO) Web connection, which can vary.
Amateur Radio. Lewis described amateur radio as “super-fast” but also described a significant issue: Volunteer operators are not always available to staff the amateur station at the WFO, WX9IWX. Also, meteorologists do not monitor the radio traffic; they wait for the volunteer operator to write down a report and hand it to them. Lewis urged amateur radio spotters to use one of the other methods whenever WX9IWX is not on the air.
CoCoRaHS. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (www.cocorahs.org) is a grassroots volunteer network of backyard weather observers who measure precipitation and report it via the Web. The network can also receive reports of severe weather. NWS has access to these reports and considers the speed of this reporting method to be comparable to amateur radio.
E-spotter. The NWS operates this web-based spotter reporting system (espotter.weather.gov) but not for much longer. Lewis said 2013 is probably the last year that E-spotter will be available. It’s running on a server that uses the outdated operating system MS-DOS!
Telephone. Lewis gave the audience the toll-free spotter hotline number (888-668-3344) but said the phone is far from an optimal way to make a report. In fact, he said spotters should consider the phone to be a last resort. He said the phone line can get swamped with calls and there can be a considerable delay getting out an LSR.
Email. NWS does not really consider email a reporting method, especially for urgent reports like tornadoes. Lewis said that accessing the email account (email@example.com) is a burden to meteorologists, so the delay can be significant. It’s such a problem that Lewis advised spotters who send email to also call the WFO to alert it to look for the message.
So what does the IMO SKYWARN quadrant director recommend? Get a Twitter account and use it but also send every report on ham radio, so other spotters will hear it immediately. Twitter lets you send spotter reports from any cell phone that supports text messaging. And if you have a smartphone, you can shoot a photo and use a Twitter app to share the photo with the WFO. Of course, if you’re at an Internet-connected computer, you can use it to send a report via Twitter.
But remember, spotters who monitor our radio nets depend on hearing each others’ reports. So if you use another method to report, put it on the radio too. Just make sure the net control station knows you already sent it via another method.
Lewis presented the following new set of reporting criteria for 2013:
·Hail, regardless of size. Lewis advised, however, that redundant hail reports (same size in a nearby location) are not particularly helpful. If you’re uncertain whether your report is redundant, send it anyway.
·Measured wind speed greater than 50 mph. Lewis cautioned spotters to make sure they’ve calibrated their equipment. And he suggested referring to the Beaufort wind scale to see if the wind is doing damage consistent with the measured wind speed. If not, be suspicious of your anemometer.
oReport an estimatedwind speed based on the Beaufort wind scale
oReport the size (diameter) of broken branches and fallen trees
oReport the number of trees damaged
oReport Impacts(power outages, impassable roads, specific structure damage, etc.)
·Funnel Clouds or Tornados. Remember that rotationmust be present with either feature. Also, do not report a tornado if you can’t see debris being lifted (for any reason … it might be a tornado but if you can’t see the debris because of a tree line, call it a funnel cloud).
·Flooding.Don’t drive or wade into the water to measure its depth!
Those are highlights of this year’s training session. Feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org any questions or post them in the comment section below.
In the December issue of Allen County HamNews, I hinted at a possible change in reporting criteria for SKYWARN spotters. During a conference call with leaders of IMO SKYWARN, NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist Michael Lewis discussed a goal for spotter reports. Lewis wants reports to be based more on weather impact than on measurements such as wind speed or hail size. For example, if the weather does damage or causes injury, Lewis wants to know about it, even if conditions do not meet traditional reporting criteria.
In addition, Lewis wants net control operators and spotters to pay attention to a text product that the NWS issues when meteorologists are concerned about conditions but don’t have enough data to issue a warning. That text product is called a Special Weather Statement.
During periods of severe and/or near-severe weather, Lewis wants spotters to report conditions in areas covered by Special Weather Statements, even if the conditions don’t meet traditional reporting criteria. In other words, spotters should interpret a Special Weather Statement to mean that the NWS needs their help deciding whether to issue a warning for the area described in the statement; even if that means reporting that nothing is happening there.
When the NWS issues a Special Weather Statement, spotters and others can find it on the NWS website. Just look at the forecast page for your area. If a Special Weather Statement is in effect, a link to it will appear in the “Hazardous Weather Conditions” area below the forecast graphics and above the textual “7-Day Forecast.” You can also go to (and bookmark) this Web page: tinyurl.com/bdlf9dp. That page lists every Special Weather Statement issued by the Northern Indiana NWS office, for any county in its coverage area. As I write this, the page contains Special Weather Statements related to dense fog. There are also several services that will send email or text messages when Special Weather Statements are issued, so you don’t have to keep checking the Web to see if a new one has come out.
Finally, a few months ago I wrote an article that was intentionally a little provocative. It dealt with NWS interest in receiving spotter reports via Internet social media and whether such channels would make ham radio reports obsolete.
Derek Augsburger, AB9SO is ARES emergency coordinator for Adams County and leads ham radio SKYWARN operations there. He responded to my article with an email message in which he described Adams County spotters who became hams after they’d been avid spotters for a while. These folks had been using cell phones to communicate and maintain situational awareness, but of course, they could each talk to only one other spotter at a time (or perhaps two other spotters with a 3-way call). After these spotters became hams, “they realized that an entire group was in communications at once and information was passed quickly to everyone at the same time,” Derek wrote. “Basically it became a weather spotting ‘party’ and not just a bunch of single people doing their own thing,” he continued. “They realized it was a coordinated effort and ham radio made that possible.”
Derek makes a good point about the value of ham radio to serious storm spotters. Nonetheless, NWS is continuing its efforts to involve more non-hams in the warning decision process, via reports those folks send on media like Twitter and Facebook. Look for more on that in another article.
In early December, Michael Lewis, Warning Coordination Meteorologist, Northern Indiana Weather Forecast Office, National Weather Service (NWS), sent an email message outlining updated plans for SKYWARN spotter training in 2013.
Lewis confirmed that in 2013, NWS will not conduct in-person, face-to-face training.
“We had to weigh the options,” Lewis said, “conduct spotter trainings, or reserve travel for possible storm damage surveys, or other Disaster Response Services. In general, one storm damage survey consumes travel and personnel costs equivalent to approximately four spotter talks. We had to decide where to put our resources. We chose to reserve our budget for possible disaster response/recovery.”
The so-called “fiscal cliff” is the reason NWS had to make such a choice. At the time of this writing, Congress had not passed a bill to prevent the automatic austerity measures included in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Unless Congress does so, the federal government must cut spending on Jan. 1 by $200 billion, which means across-the-board cuts, including at NWS. This situation required our local NWS office to plan as if it won’t have enough money for both in-person spotter training and the other activities Lewis mentioned above.
The NWS office therefore plans to conduct spotter training at various sites around its area of responsibility via live, Internet presentations. Spotters will gather at such sites to view — as a group — presentations provided remotely from the NWS office. The current plans do not include opportunity for spotters to view the presentations elsewhere, e.g. their homes or offices.
Lewis said the program will represent a complete rewrite of presentations that have been used for in-person presentations of the past. NWS expects a 90 minute program, including a 15 minute break. “We are doing everything possible to make this a dynamic learning process for the attendees,” Lewis said.
NWS is coordinating with county emergency management agency directors to set up host sites at which spotters may gather to view the online presentations. At the time of this writing, NWS had not announced the specific sites. After all host sites have received their remote presentations. NWS plans to make a recorded presentation available for individual viewing.
Lewis said the new remotely led training will cover less meteorology and radar interpretation than previous in-person training has included. Instead, the new training will focus on the following:
Why to report
What to report
How to report (including telephone, ham radio, etc. and new tools like social media)
Where to obtain the reports of others (for situational awareness)
Because the online spotter training will not contain much meteorology, Lewis strongly recommended that all spotters take advantage of available online independent study training courses. “These courses are well-prepared and provide the student the opportunity to go back and review the material at their convenience,” Lewis said. He referred specifically to the following:
Lewis said spotters should complete the above independent study course before attending remotely-presented spotter training.
Lewis said NWS does not have any authority to prevent others from creating their own, local spotter training programs. “There are plenty of people willing to step up and present whatever they think is best,” he said. Lewis warned, however, “This will result in inconsistencies, and conflicting information, and likely result in confusion.”
Lewis said he hopes to have a “train the trainer” program in place for the 2014 spotter season and beyond. Such a program would train volunteers who are not NWS employees to provide NWS-authorized spotter training in their communities.
As I receive more information about NWS plans, I’ll keep you posted. In the interim, I recommend that you encourage any spotter or potential spotter you know to complete the above-referenced online, independent study course.