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.
The 2016 Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium, hosted by the Indianapolis office of the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Indiana chapter of the American Meteorological Society, provided a full day of interesting presentations. Below are a few highlights.
Squall lines made cooler
John Kwiatkowski of the NWS Indianapolis office provided a presentation on Quasi-Linear Convective Systems (QLCS). Early in his talk, Kwiatkowski explained that this is the same type of storm that meteorologist formally called a “squall line.” Kwiatkowski joked that the new name sounds much cooler and that using it will impress members of the opposite sex.
QLCSs are much more common in Indiana than are supercell thunderstorms. Yet, as Kwiatkowski explained, spotting a QLCS in the field can be more dangerous than watching a discrete supercell out in the plains. Part of a QLCS can produce very damaging straight-line winds without appearing any different to a field observer than any other part of the storm. It can also produce essentially invisible, rain-wrapped tornadoes which, while small and brief, can easily overturn a spotter’s car. Kwiatkowski advised staying home and reporting damage after the storm passes.
It’ll never happen to me (and if it does, I can handle it)
Dr. Laura Myers, a research scientist at the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, provided a presentation titled “Weather Psychology of the Public: Integration of Social Science Research Results in Products and Practice.” She pointed out a variety of issues regarding how (and whether) people respond to weather warnings.
Myers said that a significant challenge of the weather enterprise is to make people understand that the benefits of safe behavior outweigh the costs and inconvenience.
Among the many discoveries she presented were some that will likely surprise weather enthusiasts:
Most people either don’t believe severe weather will ever affect them (it will always happen to someone else), or they believe that they are uniquely able to handle it.
Not everyone has a single, good warning modality, but people should have more than two.
Upon first learning of a weather alert, people often waste time seeking secondary confirmation, sometimes leaving insufficient time to take adequate shelter.
Most people don’t know what county they are in, even if they live there.
The tone, seriousness and message of broadcast meteorologists can make a difference in how people respond to threats.
Words like “emergency” in weather communications prompt more action but must be used sparingly.
During the 2012 derecho, severe thunderstorm warnings did not lead people to understand how dangerous the storm was. Many told surveyors that they would have behaved differently, had they known what the storm would do.
Storm spotters, chasers and other weather enthusiasts are in a unique position to help change how people respond to severe weather threats. As I’ve written before (see “Storm spotters as advocates“), we are often the trusted weather experts in our families and social circles. We can take advantage of that position to help those people understand how to stay safe.
Mobile home! Duck!
Well-known storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski discussed how he chased the 2013 El Reno tornado, the widest tornado in recorded history. His presentation included a great deal of compelling video of the storm.
At one point during the chase, a mobile home flew over Piotrowski’s car close enough to knock off a roof-mounted camera and antenna. Piotrowski saw it coming just in time to tell his wife to duck.
Piotrowski told the crowd that second-by-second situational awareness — including looking at the sky, not just a radar — is the only reason he survived the tornado. He said that during a chase, he never shuts off his car’s engine. And he reminded the audience that debris can travel four miles from tornado.
A peek behind the curtain
NWS Meteorologists Amanda Lee and Marc Dahmer provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the their Indianapolis office works during severe weather, complete with entertaining video shot in the forecast office.
They showed how the NWS WarnGen software creates warnings based on choices the warning meteorologist makes.
They also showed how the general public can access data from post-event damage assessments, sometimes within minutes of data entry in the field. The public-view version of the NWS Damage Assessment Toolkit is at https://apps.dat.noaa.gov/StormDamage/DamageViewer/. It requires Adobe Flash, which makes it inaccessible on iOS devices.
Building a Weather-Ready Nation
Dave Tucek, warning coordination meteorologist for the Indianapolis NWS office, provided an introduction the the agency’s “Weather-Ready Nation” (WRN) initiative. His talk included information on severe weather climatology and the value of organizations becoming WRN Ambassadors. Although the Ambassador designation is not available to individuals, Tucek pointed out that “We all have a part in spreading the weather-ready message.”
No green screen
Chris Wright of WTTV TV-4, Indianapolis, spoke about his career as a weather broadcaster. Interesting tidbits from his presentation included:
His station uses no green screen. Instead of chroma key, his weather graphics appear on a bank of nine video monitors.
During severe weather break-ins, it’s not unusual for a superior to tell him to keep talking. Wright told the crowd that if they see a weather break-in that lasts for more than 30 seconds, it wasn’t the weather person’s decision.
News anchors often don’t watch the weather segment of a newscast. That’s why the weather person recaps the forecast as part of his hand off back to the anchors.
Social media has significantly increased the workload in TV weather departments. Wright said that keeping up with Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. sometimes requires having two people per shift.
At colleges, students aren’t always the biggest emergency management challenge
Carlos Garcia, emergency manager for the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis campus, talked about how the campus prepares for severe weather.
He said federal law requires universities to warn their communities of threats in a timely manner. He pointed out that college students are adults, who need to accept responsibility for their decisions in emergency situations. But he also indicated that students aren’t necessarily the biggest challenge with regard to appropriate response to notifications. That’s one reason the campus invested in software for all campus computers that can automatically display alerts. The software will even interrupt a professor’s PowerPoint presentation, displaying a notification to everyone in the classroom of the situation.
Editor’s Note: The Nashville, Tenn. National Weather Service office and other organizations hosted an annual “Severe Weather Awareness Day” at Trevecca Nazarene University Feb. 27, 2016. What follows is a guest post from Ken Helms, AB9ZD, who attended the event.
I enjoyed the Severe Weather Awareness Day 2016 in Nashville yesterday.
The keynote speaker was James Spann, chief meteorologist for ABC in Birmingham. He discussed the 2011 super outbreak that killed 252 people in Alabama and he focused on what happened, why people died, and what needs to be done differently. Among the reasons he gave for the high number of deaths:
Low income families didn’t get the warnings (can’t afford weather radios, smart phones, etc).
Each local station had its own way of categorizing the severity of a storm causing confusion.
Too many false alarms over the years so some people didn’t take the warning seriously (crying wolf).
Warnings by the news media were given by county and not localized enough for people to know if they were really at risk or not.
Many people didn’t have an effective place to shelter from a tornado (very few basements in southern houses).
Spann is a very passionate speaker on the subject.
There was also a panel discussion with five of the local TV stations’ meteorologists which was interesting.
Representatives from the NWS and the county EMA discussed area tornadoes including one that hit Gallatin (a city not far from Nashville) in 2006 that killed eight people.
Basic and advanced storm spotter training was included as well.
The event was held in a large room and was well attended. It was nearly standing-room-only for Spann’s presentation — there were no empty seats around me. Quite a few students were there. A group of meteorology majors from another Tennessee college sat in front of me. Attendance thinned out as the day went on.
They had an area set up for representatives from the local TV stations, colleges, and the NWS outside the conference room. Most were handing out brochures along with things like pens, pencils, ice scrapers, and stickers. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) had a table as well.
The warning coordination meteorologist of the Norman, Oklahoma NWS office did a very interesting presentation at a national storm chaser convention earlier this year. Rick Smith spoke about what goes on at his office during severe weather events and how chasers and spotters can be of greatest assistance. While some of the information was specific to his local office and does not apply to the northern Indiana office, it was nonetheless a fascinating presentation. You can watch it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1CNFSkcagw or on the embedded video below.
The husband-and-wife team of Amos and Megan Dodson, both meteorologists at the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service (NWS), conducted the annual SKYWARN storm spotter training Feb. 16 at the Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana.
The content of the training didn’t change much from last year’s presentation. It focused on the differences between truly threatening weather phenomena and scary-looking, but harmless (and unreportable) conditions.
Here are some highlights:
Spotter reports add credibility. When the NWS issues a warning that includes a reference to a spotter report, members of the general public are more likely to take action than when the warning does not include a spotter reference.
Don’t wait for activation. Although our NWS office issues hazardous weather outlooks that indicate whether spotter activation is likely, the office does not “activate” or “deploy” spotters. It welcomes spotters to make reports anytime they see anything reportable.
Clouds with ragged edges aren’t spinning. Scary-looking SCUD clouds that are shaped like funnel clouds generate a lot of well-intended but false reports from untrained observers. True funnel clouds and tornadoes spin, giving them sharper, smoother edges.
When unsure, send a photo. NWS encourages spotters who see something that might be reportable (like a possible wall cloud or funnel cloud), to photograph it and send the photo via Twitter (@NWSIWX) or the NWS office’s Facebook page. The office monitors both social networks closely during severe weather events.
T.E.L. NWS. When spotters make reports, they should provide the Time of the observation, a description of the Event, and the Location of the event. The actual time of day is more valuable than “right now” or “two minutes ago.” And because the local NWS office does not issue spotter credentials, formatting reports in that specific order is one way spotters can demonstrate they attended the training.
Thunderstorms come here to die! Spotters provide a valuable service to their communities even if they don’t see anything reportable. And climatology data shows that spotters in Indiana are about half as likely to see something as are spotters in Illinois. Megan Dodson shared that this leads meteorologists to joke that Indiana is where thunderstorms come to die.
Mysteriously, far fewer people attended the training than registered for it, even though weather did not hinder travel that night. Those in attendance, however, included TV meteorologist Hannah Strong, who indicated that the presentation included information not provided in meteorology school.
People who missed the training can get via the Web most of the information they need to be effective spotters. Two options include