Trained weather spotters play a key role in forecasting

Trained weather spotters play a key role in forecasting

PAWTUCKET - A free class on how to be a weather spotter? When I first saw in my email that the National Weather Service was looking to build its network of spotters in the area, I knew I had to go.

I've always had a particular fascination with how the weather works, and I get extra excited when something unusual is in the forecast.

I had little idea going in what being a weather spotter actually entailed, but I knew this presentation on the National Weather Service's national "Skywarn" spotter system would be a fascinating inside look at weather from real experts in the field.

About 30 of us gathered on the second floor of Goff Jr. High School two weeks ago for a session covering everything from how to recognize the threats posed by certain clouds to what to look for when measuring ice and snow.

One of the first things we learned from National Weather Service Meteorologist Matt Doody is that New England is one of the most difficult regions for spotters to do their thing. Anyone who signed on to become a spotter and get their official ID card at the end of class would be facing quite a challenge, he said.

Doody emphasized just how important weather spotters are. Spotters aren't just participating in a hobby, he said, but playing key roles in Skywarn's mission of "protecting lives and property." Spotters help predict the severity of floods, the direction of tornadoes, and the strength of hurricanes, among other duties.

Doody, along with fellow meteorologist Stephanie Dunten, works out of the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass., a center that covers weather in parts of three New England states and all of Rhode Island. While the professional weather people have the atmosphere above Earth largely covered with their high-tech gear, spotters fill a pivotal role down below, said Doody.

"We need eyes on the ground," he said, because the meteorologists can't always tell what's happening in places like Pawtucket.

One thing a weather spotter is not, said Doody and Dunten, is a storm chaser, proceeding to show us videos of some of the dumbest chasers out there. One particularly ignorant fellow, oblivious to the danger he was in, had his camera trained on the debris in front of him while a tornado came at him from the left.

"Don't put yourself in harm's way," said Doody.

"Don't go out and find the weather, let the weather come to you," added Dunten.

Spotters are to take measured steps in everything, not rushing to pick up the phone without first double and triple checking what they see.

According to Dunten, weather spotting is about what you "actually see," not "what you think you see" or "what you want to see."

Events like the Springfield tornado in 2012 show just how valuable spotters are, said Doody. Professional forecasters needed people on the ground telling them exactly what they saw so they could warn people what to expect.

Spotters help save lives, he said.

Civilian volunteers can help the National Weather Service by measuring and reporting wind gusts, hail and rainfall, or offering detailed descriptions of cloud formations.

The National Weather Service counts on those reports to issue alerts and warnings on hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods and blizzards, among other events, said Doody and Dunten.

Dunten took us through the details of why and when we fledgling spotters should choose to call the National Weather Service with a report. According to Dunten, forecasters are very specific about what they're looking for - broken branches of four inches in diameter or more, measured wind gusts of 40 miles an hour or more, pea-sized hail or larger, streams and rivers over their banks.

If a spotter sees a wall cloud, a rotating wall cloud, a funnel cloud or a tornado, he or she should call right away, said Dunten. Lightning strikes, the number two weather killer, do not offer a valid reason to call, she said.

After Dunten's presentation and a group test, we were each given the opportunity to sign up to be a spotter. I, of course, would have signed on even without the offer of a cool "Skywarn" bumper sticker, a fridge magnet and a spotter ID card, but those perks provided extra incentive to sign on the dotted line.

For dates of upcoming weather spotter training sessions, visit http://1.usa.gov/1g6eNo2

For more from the National Weather Service, visit www.weather.gov/boston or www.spc.noaa.gov

For Ethan Shorey and his #Forshorcast on Twitter,

Shorey learning how to be a weather spotter.