Sunday, February 28, 2016

Severe Weather Awareness 2016: SKYWARN Spotters and #mSpotter

Though severe weather often occurs within a defined "season" in the spring to early summer (plus a secondary "season" in the fall), as we saw on December 23, 2015 in the southeast and February 24, 2016 on the east coast, severe storms can strike during any month of the year at any time of the day or night. When severe thunderstorms threaten, the National Weather Service calls SKYWARN volunteers into action. SKYWARN volunteers are the eyes and ears of the National Weather Service, providing instant reports of severe weather, including hail, high winds, and dangerous cloud formations.

SKYWARN spotters keep a close eye on the sky anytime severe thunderstorms approach. Many communities deploy spotters around the edge of the city and use their early reports of impending hazardous weather to warn the community. Some spotters relay reports from their home or business while other more adventurous volunteers brave the elements and try to get as close to the storm as possible.

Who are these SKYWARN volunteers? A large number of SKYWARN storm spotters in the Mid-South are Amateur Radio Operators, commonly known as HAMs. These public service minded individuals make ideal storm spotters since they have the ability to communicate their reports. They are willing to be trained and they have a real interest in helping the National Weather Service, and their local communities prepare for severe weather. Amateur Radio operators are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, even thought they receive no compensation of any kind for their hard work.

Ham radio operators collecting storm reports from SKYWARN storm spotters in the field. Picture courtesy NWS.
Many other groups participate in the SKYWARN program, including law enforcement agencies, fire departments, utility companies, rescue squads, and the news media. Individual citizens are also trained as spotters, and are asked to relay their reports to the National Weather Service. Spotters are a vital link in the warning process, and it is important to have as many trained spotters in each county as possible.

How can you get involved?  There are a couple of ways.  You can attend a storm spotter training class to become a trained spotter. Each session is free, lasts about 90 minutes and covers basics of thunderstorm development, fundamentals of storm structure, identifying potential severe weather features and (more importantly perhaps) severe weather look-a-likes, what and how to report, and basic severe weather safety.  Upcoming class details can be found here and you can learn more about the SKYWARN program from the NWS here.

In addition to being a trained spotter, Memphians can use the power and immediacy of Twitter to report severe weather.  Just send a tweet of what you see with the #mSpotter hashtag and the report will be passed directly on to National Weather Service-Memphis meteorologists. The best reports include a geo-tagged tweet and picture of the severe weather (storm damage, hail, funnel/tornado, or even winter weather), as well as short description. For more information on this valuable program, visit the MWN #mSpotter page (mobile link) or watch for a short video-based training here!

There are a couple of ways to get SKYWARN spotter training locally. First, you can watch an online training session that was conducted by the National Weather Service in Memphis. There is also an online spotter training course that is available with a free registration. Finally, a class taught in person by NWS-Memphis will take place on Tuesday, March 22, at 7:00pm at Lord of Life Lutheran Church on Poplar Pike in East Memphis. All current SKYWARN volunteers should attend as a refresher, while new volunteers are strongly encouraged to attend and learn how to be a spotter, what to look for, and how to report. The classes are free and open to the public, including teens and older elementary children who enjoy attending with their parents.

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