Take a look at the photographs of the approaching thunderstorm below.
Just minutes after the photographs below were taken, that same storm (maybe even those same clouds) cause a tornado warning just a few minutes drive from where the photos were taken. The warning may have been issued due to a storm spotter or chaser reporting to the local NWS station.
Now, from what I have heard, only a funnel cloud and not a tornado was spotted. The most important point is that there was no tornadic damage and no one was hurt (there was probably some damage from the strong winds produced by the storm – I would guess the winds in the photos were in the 30-40 MPH range, which is not too bad).
By coincidence 25 years ago on the same day of June (June 8, 1984 to be exact) an F5 tornado wiped out 90% of the Wisconsin Village of Barneveld.
That tornado killed 9 people. It also injured 200 more. You can read about that storm and others at the NWS website.
In March, I attended an NWS (National Weather Service) storm spotting class.
I have to thank my brother for suggesting it. To be honest, I did not take too much convincing. Storm spotting is something that has always interested me (I also admit to repeated dreams of being chased by a tornado when I was younger). My brother and I also once witnessed a tornado near Mitchel Intenational Airport in Milwaukee (MKE). It was neary 10 minutes after we saw it before the tornado warning sirens went off. Several people were injured but fortunately, no one was killed. That was a small tornado (still powerful enough to throw cars around in the air).
What is an NWS storm spotter?
A storm spotter is an educated volunteer. They usually get some of that storm education at NWS storm spotting classes like the one I attended. They simply report on storm activity from where they observe it. This may only be from their home.
Education is the key part of storm spotting!
Much of the storm spotting class was learning the difference between clouds that don’t produce tornadoes (called shelf clouds) and clouds that produce tornadoes (called wall clouds). Then there are the scary looking clouds (called SCUDS -SCary looking cloUDS- by our local NWS). There are a lot of scary looking clouds! The storm spotter’s job is to provide accurate information about storms, so knowing the difference is very important.
Doesn’t technology make storm spotters unnecessary?
Strom spotters are a very necessary key link in the NWS warning system. I learned that radar has more limitation than I realized. Due to radar’s angle of coverage, much of what happens close to the ground cannot be seen on radar. At distances, the resolution of radar may not be high enough. Some activity radar can miss altogether and sometimes it only gives a clue as to what is happening.
It takes someone on the ground at the location to provide the needed info. In one major tornado outbreak in Tornado Alley, 17% of the storms were only spotted by one spotter. Imagine how many lives were saved by that spotter’s accurate reporting. Millions in damage was done.
What’s the difference between a storm spotter and a storm chaser?
The NWS does not expect storm spotters to take risks. Safety is the first priority. An accurate report is second. Many storm spotters only report from their local area when the weather occurs in their vicinity.
A storm chaser hunts the storms. A storm chaser by drive hundreds of miles chasing a storm that has potential to produce severe weather and tornadoes just to be in the area when the storm occurs. Some storm spotters are also storm chasers. It is important for a storm chaser to be even more highly educated about storms and tornadoes as they my find themselves in very dangerous situations. There is a definite wrong way to chase storms and there are lots of videos on YouTube demonstrating the wrong way. I admit they are fun to watch though.
Even experienced storm chasers can find themselves in very real danger.
There is a National Geographic DVD of natural disasters. In the special features, there is a section on the team that went out to get video for the tornado part of the video. Putting it shortly, they found themselves locked out of their van with the tornado approaching. They also discovered that a second tornado formed just behind them while they were filming the first. Watching them try to get out while dealing with a 75 pound IMAX camera is worth any price you will pay to watch the DVD. The footage is truly spectacular and is better than the rest of the DVD!
The importance of an NOAA Weather Alert Radio.
Just like a smoke detector, every home should have an NOAA weather radio with “Public Alert.” This is the sever storm version of a smoke detector. When there is a tornado warning (or one of several other alerts) the radio sounds an alarm. Storm warning sirens are only meant to be heard outdoors and you may not hear the warning indoors or if you are asleep.
New models with S.A.M.E. technology will limit the alerts to just the county you live in instead of alerts that may not affect you. Some models will also let you specify what alerts you will hear (not much chance of my house being hit by an iceberg – yes that is an alert). NOAA weather alert radios range in price from $20 to $200. My search found models with most features around $30-$60.
Soon after attending the storm spotting class I purchased a Midland WR-300 weather alert radio from NewEgg. If you do not mind a camouflage design, there is a similar model with all the same features at a lower price. If you live in the Midwest where tornadoes occur frequently (although they can occur anywhere in the US and the US also has the highest number of tornadoes in the world) you should really get a weather alert radio of some type for your home to keep your family safe.
Personally, I think a weather alert radio would have been much better that digital television converts for the government to spend money on.
A digital television converter gives you entertainment but won’t warn you of a coming tornado in the middle of the night (unless you leave your TV on all night). An NOAA weather alert radio can save your life and the lives of your loved ones.
You can find out more about sever thunderstorms, tornadoes and storm spotting class by finding your local National Weather Service site on the NOAA website.