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Weather Watcher

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A great deal of time, money and energy has gone into the development of instruments and methods that allow meteorologists to report and predict the weather with the greatest possible accuracy.

Just think of the dozen weather satellites that are currently in orbit. They can give us an idea of the weather in every corner of the world as they circle high above the planet. Yet it is unlikely that they will ever replace human observers.

"The best weather instrument yet devised is a pair of human eyes," Harold Gibson, chief meteorologist for New York City, once said.

That's exactly why weather volunteers are so important. By keeping an eye on local weather conditions, they help professional forecasters and weather reporters prepare more accurate reports and forecasts. In other words, they help fill the white spots on the weather map.

Mike Roberts is a television weather reporter. His station covers a large region. And many of the communities in it do not have an official weather station. So he relies on 22 volunteers to tell him what the weather is like in their neck of the woods.

He says his volunteers are of immense value. "They are my eyes, ears and nose," says Roberts. "They not only give me weather information, but they give me community information as well."

One volunteer, for instance, called the station when local police made a drug raid that made headlines.

You can identify two kinds of weather volunteers.

One kind collects hard weather data and passes it on to meteorological offices. Forecasters and scientists use that data to draw conclusions about the weather and the atmosphere in general.

In the U.S., some 11,000 volunteers collect data for the National Weather Service, says John Orgler. He is a data acquisition program manager for the National Weather Service.

Orgler says those volunteers are extremely important. "The data that they collect is used across the country for climatic studies," he says.

His office, for instance, will call local farmers and ask them to collect information about local soil moisture levels.

The second kind of volunteer reports severe weather like thunderstorms, hail or tornadoes to local weather stations. They then issue appropriate warnings through local media.

Norm Reitmeyer is the warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service.

His office can track approaching tornadoes through radar. And most tornado warnings are issued before ground spotters can confirm them. "If we depended on a spotter...before we put out a warning, we would not be very effective in warning people," he says.

"But what we...need to know from spotters in the field is what's happening out there. Did a tornado occur? Did you observe anything that makes you think there is a tornado?

"Could you describe the damage that has occurred out there? What about trees that are down? Are they all in the same direction, or in varying directions? Because if they don't tell us, we don't know."

He says the help that his office gets from spotters may not help the areas where they live. "But they are going to help us in the decision-making process that takes place up the line. So they are providing a valuable service.

"At the same time, there are going to be cases also where they are going to call and say, 'I'm a spotter...and we got a tornado on the ground here.' We may not have a warning out. Doppler radar isn't the answer to everything -- not yet."

Just ask Drew Watson. Some five years ago, his area experienced several incidents of overnight severe weather. "It was affectionately referred to as the Night of the Tornadoes," he recalls.

A ham radio connected Watson to meteorologists at the local weather office. Its radar was showing something that might be a tornado, but the meteorologists were not sure. So they called Watson.

"About quarter after 3 in the morning, they asked me if I would look to the north and tell them what I saw. And I stood out on my front porch...and you had to see the lightning that night. It was absolutely awesome.

"At no time was there not a bolt of lightning flashing somewhere in the sky. And I could quite clearly see and hear a tornado on the ground. They had an inkling that there might be one there, but they just weren't too sure."

The tornado was some 16 miles away, but Watson says he could he hear its distinctive rotating sound. "And it was backlit by the lightning. You could see the rotation of the cloud, and you could actually see the debris field."

Stu Kratz had an even closer tornado encounter. "The tornado actually didn't touch down, but it was maybe a hundred yards in the air, and it passed just right next to my house. I mean, I could see it in the sky until I ran down into the basement."

Kratz escaped this experience relatively unharmed. It encouraged him to combine weather spotting with his other passion, operating a ham radio. He now coordinates other volunteer weather spotters in his state over ham radio.

He says listening to the volunteers on the radio during a tornado can be quite exciting. "Well, your adrenaline of course starts pumping because you really have a real responsibility, picking through the persons who are calling you over the radio. Sometimes, some of these people went to classes and know what they are looking at. And some of them don't."

Some are also willing to risk a lot. Kratz recalls one volunteer who chased a bad thunderstorm in the middle of the night.

"And there was a tornado within the thunderstorm," Kratz says. "And he really couldn't see it. He was in his vehicle chasing it, and he almost got into the path of the thing. He stopped his car and laid on the floor of the car, and he could feel it going past him. So that was the end of his chasing."

Jane Allen started keeping an eye on the weather at an early age. Her dad worked for the National Weather Service for more than 50 years. And every time he noticed bad weather approaching, he would call home to see what was happening there.

She has been a weather volunteer for 25 years now. Along with her husband, she has measured and recorded the temperature and precipitation every day during those years. The information is also of use to Allen and her husband since they are farmers.

"Being farmers, we keep an eye on the weather constantly," she says. And they know full well how devastating it can be.

Almost four years ago, a freak hailstorm wiped out their entire crop and badly damaged their home, Allen says. "It came out of nowhere. It was raining, and thundering, and lightning," she recalls. "And all of the sudden, the windows in our house blew in. And we had hailstones and glass and rain everywhere."

Life has gone on since then, and so has the record keeping.

"They need to keep records -- how much rainfall, how much snowfall, the size of the hailstones or whatever. We do this just to help out the weather service. They really have no way of knowing without people...reporting back what they have seen."

How to Get Involved

If you're interested in becoming a weather volunteer, contact your local weather office or broadcast media outlet. You can also contact Skywarn if you are interested in severe weather spotting.

Large events that depend on certain weather conditions might also need weather volunteers.

You don't need a background in meteorology to become a weather volunteer. There is no need to learn all the various terms that meteorologists use to describe different types of storms.

Nor do you have to be in great physical shape. This volunteer activity may be open to people with some physical disabilities.

"If you are able to observe, and you can report, we want your help. We value your help," says Reitmeyer.

But you must be willing to learn a few basic things about the weather and recording it. Skywarn offers weather spotter lessons that will help you identify conditions that signal the approach of severe weather.

Being a volunteer weather watcher also requires patience and commitment. This is especially the case if you volunteer to collect hard weather data.

You may have to collect data every day. And you have to have a backup in case you are away or unable to collect data. "It is something that you can't skip now and then, because you need continuity. And continuity means every day, seven days a week," says Orgler.


National Weather Service
Monitors the weather in the U.S.

Weather Underground
Check out the severe weather map

Meteorology Glossary
What exactly is a supercell storm? Find out here

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