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Become a SKYWARN Trained Observer

Do you pay close attention to cloud formations? Are you the first one to spot a thunderstorm on the horizon? Do you enjoy television shows about tornadoes, hurricanes, and other storms? If you can answer 'yes' to any of these questions, then the National Weather Service needs you!

SKYWARN Trained Observers keep their eyes on the sky, especially during the most common thunderstorm seasons, spring and fall. They look for dangerous lightning, hail, heavy rain, and tornadoes. If a severe storm occurs, the observer reports to the National Weather Service via telephone, internet, or ham radio. Many observers are licensed amateur radio operators, but this is not a requirement.

The Weather Service relies heavily on these reports from the field to make accurate storm predictions and issue warnings to areas in the path of dangerous weather. Thunderstorms can move quickly (up to 70 miles per hour), and tornadoes in particular are fast-moving and unpredictable. The tornado itself cannot always be seen on radar, only a hook-shape which indicates rotation in the cloud. It could be signs of early development within the cloud or a fully mature tornado that has touched down. Reports from storm spotters are the only means of precisely locating tornadoes on the ground. Many lives have been saved because trained observers spotted dangerous weather and immediately reported it. However, observers are not “storm chasers.” They stay at or near their homes and report to local weather service offices.

Becoming certified as an observer involves taking a class which usually lasts 2-3 hours. Observers are trained to note conditions that may lead to the development of a severe storm. For example, it is important for a spotter to understand and be able to identify the stages of the thunderstorm life cycle – from cumulus, to mature, and finally dissipating stages. A thunderstorm may be a single cell, or several cells may combine to form lines, clusters, or even supercells, the most dangerous type of storm. Spotters are taught to recognize the signs of a developing storm at various levels of the cloud – high, midlevel, and low. Supercells have a distinctive structure and appearance which every spotter should know well. Information about the life cycle of a tornado, its classification based on destructive power, and about non-tornadic severe events, such as powerful downbursts, is also given during the training course.

Tips on tornado safety round out the course. Students are given a handbook to study for future reference; online training materials and advanced storm spotting classes are also available. Classes are often held at Red Cross offices or in conjunction with ham radio club meetings. To find out about classes in your area, contact your local Red Cross or weather service office, or visit http://www.skywarn.org. “Remember, Storm Spotting is dangerous and should not be done without proper training, experience, and equipment.” (SKYWARN web site)

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