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Volunteer weather spotters help the National Weather Service

As of right now, mid-afternoon of Wednesday, March 25th, there has not been a single tornado reported in the United States so far this month. It is such a rarity to have a tornado-free March, that meteorologists are taking notice. Typically, severe storm season ramps up in the first month of spring, which is why tornado season starts with March 1st.

We all know that tornadoes can actually occur any time of year, but spring tends to be the peak time for them, especially across the Midwest and South. Today, there is a risk for isolated tornadoes across Oklahoma, southwest Missouri, and northwest Arkansas, but so far the system associated with it has only brought hail. It was golf ball sized hail, which is not insignificant, but still no twisters.

Despite the apparent delay in the onset of the season, the National Weather Service needs trained spotters this year and every year. Skywarn, a national, volunteer organization fills that need. Every spring, NWS offices across the country offer classes to train interested community members in how to recognize and report severe weather when it happens.

In a typical Skywarn class, a trainer - usually a meteorologist, but not always - teaches how to safely observe severe weather, pick out the parts of the storm that indicate it could hold high winds, hail, or a tornado, and how to make an official report to the National Weather Service.

Reports from trained spotters provide much needed ground verification for the warnings that are issued by the National Weather Service. When the local office issues a tornado warning, for example, it is usually based on a radar signature that shows rotation on the ground. In the case of the newer radars, debris may even show up on the radar return, but what gives a warning the necessary gravitas with the public is often a report from a trained spotter.

Think about the phrases "radar indicated" versus "a trained spotter reported a tornado on the ground." Which elicits the strongest response in your gut? Most people would answer that knowing a tornado has been seen would make them more likely to take cover. Yes, they should take cover anyway if the warning says the storm that could be tornadic is heading toward their location, but people often lack trust in technology and prefer eye witness reports. Spotters provide those reports.

Maybe you saw the pictures from yesterday's storms that dropped golf ball sized hail in the Midwest. The hail was impressive, and a trained spotter would know to compare it to a golf ball and not some random object that might vary in size like a large marble. The wording of the reports are as important as the reports, which is why Skywarn training is important.

You don't have to be a trained spotter to make a report, but as a trained spotter, when you call the local office to report a funnel cloud, the person taking your call will know that you've been shown the difference between a funnel cloud, a tornado, and scud clouds. You're report will be given more weight.

Occasionally, reports from trained spotters can actually trigger warnings. If the conditions are marginal for issuing a warning and a Skywarn volunteer calls in quarter sized hail, that verification can be enough to cause the office to put out a severe thunderstorm warning.

If you are interested in becoming a Skywarn spotter, check with the National Weather Service local offices for when classes are being offered. Click here for the link to the Raleigh office’s current schedule.