Audience members might have laughed at other storm chasers' choice of words when caught in hail during storm events, but the mood at Tuesday's SKYWARN severe weather program hosted by the National Weather Service of Fort Worth was more serious.
Ellis County had it's second busiest tornado year in 2015 with five confirmed tornadoes touching down including two on Dec. 26. The EF-3 tornado on that day damaged or destroyed more than 170 homes, and several churches, as well as a school. Local spotters helped track the storm and the tornadoes, and thankfully, no lives were lost in Ellis County to the December tornadoes.
The NWS of Fort Worth provides storm spotter courses at the beginning of each year to all counties in its coverage area because meteorologists need educated storm spotters to report what the radar and computers can't see, actual cloud formations and the results of weather, said Daniel Huckaby, NWS Fort Worth meteorologist and forecaster. Technological advances help meteorologists know when a storms has the potential to cause damage or produce tornadoes, but experienced storm spotters are one of the most reliable ways to know what is happening and warn people in time to save lives.
“This is not a storm chasing class. We are not asking you to go risk your lives for a photo or story,” Huckaby told the audience. “You can be a spotter from your house, office, school or work.”
As part of his presentation, he gave 10 tips for those wanting to help the NWS monitor storms and damage:
1. Spotters should always be focused on their own safety first, he said. If working as a mobile spotter, one person should drive while a passenger observes and makes reports. Always stay away from the center of the storm and its direct path. Drive on paved roads and have a paved escape route, too. Don't drive through flooding and watch for debris kicked up by any wind, not just a tornado funnel. Wear reflective, appropriate clothing and don't block roads. If observing from a stationary position, like a building, spotters should make sure there is a safe place they can quickly get to if the storm gets close.
2. Spotters need to do their research and stay informed. It is important for spotters to know ahead of time what kind of weather is expected, which direction it is headed and where they are in relation to the storm cells so they know what to look for and can properly identify the different parts of the storm formation. Huckaby suggested monitoring the radar on the NWS website to stay up to date on the storms path and speed.
3. Meteorologists need detailed spotter reports. Always include the date, time, spotter location and estimated location of the storm event. If a spotter is estimating wind speed or hail size, say it is an estimate. Reports including how many shingles are blowing off the roofs and building conditions or the size of the tree branches scattered around are more useful than taking a blind guess at windspeed because most people overestimate wind speed, he said.
4. Spotters need to know the names of the parts of a Supercell and their characteristics, so they can clearly communicate what part of the storm they are observing. Information will be passed along to many agencies so clear descriptions are critical. A poor report would suggest hail falling somewhere near a random person, he said. A good report would indicate the size of the hail, an intersection near where the person is and at what time and day the hail started, he said.
5. The best way for a spotter to make a report is by amateur radio, because in a severe weather case where spotters have been activated, ham radio operators are listening at the NWS office in Fort Worth to receive reports. The Ellis County Amateur Radio club members are part of the Ellis County Amateur Radio Emergency Service, http://www.elliscountyares.org/. Spotters can also call and leave a message at 1-800-792-2257 and messages will be checked as possible. Online reports that are sent to meteorologist every five minutes can be made at www.weather.gov/fortworth and clicking the tab to submit a storm report. The NWS also has a mobile website, mPing that tracks the reporters location and maps the reports. Social media should only be used to make a report to the NWS as a last resort.
6. Spotters will be activated on a county wide basis, usually 20 minutes before a severe storm is expected to reach the area. The NWS will include if and when it expects to need spotters and in what area on the daily area forecast discussion available on www.weather.gov/fortworth.
7. Spotters can report any kind of severe weather, not just tornadoes and not just when activated. Hail, wind damage, debris in the air, ice, flooding and rain are also important to locate storms and provide information on weather activity that may be used by insurance companies to help local residents making claims.
8. Spotters should not make reports about what they see on radar. The NWS already has that information.
9. Not all severe storms need storm spotters. Some occur late at night when tornadoes are harder to see and spotters could be blindsided by a rain-wrapped tornado that won't be seen until it's too late. Other times, meteorologist know a Supercell is lacking a key ingredient to a tornado's formation.
1) Tornadoes usually occur during the summer months, usually occur on the southwest end of a storm moving north east and usually occur with hail and rain. But meteorologists have learned to never to use the word “always” when talking about tornadoes or the weather, Huckaby said. Spotters and residents need to be aware and prepared.
Here are come key terms for Supercells that may produce tornadoes.
1. Supercells that produce tornadoes are generally very tall Cumulonimbus clouds created by the updraft of warm, moist air.
2. They usually have a flattened top, or anvil, indicating the updraft is hitting much hotter air that forms a cap and forces the updraft to spread out in all directions.
3. The supercell is usually rounded into a cylinder shape due to wind shear, or different wind directions at different altitude, causing the cell to rotate. If the rotation is face enough, striations, like the edges of stacked plates, may appear.
4. Shelf clouds, a slopping wall of clouds, sometimes seeming to circulate up and away from the earth, usually form on the leading edge of the storm because of the down draft but may appear at the rear. They generally move away from the perspiration. While they can produce a “Gustnado” or large dust devil, shelf clouds do not normally produce tornadoes. “Gustnadoes” are a spinning column of air on the ground not connected to a cloud, and other imposer tornados may cause damage and can still be dangerous.
5. If a Supercell is trying to form a tornado, a wall cloud will most likely appear, Huckaby said. Wall clouds are a distinctive section of the clouds base or bottom side that hangs lower than the rest of base beneath the updraft and point toward the perspiration.
6. Grass on the ground may bend toward the wall cloud and the warm, moist wind will blow towards it as the air is sucked up by the updraft. This is where a tornado will form.
7. Larger hail is an indicator of a stronger updraft, because the winds are able keep the hail a lot longer, causing it to accumulate more mass.
8. Clear slot may form near the west side of the wall cloud, evidence of a downdraft.
9. A tornado is a violently rotating column of air connected to the ground and extending from the base of the a thunderstorm. The connection with the ground may be hard to see until the tornado picks up enough debris and dirt to make darker or until a lightning flash illuminates it.
10. Power flashes are the blue green lights flashes along the ground that appear when power lines or electrical equipment is broken. Straight line winds and tornados can both cause power flashes. They indicate the wind is strong enough to cause damage to structures.
The complete SKYWARNTM Spotter Training Schedule is available online at www.weather.gov/fortworth.
Contact Bethany Kurtz at 469-517-1450 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BethanyKurtzMidloMirror or on Twitter @bethmidlomirror.