4/13/2019 7:29:00 AM Natural reaction: Seeing eye to eye with severe storms
Spring storms will soon be hovering above the Northwoods, and thankfully, there will be plenty of trained, local eyes on the skies watching for signs of severe weather.
Last Thursday, in advance of Wisconsin's Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week, the Oneida County County Emergency Management Office hosted a well attended storm spotter training seminar taught by Jeff Last from the National Weather Service office in Green Bay. That office monitors and issues warnings for weather for Wisconsin's northeastern counties.
"It s important that we have as many people observing the weather as possible," Last said. "We have a pretty good idea with what's happening with our radar, satellite, and all our technology, but we always rely on people, our storm spotters, to confirm what we think we see with the radar."
According to Last, the four main facets of being a storm spotter are: preparation, activation, observation, and communication.
Spotters should be constantly prepared and he said that is achieved by staying up-to-date with weather forecasts through local media, the National Weather Service website at www.weather.gov, or on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio. NOAA radios broadcast a national network of radio stations offering continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office.
Storm spotters, Last said, should stay aware of what a particular day's threat is, when it is likely to occur and where it is likely to hit.
Once prepared, spotters should then choose the right time to activate their observations.
"When a watch is issued, it's probably too early. We try to issue a severe weather watch a couple of hours ahead of the storms moving in," Last said. "On the other hand the warning may be too late. The storm may already be on top of you. So the answer is kind of in between. Any time a storm approaches your location."
What to look for
As part of the seminar, Last diagnosed, with detail, the anatomy of a thunderstorm so when one moves in to the area the future spotters would be able to observe the signs of severity.
The main indicator of severity is rotating air.
A thunderstorm, Last said, is like an engine that takes in fuel and then emits exhaust.
The fuel is warm, moist air that is drawn into a storm through a rain-free base at the back of the storm cloud. The exhaust is the rain, winds, and hail released from the front of the storm.
A single intake and outtake cloud constitutes a single cell thunderstorm. Two to five cells create a more severe multiple cell storm, and several dozen thunderstorm cells create a supercell storm.
"This is the thunderstorm that makes the headlines in the news," Last said. "A supercell has an extreme updraft that rotates like a top. So the air is rising in the belly of the storm in the main storm tower, but it's rotating cyclonically or counterclockwise into he belly of the storm which allows it to last a long time."
The rotating updraft appears like a hook when viewed horizontally and it's referred to as a hook echo, when observed on radar. Underneath that intense updraft, an extremely low pressure system occurs and the base of the thunderstorm cloud lowers into an appendage called a wall cloud.
"A tornado will form in that wall cloud area if it's going to form," Last said. "A wall cloud does indicate where the air is flowing most rapidly into the thunderstorm. A rapidly rotating wall cloud means you're probably looking at a severe or a developing severe storm."
Last stressed that the formation of a wall cloud should be watched closely. He also clarified a funnel cloud is only the rotating air at the base of the wall cloud. A tornado does not become a tornado until that rotating air makes contact with the ground or a body of water.
What to do with the observations
Once signs of weather severity are observed, including rotating wall clouds, funnel clouds, strong winds, heavy rain, flash floods, large hail, and storm damage, Last said spotters should contact the National Weather Service immediately.
They can be reached via the spotters hotline at 1-800-788-6883, or on the internet at www.weather.gov
/grb/report, or by email at email@example.com.
"If you see something you want to get it to us as fast as possible so we make it as simple as possible," Last said. "Accurate information to the National Weather Service is very critical during severe weather. Your reports are used in real time. There will be times when you will talk with somebody who is watching the radar and is waiting for information about that storm."
According to the National Weather Service, Wisconsin averages 23 tornados annually. Year 2018 was an above average year in the state when 33 tornados were reported; 19 occurred in the southern half of the state on Aug. 28 alone.
June and July are historically the most active months for tornados in Wisconsin.
Because of the violent nature of thunderstorms and tornados, Last urged spotters to be cautious and safe and stay indoors or sheltered whenever possible. He also warned that lightning can strike from as far as 10 miles away, so if thunder can be heard by a storm spotter than they are at risk for being struck.
As long as they stay safe themselves, storm spotters can offer the National Weather Service some of the most valuable insight possible on local weather events and therefore they are not only an extremely important asset to the NWS but also their neighbors and community. Because the faster the NWS gets the information, the faster warnings can be issued.
"Technology has limitations. We can't do it alone," Last said. "We're always going to rely on your eyes and ears for the local area. You can tell us a lot better than we can what's happening in your back yard."
Jacob Friede may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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