Weather Volunteers Help Report Conditions

In an age when meteorologist have ever more technology and advanced science to predict the weather, there are times when what they really need is information from someone who is outside looking up. Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports.

That in short is what the Skywarn is all about.

"We have a lot of sophisticated tools that we have available for our use that helps us issue warnings in a timely way, but what we really don't know is what's going on at the ground."

Gene Hafele is a meteorologist at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office in Dickinson. He trains people to be Skywarn volunteers. He says the training teaches people what to report and how to report it. For example if strong thunderstorms are moving through the area.

"The main thing we try to teach them is to try to identify the strength of what we call the updraft in a thunderstorm. There are certain features that you look for in a cloud to determine if a particular storm has a very strong updraft, versus one storm that maybe has a very weak updraft. We also talk about wind sheer. If you have an environment with a very strong wind sheer, then that environment is more conducive to producing severe weather, so we try to give them some clues on how to identify when there's a strong winds her versus a weak wind sheer."

The training goes on most of the year and classes are about two hours long. Even then it takes some practice at seeing real storms to put the training to use.

"Some of the features we talk about are not always as easily identifiable here in southeast Texas because generally our clouds are generally closer to the ground and usually our visibility is not as good as it would be if you were up in Oklahoma or Kansas, in that area."

But even basic observations like water on roads or wind damage is very important as forecasters work to pass on valuable information to people in the path of bad weather.

Hafele says the age of volunteer's ranges from 10 to 70 years old.

"A lot of our spotters are amateur radio operators because they have that communication capability to communicate what they see very rapidly back to our office. We also train firefighters, law enforcement folks and also just John Q. Public."

The more volunteers the better because not everyone who takes the training becomes or remains active weather spotters. Hafele says in addition to the meteorological training there is a section on safety and even those who do not become active spotters learn how to be safe when the weather turns nasty.

To find out more about Skywarn you'll find a link at kuhf.org