Tell me about being a SKYWARN spotter
March 15, 2019 6:57 AM   Subscribe

We had our first tornado warning of the season last night, and I'm thinking I'd like to train as a SKYWARN spotter. The one question I can't find the answer to is, What's it actually like?

I've found answers to a few important questions by poking around online. I don't have to be a radio operator. I can use phone and internet to communicate. I can do it at home. But I still don't feel I understand what it actually means to do this.
Are you notified of what to do? What is it you actually do? Are you "on call"? Are you taking on specific obligations? If so, what are they? Do you have to get up at night? (I'm a cancer patient who is doing well, but taking care of my health is of paramount importance.) If you can do it at home, does that mean you just go outside and look around (apologies if I sound dumb here)? How difficult is the training? I took one meteorology class in college thirty years ago (and it was "Unusual Weather," so we covered tornadoes), but I'm not particularly knowledgeable - though willing and even excited to learn more.
I've found this recommended as an activity in previous questions, but exactly what is the activity?
If you are a SKYWARN spotter, do you have particular recommendations for someone who wants to do this?
In case this is location specific, I'm in southeast Michigan.
posted by FencingGal to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Our volunteer fire department took a SKYWARN class -- basically, a nice man gave us a two-hour power point presentation about cloud formations and which ones specifically can portend tornadoes. Then we were given various ways to reach out to the National Weather Service if we see something worth reporting. As I understand it, you're basically just living your daily life, but now you have the vocabulary, knowledge, and contact information in case you see something worth reporting. There were absolutely no specific obligations, mention of being "on call," or anything else. You could easily do... nothing.

That said, I live in a place where tornadoes are exceedingly rare; maybe elsewhere there is more defined activity or actual obligations.
posted by attentionplease at 7:28 AM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I took the Skywarn training a couple of years ago. Mine was an online presentation. It tells you about cloud formations and goes over what the main types of information they are interested in in your area. Then later if you see something you think would be of interest (cloud formation, crazy rain fall amounts etc) - you contact the NWS. They keep a record of their spotters and if they think you are in an area they need info about the sky, they might call you and ask what’s happening in your location. I’ve never had that happen. In fact I don’t consider being a weather spotter as an ongoing activity other than the fact that the presentation was really interesting and now I keep a rain gauge in my backyard.
posted by ilovewinter at 7:38 AM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was a SKYWARN spotter in Central MN about ten years ago. I really enjoyed it, and would do it again. This was in the late 00's so they've probably updated the technology since then, but I assume the general stuff would remain the same.

I'm not sure how the training/membership train is done in your area, but here Spotters are divided up and trained by county. The county I was living in was an absolute Old Boys Club for Spotters. They required a HAM radio and they didn't actively recruit, they would just bring in their radio friends from time to time. So I went to the neighboring county and they let me attend their training, but I was given a spotter call-in phone number for the county that I actually lived in.

The spotter training involved sitting in the auditorium and watching videos of different cloud formations, tornado damage, flooded streets, etc. The trainers were super knowledgeable and did a great job of teaching - I suspect that would vary by trainer/location. We were given official booklets that provided this information in a nice take-home reference with charts and graphs (like a hail chart to help identify hail size). I will say that there were probably about 100 people in the auditorium and when they were going through the videos, there was absolute dead silence. I have never been in such an attentive high school auditorium. People take this SERIOUSLY. Given the area of the state I was in, there were a lot of farmers at the training...who I suppose would be particularly interested in knowing what to do when Cloud Formation X appears on the horizon when you're out in the fields. Interestingly, there was no info about winter weather. I was surprised that we weren't asked to help with winter weather observations, given the state and area that we were in.

Then they told us about what to do when activated. Everyone gets a phone number for calling in a report. Everyone also gets a SKYWARN ID number that you need to have on hand when you call. if there was stormy weather on the horizon, I would get a text saying something like "SKYWARN Spotters Activate!!". I didn't HAVE to do anything - I never got a direct call asking for an on-the-spot report. It was more of a "keep your eyes open and let us know if anything is happening". I called in a few times with rain amounts, hail sizes, and damage reports - there was a robot voice/voicemail box so I didn't actually speak to a human to make a report. We had a tornado go through just north of my town while I was a spotter so I called in and described the size and type of debris (shingles, sticks 1-inch in diameter, etc). I think that nowadays you can send a picture via text.

Anyway, if you're even a little bit of a meterorology nerd I would go to the training. It's fascinating and fun, and (at least in my neck of the woods) there was no further obligation. Calling in local reports is what they're looking if you're able to call in rain amounts, hail sizes, and so forth from your neck of the woods...well, that's what they want! So go for it!
posted by Gray Duck at 7:55 AM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: As I understand it, you're basically just living your daily life, but now you have the vocabulary, knowledge, and contact information in case you see something worth reporting.

Exactly. A lot depends on your area. I did the training a few years ago and the guy who led it (PowerPoint type thing) was super enthusiastic and whenever there's a bit weather event he goes through a whole "activation" series of emails telling us what is going on and encouraging us to report the weather that we're seeing. We have a phone number, email address and Twitter account we can report to and you can see some of the activity in our local

This was for where I am in the summer. In Vermont there's basically no process and no organized group that does it. I still get the weather emails from the guy down in Massachusetts and they are super useful explaining not only what is likely to happen but what actually has happened recently. All the emails are archived here so you can get a sense of it, and here is the twitter channel so you can see what/how people are reporting.
posted by jessamyn at 8:44 AM on March 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I assume you're in or near Washtenaw county based on yesterday's weather. If you want to hear what folks are doing during an event, you can listen into the SKYWARN network online. Last night it was a series of folks reporting hail, cloud rotation, and storm damage.
posted by youknowwhatpart at 9:42 AM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My experience is exactly the same as ilovewinter's! I took an online training (a live webinar) a few months ago, learned some language, have access to a secret phone number that I can call if I see a tornado or something, and otherwise life goes on, I don't get emails from anyone, I don't contact anyone, I put up a rain gauge in my yard. It was free, you should do it. And just taking the training doesn't obligate you- I think I still had to formally sign up afterwards. So you could take the training, say, hey, cool, but not for me for various reasons, and not give them your contact information.
posted by Secretariat at 11:56 AM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! These answers are all great. And I am indeed in Washtenaw County, so the local group is particularly helpful to me. There's a training session near me in April, so I'll plan to go to that.
posted by FencingGal at 1:20 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm in Washtenaw County too. I have been meaning to attend a SKYWARN training for the past several years but keep missing them for one reason or another. I guess I'll sign up for the April session as well.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 5:54 PM on March 15, 2019

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