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Lightning strikes south of Iliff, Colorado in early May 2023  | Credit: Dakota McGee

Spot On—Getting the Ground Truth About Severe Weather

Tornadoes. Lightning. Floods. The National Weather Service has different forecasting tools at its disposal, but there are blind spots that make it difficult to alert the public about hazardous situations. That’s where “SKYWARN®” comes in.

By Frani Halperin, Executive Producer
Published: 16 Jun 2023 | © H2O Media, Ltd.

When Paul Thompson was a child growing up outside Houston in the early 1980s, severe weather and hurricanes frightened him—especially nighttime storms with the bright flashes and loud booms of lightning and thunder.

But his fear gave way to fascination, and eventually, weather became a hobby because back then, when a hurricane was in the forecast, grocery stores and newspapers would pass out large charts, two by three feet in size, showing the entire Atlantic Basin and the Gulf of Mexico, to help residents follow a storm’s path and prepare. People would tune in to the nightly news to get the latitude and longitude of a current storm and then plot it on their maps with a pen or pencil. It was all “very analog,” Paul recollects.

These days, meteorologists have digital tools and radar to help with forecasting. But even with modern technology, a lot of places can be “off the radar,” and that’s where people like Paul, who now lives just outside Denver, comes in. He recently trained to become a severe weather “spotter” in the National Weather Service “SKYWARN” program—a voluntary network of weather enthusiasts, who after taking a free two-hour training, are assigned a spotter number to report sightings of anything from a tornado to hailstones.

Following a class in the spring, Paul is officially spotter #AD1134 and joins 10,000 spotters—some more active than others—in northeast Colorado alone, who took the training to learn about storm structure, cloud features, and how to tell if a storm is strengthening and possibly developing into a tornado. They're also taught how to stay safe. After all, the mission of the National Weather Service is to protect people and property, given thunderstorms, tornadoes, and lightning cause not only injury and/or death but also property and crop damage every year.

<p>A large rope tornado stayed on the ground for 25 minutes in SW Nebraska in May 2021 | <em>Credit: Dakota McGee</em></p>

Spotters are in every state and become an extra source of information for the weather service—"extra eyes on the sky,” meteorologist Scott Entrekin with the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Boulder office likes to say. “We have a lot of great science and technology at the weather office with radar and satellite observations, but we're missing one component, that "ground truth" describing what’s happening below the clouds that radar can’t detect.” He explains it's because the Earth's curvature causes a radar beam to point higher up into the clouds and away from the ground the farther it gets from its source.

Every day, the Boulder NWS office will publish its “Hazardous Weather Outlook” to “give spotters a feel for what we’re expecting on a given day,” Scott says. It will include a “spotter activation statement” at the end that will tell volunteers where and when they might be needed.

Colorado has three National Weather Service offices with the other two being in Grand Junction and Pueblo. An office in Goodland, Kansas is responsible for covering parts of Colorado's Eastern Plains. Spotters working with the Boulder office are mostly concentrated along the Front Range from Denver up to Fort Collins, but numbers dwindle as you get out on the plains. So, Scott and his colleagues rely on people like Dakota McGee, who lives in Iliff, Colorado, in the northeast corner of the state.

Dakota, who is in his late 20s and drives a car adorned with storm chaser decals, describes himself as both a spotter and a chaser. He says he’s taken between ten and 12 SKYWARN courses over the last six to seven years. Like Paul Thompson, he too was frightened by lightning as a child but came to love severe weather.

I met him in Fort Morgan, a ranching and farming community about 80 miles northeast of Denver. To my disappointment—and honestly relief—the skies are blue with puffy white clouds to the west, but in Dakota’s mind, those cumulus clouds—the basis for thunderstorms—look promising. As moisture increases, he says, they’ll build into “one of those big cauliflower-like clouds” that mean business.

Dakota doesn’t just look to the horizon to decide if it’s going to be a so-called “chase day.” In the morning, he’ll look at atmosphere conditions like dew points and moisture and he’ll also consult the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) outlook—specifically its HRRR forecast, which he says is “a computer guess of where they think storms are going to be.” He will pore over other models as well, such as from the College of DuPage, which puts out information daily. After that, he’ll pick a target and try to get there, usually an hour, maybe two hours, ahead of when a storm is “supposed to fire.”

<p>Dakota McGee is a severe weather spotter for the National Weather Service and a storm chaser.  | <em>Credit: Frani Halperin/H2O Media, Ltd.</em></p>

If his calculations pay off and he catches a storm, he’ll report what he finds—from hailstones and wind speed to cloud types and rainfall amounts—to the National Weather Service, and if need be, they’ll issue warnings. Being a spotter is a two-way street, and the Boulder office might call him. Dakota shows me an app on his phone the Weather Service uses that displays his beacon—a little red dot with his spotter name and number on it indicating he is active. If they see he’s near a severe storm, they’ll get in touch. Anyone who is a spotter or a chaser can have a beacon, he says. They just have to pass a test at the spotter training.

In 2022, he recorded Colorado's first tornado of the year, and they called him asking what he saw. Bagging a tornado can be exhilarating, and chasing generally can be intense, like a few weeks ago when he got pelted with tennis-ball-sized hail, which is surely a case of taking it for the team to dutifully report severe weather.

Generally, he plays it safe and draws upon what he’s learned in the trainings to evade dangerous situations, like never approaching a storm from the north to avoid driving through the rain and hail core where you’d lose visibility. “After the core passes, I'll go back through the radar loop and see where the core went over and try to go find the hailstones and then document them, take pictures, and then call the weather service.”

But the “sport,” as some are calling chasing now, is getting crowded, which can make for dangerous situations on small country roads when hundreds of people are in pursuit of a storm—some without enough experience. Just weeks ago he was in Bennett, Colorado, just east of Denver and says there were probably at least 200 chasers there. “And once the storm's fired, you get just car after car pulling off on the side of the road, and it becomes dangerous at times depending on if people are smart. At times, there's been some not-so-smart chasers, you know, reckless driving type of thing. And that gets scary, when there's a million cars on the road and you're trying to chase.”

So, for people who want to chase severe storms, Dakota has two pieces of advice. First, definitely take the SKYWARN classes from the National Weather Service. Then, if you do go out, tag along with a seasoned chaser to get your feet wet. Bottom line for Dakota, as a spotter helping the weather service in its mission to protect the public, you have to protect yourself first.