FOW Archive: Spotting Storms and Fighting Fears

This article was originally published in the Dolphin Talk Newspaper out of Seadrift, Texas in March of 2012. 

I’m not really too sure of exactly when I became phobic of severe weather, but I do know that it is something that has shaped my life deeply over the last two years. Imagine watching weather reports days in advance, letting the weather severely impact your daily activities and also being embarrassed that you hold this overwhelming fear of something that most people would find silly.

While the truth is that the problem is one that affects a far larger number of people than is reported; there are ways to fight it as well. Besides trying to raise awareness of the problem online and starting a support group, I have found that one of the best ways to fight the phobia is to learn as much as I can about severe weather and what causes it.

It was with that in mind that over the last year or so I endeavored to become a Skywarn spotter for the National Weather Service. I figured it was a chance to get information on severe weather as well as to help others impacted by severe weather events. I wanted to know even more about what I was looking for in the skies and on the radar, I wanted to be able to trust myself as a source for when the weather got too dangerous.

The Skywarn class I attended was held in the courthouse on Ann Street in Port Lavaca, one of two classes that day, one in the afternoon and one at night, which I chose. I was pleased to see that a good number of people attended the evening class, and was even more pleased to hear that the Calhoun County classes beat out the Laredo classes in attendance.

The instructor, Jason Runyen, is a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service field office out of Corpus Christi. Not only did he explain many things about the role and the importance of a storm spotter in both public safety and data collection, but he went into many questions about how to spot severe weather both in person and on the radar.

We learned how to spot the different types of cloud formations that can bring severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, about where to safely observe severe weather from as well as how to report in our observations so the data can be used by the National Weather Service.

Of course, modern radar technology plays a huge part in spotting severe weather and as such we learned about bow segments, which are where a part of a line of thunderstorms ‘bows’ out slightly ahead of the rest of the squall line, usually bringing damaging straight-line winds. We also learned about how to spot a hook echo in a storm cell, which can tell you that there is a tornado present in that particular storm.

Most importantly, we learned how crucial the storm spotter is, especially in spotting the smaller, weaker twisters. These tornadoes, although hard to hard to track due to being on the ground a small length of time, are impossible to pick up on radar. So, if law enforcement or a spotter does not report them, they go unnoticed, leaving large gaps in the data about tornado activity.

For an hour of our time, we were able to learn something that might help many people in a time of crisis, protect our community and also hear some very interesting facts about the weather that most people don’t even pay attention to.

The role of storm spotter is an unpaid one, usually more of unheralded community service, but as the recent events of the last two years in places like Joplin, Missouri, and Maryland, Indiana have shown us, their role might end up being very important indeed.
Thomas Spychalski

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