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Storm spotter in-person courses cancelled; online courses will be offered

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post
This photo shows Mammatus clouds in El Paso County, Colorado, in June 2019.
Photo by Greg Heavener

As spring weather marches in and often rages into the eastern Colorado plains and the central plains region — seeing the word “cancelled” has been another disheartening, coronavirus-related disappointment for Coloradans and others who had been excitedly checking the National Weather Service websites for the official SKYWARN storm spotter training schedule.

Released at this time each year like its own March Madness, Holyoke, Greeley, Fort Collins, Morgan, Loveland and Centennial airports were right at the top of the list to host the next set of storm training presentations from March 25 into April until all public on-site training presentations were recently cancelled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the NWS.

A few SKYWARN classes were held before official word came from NOAA and the NWS March 12 about cancelling all public presentations due to the importance of helping flatten out the growing coronavirus pandemic.

However, there’s some good news for weather savvy folks thirsty to learn vital, fascinating elements about storm structure, how storms evolve and the important features invaluable for reporting to the NWS. People can still get SKYWARN spotter trained from webinars, also known as virtual classes online, that will be offered by the NWS office in Pueblo and the NWS Denver/Boulder offices in Colorado.

“We’re still deciding which days we’ll offer the webinar (the virtual class). We’ll probably host a handful of these classes for the rest of the spring, and I’m working with someone on scheduling dates,” said Greg Heavener, acting meteorologist-in-charge at NWS in Pueblo, noting that anyone in the country can join in on the webinars.

The webinar schedule is expected to be known during the week of March 23. Heavener recommended that interested folks check the NWS website for specific details at http://www.weather.gov/pub.

And there’s no need to have test anxiety because there’s no quiz.

“From our office, there’s no test to pass. As long as you attend the webinar, and as long as you’re engaged you’ll be an official SKYWARN spotter,” Heavener said.

“And so, once someone has taken that online SKYWARN storm spotter training (virtual/webinar,) which the NWS will be offering, that will mean (yes) that the person would then be an official SKYWARN storm spotter,” said meteorologist Scott Entrekin at the NWS in Denver/Boulder.

“Yes, we are planning to develop local online training for spotters in the next couple of weeks. There is no date set yet, probably something later next week (week of March 23.) Once developed, we’ll put out notifications on our web page,” Entrekin said. Their website is http://www.weather.gov/bou.

The NWS teaches interested volunteers to be safe, effective and accurate weather spotters. SKYWARN, founded in the early 1970s, is made up of trained, dedicated amateur weather enthusiasts who work with the NWS by observing and reporting adverse weather conditions to promote public safety and minimize property damage. Even with all the NWS technology, meteorologists still need eyewitness accounts on the ground.

“We’ll train people how to measure hail, and other severe weather aspects — those folks being the eyes and ears for us during convective weather,” Heavener said. “It’s still a bit early for the more organized thunderstorm activity, however in the next four to five weeks — we expect activity to ramp up in May. What we’re looking for, is for people to know what to look for in severe weather, and how to report it.”

“We take seriously the public reports and we confirm reports,” said Jennifer Stark, meteorologist-in-charge at the NWS in Denver/Boulder.

These are the elements that the NWS needs from trained spotters:

• Winds greater than 58 mph/causing any wind damage to a home, property

• Hail larger a dime

• Funnel clouds or tornado

• Flash flooding/road flooding.

If you know what to do before, during and after a tornado, meteorologists say you will minimize your risk of injury and increase your chances of survival.

“Our goal nationally, at the National Weather Service is to be able to provide 15 minutes lead time for any approaching tornado, but that’s not always what we give you. We get supercell reports from spotters, and when we have strong supercells with rotation, we often have many spotters on it — those are the ones with the best lead time,” Stark said.

As spring kicks into high gear, severe weather season does too.

Typically most thunderstorms in eastern Colorado occur in May and June.

“Anywhere along the front range, typically in April and lasting into early September, thunderstorms with heavy rain, hail, and any storms can produce lightning,” Stark said. “For Colorado, we have more moisture available in the atmosphere, and more heating in the day so our thunderstorms are more diurnally driven (daytime) when storms develop over the mountains in the early afternoon and move over the plains, they can get stronger over time, and re-develop as they move east. Regarding the central Plains and farther east, there’s a higher probability of storms at night, so people need some method — some alert of being notified to wake up — if you’re watching TV or if you’re asleep at night.”

It’s recommended to have multiple ways of getting warnings.

“For those nocturnal thunderstorms, there’s not much that can replace a (National Weather Service) weather radio,” Stark said.

In Kansas, severe weather season can arrive in March, and continue through spring and into in June. There’s often a lull with more thunderstorms late summer into the fall.

“Severe weather safety that we provide, is the most important aspect of spotter training, and, while we regret not being able to hold the SKYWARN public presentations this season, our severe weather operations continue,” Stark said. “But we’re missing the opportunity to provide in-person severe weather safety information to the public, and meeting people and answering questions to a large group. I hope we can get back to normal soon.”

To check for the SKYWARN webinars, go to the National Weather Service/Pueblo, Colo., website at http://www.weather.gov/pub or the National Weather Service/Denver-Boulder website at http://www.weather.gov/bou/.

For severe weather information, go to http://www.weather.gov/safety/tornado, http://www.weather.gov/safety or http://www.weather.gov/wrn/spring-safety. ❖

— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at rotatingstorm2004@yahoo.com.


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