Tornado season is officially upon us, and seasoned storm spotters, professionals and newcomers alike are all headed to school.
Local organizations from Carter, Love, Garvin and Murray County gathered at the Ardmore Convention Center for a severe weather awareness and disaster preparedness day on Saturday to learn new skills and receive additional training for disaster prep, fire safety and of course, storm spotting.
Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, led a presentation that covered what to look for, how to report it and what does and does not qualify as a tornado. Attending the class qualifies volunteers as official storm spotters who can then report activity to the National Weather Service during severe weather.
“Tornadoes, you would think, would be one of the easiest things to report,” Smith said to the audience. “But they’re one of the most complicated things to identify.”
He defined a tornado as a violently rotating column of air in contact with the ground and extending from a cloud, giving examples of different cloud formations and what they could mean.
“It doesn’t have to be rotating to be a wall cloud,” Smith said. “It can be a non-rotating wall cloud, and that is a legitimate report.”
Funnel clouds, he said, aren’t just funnel-shaped. To qualify, they must be the proper shape, rotating and connected to the base of a larger cloud.
“Very often in a supercell, it will go in cycles,” Smith said. “You always have to keep your head on a swivel. Just because a funnel dissipated doesn’t mean it’s time to go home and eat dinner, it means, ‘What’s going to happen next?’”
During the presentation, Smith emphasized using common language that responders can easily understand when calling in weather conditions. Using common items to describe the size of hail is easy, he said, but sometimes describing flood conditions and severity can be more difficult.
Storm spotting at night is significantly more dangerous, and forces spotters to rely on flashes of lightning to gauge the shape and movements of clouds. Smith said he’d recommend that most people not attempt it. During nighttime storms, spotters rely on power flashes caused by disruptions to power lines, but Smith said power flashes do not automatically equal tornadic activity. They can be caused by high winds, ice storms, and errant squirrels.
“Power flashes happen when lines are arcing because of a variety of things that may be happening,” Smith said. “Reporting them will help us.”
During the presentation, Smith debunked common misconceptions about what can and cannot effect a tornado.
“The most common misconception is that there is some local geographic feature that causes tornadoes to happen or causes them not to happen or changes their direction,” Smith said. “The storms we’re talking about are tens of thousands of feet tall. They don’t feel the effects of any of that at all.”
He said storm experts fear those truisms can lull people into a false sense of security when the weather takes a turn.
“Just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t,” Smith said. “Often, these things have been passed down, sometimes even taught in school, we’ve learned.”
These training days average about 3,000 class attendees a year statewide. In addition, new online classes bring in people who might not have considered joining before. Some will be newcomers, but others will be returning volunteers looking to learn more. Smith said weather can vary from location to location so dramatically that in truth, it’s impossible to have too many volunteer storm spotters. He said that’s particularly true of rural areas, where there are fewer pairs of eyes to begin with.
“Weather is so local,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of telling us what’s happening where you are. You could be the only person to see the weather event. Even your neighbors may not be experiencing the same thing.”
In recent years, NWS has consolidated events like this one, cutting the number down from around 50 to 15. He said that can be a good thing, as it gives emergency management directors and first responders from different counties a chance to meet and work together before a weather event occurs.
“Weather doesn’t know that county boundaries are there,” Smith said. “We’re always working with each other, and it really increases the efficiency of our training too.”
Love County Emergency Management Director AshLeigh Gillham said it’s important to bring in new spotters who can learn from the more experienced ones. She said it’s equally important for volunteers to continue to attend trainings like this, though it isn’t required.
“He brought some new information,” Gillham said. “There was some stuff in there that I had never heard before. You only use it for one season, so any refresher is helpful.”
Bud Ramming, emergency management director for Garvin County, said during extreme weather his office is often flooded with calls, some from people who aren’t registered spotters, reporting suspicious clouds that don’t quite count as dangerous.
“We’re chasing too many ghost tornadoes,” Ramming said. “It’s very important that our spotters have proper training.”
Carter County Director Paul Tucker said a common strategy is to send newer spotters out with more seasoned spotters to help newcomers learn more quickly while cutting down on the number of false alarms.
“Keep it short,” Tucker said. “Get to the point, because there’s going to be other people who need to utilize that channel.”
Online courses can be found at https://training.weather.gov/wxspot.php.