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National Weather Service takes Storm Spotter training online amid COVID-19 cancellations

Sierra Rains
srains@ardmoreite.com
The National Weather Service held an online storm spotter training webinar March 24 in place of events which were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

As the push for social distancing increases, many organizations are taking things online. On March 24, individuals learned about tornadoes and severe storms from the comfort of their homes via the National Weather Service’s Storm Spotter Training webinar.

Tuesday’s webinar was held in place of several events canceled throughout March due to COVID-19 concerns, including the annual Severe Weather Awareness and Disaster Preparedness Day, which was formerly set to take place at the Ardmore Convention Center.

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service in Norman conduct storm spotter training sessions each year to help prepare spotters for the upcoming severe weather season.

National Weather Service Observations Program Leader Forrest Mitchell led Tuesday’s webinar, instructing those sitting in on how to safely observe severe weather and what different types of clouds look like and mean.

“A good spotter observes, reports what they see and above all else does so safely,” Mitchell said.

While Doppler radar and other technology helps the staff at the National Weather Service in Norman keep track of severe weather systems and what might be happening, Mitchell said they still can’t see everything that’s going on.

Sometimes radar might not indicate a tornado, making storm spotters essential for identification and confirmation of a tornado.

“Storm spotters fill the gap between the radar and the ground,” Mitchell said. “We still need the ground truth information, especially the farther away the storm is from a radar.”

However, storm spotters should be informed and prepared before simply going out on the scene.

Some key tips Mitchell gave listeners included being aware of your surroundings and knowing where you are, knowing where the storm is, how the storm is moving, going with another person and always having an escape route.

The vast majority of tornadoes are weak, however, all are extremely dangerous and should be treated with extreme caution, Mitchell said.

While the peak season for tornadoes in Oklahoma is typically between March and June, tornadoes can occur at any time of the year. The average number of tornadoes that occur in Oklahoma per year is 56.

Last year, however, the state saw a record-breaking 149 tornadoes. Mitchell said there were a total of 105 tornadoes in May, 2019 alone.

While several different cloud formations can look ominous, they do not all indicate that a storm has tornadic potential. Mitchell referred to these clouds as “Scary looking clouds,” or SCUD clouds.

Some examples are shelf clouds, which are low, horizontal wedge-shaped arcus clouds normally associated with a gust front and indicating a thunderstorm, or rain shafts, which are a visible column of rain falling from the base of a cloud.

Some clouds that do indicate the potential for a tornado are wall clouds and funnel clouds. Wall clouds will appear small compared to the storm and usually have a distinct slope towards where it is raining.

Lots of thunderstorms will have wall clouds, Mitchell said. The wall clouds are considered dangerous and the ones to watch for are the ones with cyclonic rotation. Other indications that a wall cloud may be dangerous include lowering towards the ground, winds increasing, persistence and a rapid upward motion.

Funnel clouds, which are tubular shaped clouds made up of condensed water droplets, will appear under wall clouds a majority of the time, Mitchell said. Spotters should look for rotation, debris and dust as an indicator of a tornado when observing a funnel cloud.

The weather can change very quickly and it is vital that storm spotters remain aware and prepared while out in the field. “You’re going to be extremely excited the first time you see a tornado, but try to stay calm,” Mitchell said. “You can quickly be in a very dangerous situation.”

Those who completed the training were emailed a certificate of completion and are one step closer to becoming storm spotters.

The National Weather Service encourages anyone with an interest in public service and access to communication, such as amateur radio, to participate as a Skywarn storm spotter.

To learn more about how to become a storm spotter visit, https://www.weather.gov/oun/skywarn-spotter.

An advanced Storm Spotter webinar will be held on March 30 at 6:30 p.m. Anyone is welcome to participate for free. To register, visit https://www.weather.gov/oun/spottertalk.

Individuals less inclined to chase after tornadoes can also become citizen weather observers through the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.

The organization provides volunteers with a rain gauge so that they can measure and observe rain and snow totals daily.

This helps improve local forecasts for rain and snow and provides better documentation of Oklahoma’s storms. For more information, visit cocorahs.org.