Current weather reports are an important part of life for Minnesotans and Wisconsinites, so the National Weather Service continually updates its information. Agency staff often relies on storm spotters to assist in gathering accurate weather data so the NWS can provide weather watches and warnings as needed.
“Storm spotters are important, because their reports provide the real time account of what is actually happening,” said Donna Dubberke, meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in La Crosse, Wis. “It is part of what we call the integrated warning process.”
While radar constantly tracks weather patterns throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, Dubberke said it “is not perfect. It does a good job of telling us about the storm, but it does not tell us what is actually happening on the ground where you live.”
The NWS coverage areas are large and the radar scans work at levels as high as 10,000 feet, according to Twin Cities meteorologist Tyler Hasenstein.
“Spotters are an invaluable part of our situational awareness,” Hasenstein said. “They help us by giving at the ground conditions in order for us to be able to make the best warning decisions possible, and without them we would be missing a valuable resource to continually evaluate and improve our services.”
Dubberke said the data reported by spotters is often what makes people heed the NWS warnings.
“People want to confirm a threat,” she said, noting that people often hear a weather warning, then go to the window to see if it is true, rather than seeking shelter. She added that people are more likely to find protection if they have heard specific information about a storm heading their way.
“Our goal is the protection of life and property,” Dubberke said. “I can give you the best information, but if no one responds, it won’t help.”
In most years, the NWS holds in-person classes to train weather spotters, allowing them to earn Skywarn Spotter IDs which they can use when they call in reports to the NWS. With the pandemic, the NWS moved all training classes into a virtual format on Go-To-Webinar and Facebook Live.
“This resulted in us not being able to issue new Skywarn Spotter IDs as we require an in-person class for those,” Hasenstein said. “This led us to extending the IDs of current spotters by a year to account for the fact that they could not attend a training session. This also worked to our benefit in a way, as we reached a large number of people, especially on Facebook, that would otherwise have not had any exposure to the process.”
Hasenstein said the NWS does not have a certain number of spotters at any given time. Instead of a specific number, the emphasis is on the quality of spotters and their reports.
“It will almost certainly always be the case of more is better, as long as quality does not degrade as that happens,” he said. “We don't turn down any reports from people who are not trained spotters, and if in reporting something to us you mention you took a akywarn class, we would definitely take that into consideration in terms of how to weigh the quality of the report.”
In the Twin Cities, the number of weather spotter classes is large enough that the NWS has enlisted some help to get people trained to report severe weather.
“We have a partner in Metro Skywarn that helps us provide classes and training specifically for the greater Metro area,” Hesenstein said. “We quite simply do not have the manpower to provide the overwhelming number of courses that the metro would require, and they assist us by doing training sessions for us.”
Dubberke said that when people hear the term “storm spotter” they often think of a scene from the movie “Twister.” Driving into the eye of a storm is not what the NWS wants people to do.
“Storm spotting is not the same as storm chasing,” she explained. “Storm spotting is knowing what needs to be reported, knowing how to observe it and report it, and then reporting it when it happens.”
Storm spotters are asked to report such information as the amount of rainfall, the size of hail, the types of clouds forming, wind gusts, and any damage they may know about.
By having spotters throughout the coverage region, the NWS can use the data from reports to determine how a storm is developing, where it is moving, and what type of threat it might bring. From that, they can issue warnings, if needed, and add information to their weather records.
The reports from storm spotters are important to the NWS because those reports “go into the warning decisions,” Dubberke said. “We share them with the media and others so that people in the path of the storm know what to expect.”
For more information about storm spotting in the Twin Cities region including Goodhue County and areas north, go to www.weather.gov/mpx/skywarn. For information about storm spotting in the La Crosse region including Wabasha County and areas south, go to www.weather.gov/arx/skywarn_schedule.