How to Become a Trained Weather Spotter

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I’m a weather addict. My husband makes fun of my fascination with hurricanes, news of tornado outbreaks, floods, heat waves — he just doesn’t understand my fascination! However, if you look at the top stories of any given year, at least a few will be weather-related, so I know I’m not the only one who is obsessed!

If this describes you, then heads up!

One of the best ways to become weather-smart is to become a trained weather spotter. Recently, I had a chance to take the NWS SKYWARN Storm Spotter Program.

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Every part of this world has its own weather hazards.

  • Hurricanes affect places like Hawaii, the Gulf Coast, and the Southeast coast of the U.S.
  • The U.S. Midwest battles wildfires and tornadoes.
  • Snowfall can be unpredictable and hazardous in mountainous regions.
  • Windstorms cause damage to homes and businesses on flat prairie lands.
  • Tornadoes don’t just happen in Tornado Alley but across the entire country.

Fortunately, there are some aspects of severe weather that can be detected by radar from the various National Weather Service locations. However, other signs are best seen from the ground. That’s where trained weather spotters come in.

Trained spotters can tell a tornado from a low cloud and know what signs to look for in the skies. Spotters can report wind speeds from home weather stations if they have them. They can also report the size of hail that has fallen or the amount of rain at a certain location. Weather can vary every couple miles and spotters can help the National Weather Service fill in what can’t be seen on the radar.

Here are five reasons you should consider becoming a trained weather spotter for your area.

You’ll know exactly what threats happen in your area.

When I recently took the SKYWARN class, the majority of the coursework was reviewing the types of severe weather events we get in our area of the country and studying what can happen if those events become threatening. Where we live in Ohio, we can experience severe winds, flooding, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail, and snow. I often get notifications of weather activities by the app on my phone and used to become needlessly flustered when things like “severe thunderstorms,” “windstorms,” and “blizzard watch” popped up, but never actually happened.

Our weather-spotting instructor was familiar with people who, like me, weren’t knowledgeable on the differences between weather predictions, watches, alerts, and warnings. I’ll explain each term for you here so you can copy these down to remember later!

  • Predictions are made every day as to the possibility of severe weather in different parts of the country. However, the weather is very difficult to anticipate, so these predictions can change on a dime.
  • A watch means there are favorable conditions for severe weather and can span several hours and counties. This means that if you receive a notification for a “tornado watch,” for example, then the current weather conditions are conducive to potentially creating a tornado. (Read a lot more about tornadoes in this article.)
  • If a storm has produced severe weather, an alert can be issued for where the storm will hit next. They are issued for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, floods and flash floods, among other things.
  • A warning means that severe weather is imminent or ongoing. They usually cover a smaller area and last a shorter amount of time. They should be taken seriously as they indicate action is needed to protect life and property.

Trained weather spotters learn how to identify signs of severe weather.

Did you know wind speed in storms is often figured out by the kind of damage it does to trees? It’s true! One sign of significant or severe weather that the NWS wants to be reported are damaged trees or multiple large tree limbs down (three inches or more in diameter of healthy branches). Since I live in a rainy region, we also report flooding greater than 12″ on roads as well as moving water. I want to emphasize how important it is to really get to know the signs of severe weather that are unique to your area.

It is also imperative that you don’t become the boy who cried wolf! There are several weather phenomena that can fool an amateur into thinking it’s the end of the world. Cloud formations, in particular, can trip people up. For example, wall clouds are dark, threatening storm clouds that can begin to rotate strongly on their axis and can fool people into believing it is forming a tornado. Scud clouds can also mimic tornadoes but are really just rising clouds caused by low humidity.

Lastly, a thunderstorm by definition is only considered “severe” if it produces a tornado, hail one inch in diameter or larger, and/or wind gusts 58 mph or greater. Tornadoes are ranked on a scale based on the damage it does as well as the wind intensity. It makes sense that the NWS has specific rankings to define when simple thunder- and wind-storms become severe. The storm spotter program taught me about the different severities of all the different weather phenomena for our region so I could spot and report their signs accurately.

You’ll learn how to report severe weather to warn others.

As a trained weather spotter, I have the unlisted number for my local National Weather Service office. It’s to be used to report severe weather only! But that’s not the only way I can report weather signs that I spot. Severe weather reports can be made by calling or emailing the main office, using a HAM radio network, and also by posting on social media. How awesome is that? Much easier to warn others of incoming storms now than it must’ve been in the pioneer days. They did have plenty of common-sense weather-predicting methods back then, though!

TIP: You, yes you!, can become a ham radio operator like me. Follow the instructions in this helpful article. Having an alternative way to communicate during an emergency could save your family’s lives.

After the severe weather event passes, the National Weather Service also likes to get pictures of the event and damage to include in the reports. We were encouraged to post them on the NWS social media sites and to email our photos to our local office, as well.

Being specific in a report is highly encouraged. NWS wants the exact time and duration of an event, a specific description including specific measurements and the exact location with cross streets (or latitude and longitude, if possible). Hail should be measured or compared to coin money by measuring the largest hailstone seen. Our instructor was very adamant that hail not be described as “marble-sized” since marbles come in various sizes! Everyone has their odd little pet peeves.

If you ever want to report anonymously, there is an excellent website and app called mPING. Click here to learn more about it and be sure to download the app on your phone!

You’ll learn how to be safe during severe weather.

IMPORTANT: A trained weather spotter is not a storm chaser! Do not follow tornadoes!

A trained weather spotter is encouraged to take shelter, not stay outside and watch the storm. One of the most dangerous parts of severe weather is lightning because it occurs so frequently in any thunderstorm. It is not something that always needs to be reported, but it’s the thing you should most be aware of to stay safe. I don’t think I need to remind you that it can be deadly to humans!

Hail can be measured only after it has stopped hailing. Being hit on the head repeatedly by golfball-size hailstones is a sure way to visit the emergency room! Also, don’t drive through water, either. Just repeat after me: “This is not Storm Chasers, I am a sane human being, this is not Storm Chasers, I am a sane human being…”

You’ll learn where to access up-to-date weather reports so you’ll know if severe weather could potentially be headed toward your location.

Each day, reports are posted to the Storm Prediction Center on the NOAA website. When severe weather is possible, they will post a Public Severe Weather Outlook statement.

There is also a Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network where you can report weather data and access other people’s information. You can find weather stations in the U.S. near your county at this site!

You can also find weather information at your own local Skywarn web site. Most cities have sites of their own, and you can search for yours on the main Skywarn website.

Classes for becoming a trained weather spotter are not offered year round, but only in the few months leading up to the severe weather season. The classes are typically free and last about two hours. Advanced classes last a full day and are offered in major cities a few times a year. They fill up fast, so find out when classes are offered near you and put it on your calendar to sign up early.

If you can’t make it to a class, there is a general Skywarn Spotter Training Online class available here. It covers the basics, and at some locations, it counts for spotter training. Check with your local National Weather Service office to see if the online class is right for you!

For more information on becoming a trained weather spotter, visit the Skywarn website or contact your local National Weather Service office. Every weather-obsessed person should become an official weather-spotter!

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Sarah Anne Carter is a writer and reader. She grew up all over the world as a military brat and is now putting down roots with her family in Ohio. Visit her at SarahAnneCarter.com

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3 thoughts on “How to Become a Trained Weather Spotter”

  1. Interesting read, as a father of four I feel keeping a finger on the pulse of weather is very important.

    I just keep a site bookmarked on my phone called acuweather to keep me updated.

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