How To Be a Storm Spotter

Cumulonimbus thunderhead
Cumulonimbus thunderhead / Nicholas
As Mark Twain once said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it” is true. But there are plenty of people that are needed to watch and report the weather. Many groups and agencies need amateur meteorologists or storm spotters to monitor and report the weather. 

Why Storm Spotters Are Needed

The National Weather Service (NWS), flood control engineers, police and fire agencies, the media and scientist all need your reports of the weather. Many tornado warnings are issued after an amateur meteorologist has spotted a funnel or tornado. Rain reports are needed to monitor streams, creeks and rivers for possible flooding. 

Even if the rain wasn’t very heavy, reports are needed since more rain the next day can saturate already soaked ground giving the NWS information on possibly issuing a flash flood watch and where they should issue it. Wind damage reports are needed along with power outages. Snow depth and drifting reports are needed for road conditions and possible road closures.

There are sophisticated and simple weather stations you can buy depending on how much you can spend. Most of these will give you the temperature and record the high and low, barometer, a rain gauge and an anemometer, which measure wind speed and direction. Many of these go directly to your computer. You can use or buy an older computer and dedicate it for your weather station.

You can also measure and report the weather without much of a weather station. There are many plastic rain gauges you can just put in a clear spot in your yard that are very accurate. Measuring snow just takes a yardstick or a measuring tape. To measure how much moisture is in the snow, simply bring it in and let it melt, then measure how much precipitation is in the container. And hail is measured by its size, you can actually measure it or compare it to items such as marbles, pennies, quarters, golf balls and if you’re in a really bad storm baseballs and grapefruits.

A weather station would come in handy with wind, wind gusts and rainfall rate reports. The rainfall rate is usually measured as inches per hour. Though in very heavy rainstorms where flash flooding is a possibility, it can actually be measured in inches per 10 minutes or so. A storm where you measured 1” of rain in 10 minutes would equate to 6” per hour. You might not get 6” since it might not rain for an hour or that hard for an hour. But those types of reports give forecasters an idea of what is going on in certain locations.

baseball size hail
Baseball size hail / Steve Morris

Getting Trained as a Weather Spotter

You can do this on your own and take measurements and report them or you can actually take a class and become a trained weather spotter. All of the local NWS offices have training sessions on learning to recognize severe weather. You would be taught the difference between a rain shaft and a hail shaft and the difference between those two and a funnel or tornado. 

Many times a simple rain shaft can look like and does get reported as a funnel cloud. You would also be taught the terminology to use and how to properly measure rain and snow. Measuring snow sounds pretty simple, but when you have drifts all over it isn’t that easy. You will learn to recognize the different clouds and what they mean and especially what the signs of a possible tornado will look like before there is a funnel.

You can find your local National Weather Service office and look on the main page for classes or spotter classes or spotter talks. That should list all the classes in many towns and the dates and locations. If you can’t find a list of classes just call and ask them. Spring is the time most classes get ready to start since it is also the beginning of the severe weather season. Also some CoCoRaHS sites offer training and education as well and some of them offer online training sessions; see below for their web sites.
Funnel cloud
Funnel that turned into an F5 tornado / Jason Hobson

Who Wants Your Weather Reports

The weather service wants your reports. On every NWS web site, there is a link to report your severe weather reports. There is a group in almost every state called Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, CoCoRaHS (pronounced like coco rahs). Here you can find your local CoCoRaHS by state organization. You can also buy certified rain gauges and other instruments through them.

During the storm, you can listen to other severe weather reports from storm spotters on ham radio and follow the track of the storm. 

Weather Spotter Tools

There are numerous companies that specialize in weather instruments and entire weather stations for all price ranges. Here is a list of the most popular companies with Davis Instruments being the best.

  • Taylor Instruments
  • AcuRite
  • La Crosse Technology
  • Oregon Scientific
  • Davis Instruments
  • A weather radio is very helpful alerting you to storms

Weather Spotter Safety

Lightning strike
Lightning can occur even if the storm is 25 miles away

There are some safety tips that you should always remember when watching severe weather. They are easy to forget in the heat of the storm. You shouldn’t go running outside in the middle of a tornado, even if the tornado has just passed you, there still could be debris flying around or even another tornado. You shouldn’t try and outrun a tornado or drive in front of a tornadic storm. 

When standing outside watching the storm for a tornado, remember there is also a lot of lightening as well. You might be tempted to run outside and check the rain gauge after 15 minutes; again the lightening is a threat. I have seen a storm pass and the sun shining brightly with continuing nearby lightening strikes.

Watching, monitoring and reporting weather is not only needed by these agencies it is fun and could also save lives.

© 2009-2016 Sam Montana

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