Eyes on the skies

SKYWARN ‘spotters’ vital for severe weather information

Skywarn_logoThe calendar reads February, but some St. Croix Valley residents will soon prepare for severe weather season.

Metro SKYWARN begins a series of annual weather spotter certification classes Feb. 23 in the Margaret Rivers Room on the third floor of the Stillwater Public Library. The Stillwater session runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. And is one of many spotter classes conducted by Metro SKYWARN in the Twin Cities and the National Weather Service in areas outside the metro area.

“Anyone is welcome to attend and learn to become a spotter,” said Bob Jensen of the Stillwater Amateur Radio Association, which puts on the local SKYWARN class.
In a time of computers, Doppler radar, CodeRED emergency email and text notifications, Jensen said sometimes the fastest way to get severe weather information is have people watch the skies.

“The idea is, SKYWARN would train enough spotters so there’s enough people where the (severe) weather is at,” he said. “Our people are very active and they know where a storm is headed, so they can position themselves.”

According to the NWS website, SKYWARN was set up by the agency in the 1970s to obtain critical weather information from persons trained to observe and report severe weather.

Although the Stillwater SKYWARN class is organized by the local ham radio group, Jensen said students do not have to be a licensed ham radio operator to become a certified weather spotter. But he adds that several persons attending past SKYWARN classes ended up attending ham radio license classes.

“It’s not restricted to amateur radio operators. But ham radio is a big part of this,” he said. “It generates a lot of interest (in ham radio).”

Jensen said persons attending SKYWARN classes are trained on what signs of severe weather to look for if the NWS office in Chanhassen activates the spotter network.
“Basically, the training is based on recognizing severe weather and then to report severe weather,” he said. “How to see a wall cloud and funnel cloud and report it accurately.”

Jensen said instructors use storm films and videos, many taken by storm chasers, in the class. But he stresses that spotters are not chasing storms.

“SKYWARN spotters are not chasers. They ask people to report from where they are,” he said.

SKYWARN spotters not only report severe weather, according to Jensen, but the also provide reports on hail and wind damage and flooding. Although weather spotters are rarely used in winter, Jensen said weather conditions can become severe enough to warrant spotter activation.

“It’s not very common for them to be used in the winter. But if there’s severe weather in the winter, they (NWS) will activate them,” Jensen said.

Jensen said about 55 people attended last year’s local SKYWARN class and he expects a similar number of people at this year’s session. Persons interested in attending can call Jensen at 612-802-2269 or email him at bobajensen@comcast.net.

Other Valley-area SKYWARN classes are 8 a.m. April 6 and May 11 at the Agriculture Service and Education Center training room in Baldwin, Wis.; 6 p.m. April 23 and 8 a.m. May 16 at the St. Croix County Government Center, 1101 Carmichael Road in Hudson, and 9 a.m. April 27 at the Cottage Grove Fire Department Station 2, 8641 80th Ave.

Call 715-381-4911 to pre-register for the Baldwin and Hudson sessions. Call 651-769-0358 to pre-register for the Cottage Grove session.

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