Being a Skywarn spotter not for everyone

The National Weather Service’s offices are active on social media and post graphics such as these to warn Floridians about the weather hazards they commonly face. (Special to the Caloosa Belle/Courtesy of Tampa NWS Office)

From a young age, humans become fascinated by the sky with its big bright yellow blob and endless clouds in which you can see everything your imagination tells you is there. Then, usually soon after our first storm scares us inside, most of us find more important things to focus on, and weather becomes something to plan around, endure, complain about and use to start awkward small talk.

Some people, however, never outgrow their fascination with the sky and simply must study it — they grow up to be meteorologists — and then there are others who fall somewhere in between and who, when the opportunity arises, want to learn more about it.

Being one of the latter type, I couldn’t resist when the chance came up to be trained as a “Skywarn” weather spotter by the National Weather Service (NWS). The two-hour course was offered to anyone interested by the Glades County Department of Public Safety/Emergency Management last month, something the county must do to keep its certification as a “Storm Ready” local government.

Just a handful of other folks were in the room on Flag Day, June 14, when I was the last to arrive at the Glades County Emergency Operations Center for the session. It soon became obvious that a few were there just for a refresher and already were certified weather spotters; at least two were also amateur radio operators licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, a distinction that can make them even more valuable to authorities during a weather emergency than regular old weather spotters. (Maybe I’ll take that up when/if I retire.)

Our instructor was Robert Garcia, a senior meteorologist at the South Florida office of the NWS, which is in Miami. After telling students a little about his own background (bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Florida State University, 2010; formerly worked at the Tampa Bay area NWS office in Ruskin and at the Atlanta office; now studying for a master’s in public administration), Mr. Garcia went into a spiel about the history of the NWS nationally (it used to be known as the U.S. Army Signal Corps!) and in Florida, where it has had an outpost for over a century. The first Signal Corps lookout point was the historic Jupiter Lighthouse; now, the NWS is housed in the same building as the National Hurricane Center, on the campus of Florida International University.

Early on, Mr. Garcia signaled that this would be a laid-back class where listeners could interject with personal anecdotes, observations and humor mixed in with their serious questions by explaining, “The NWS is part of the Commerce Department and a division of the NOAA, which we like to call the National Organization for the Advancement of Acronyms.” That lightheartedness worked, setting us all at ease, and resulted in the two-hour class stretching to over three hours because it was so interesting and enjoyable, we lost track of time.

The Skywarn network, Mr. Garcia explained, started in the 1970s as a loose collection of spotter groups when NWS powers that be decided forecasters needed troops on the ground to provide “ground truth reports.” Turns out a big part of weather forecasting is looking out the window — or, better yet, a whole lot of windows scattered over a wide area.

The NWS Miami office serves a lot of territory and people: seven counties including the Florida Keys’ part of Monroe County, and in excess of 6 million people plus visitors. Accordingly, it has a fairly large contingent of workers — 18 meteorologists — and is staffed 24/7/365.

Mr. Garcia explained that the main reason for having a network of amateur weather watchers is that, even as advanced as it’s become, radar still has limitations. The big one is that it can’t and doesn’t see tornadoes, which are the most deadly form of weather in the United States. Doppler radar, the newest kind, can see atmospheric rotation but can’t substitute for human observers. Weather warnings, he stated, are not automated as many seem to think; they are based on multiple pieces of information, and one is spotters’ eyes.

He went into a discussion of the types of storm clouds, concentrating on the weather phenomena most common in Florida. Most folks probably think tropical cyclones are the No. 1 threat. They’d be wrong. In order, the most severe threats to Floridians’ lives are lightning, rip currents, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, floods and THEN tropical cyclones! This state, he said, experiences 80 to more than 100 days per year when there is thunderstorm danger.

The big take-away from this class was that those warnings of “When thunder roars, go indoors” are not to be taken lightly. Florida, Mr. Garcia stressed, is the No. 1 most dangerous place in the country for that No. 1 threat: lightning. Indeed, already this year, the state has far exceeded the average number of deaths caused by lightning strikes. In 2018 so far, six people have been killed by lightning in Florida, and two in just the past month with the deaths of a person on Siesta Key (Sarasota area) and that of a 39-year-old employee of a pest control company just two weekends ago in Lake Worth.

The sheer number of scientific terms thrown out during the class were an invitation to read up more about weather phenomena — which certainly is too wide a topic for a two-hour session. So there’s still a lot to learn, but the subject matter is fascinating.

Participants learned about how to do their job of informing the NWS Miami office whenever severe weather is observed, how to network with and learn from other weather watchers and how to be aware when their services are particularly needed.

In each weather statement issued by the NWS, there’s a little box at the bottom that informs whether the Skywarn weather spotter network has been activated. That’s when Skywarn becomes a crucial army reinforcing the front-line defenders of the public safety from bad weather, the National Weather Service’s meteorologists.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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