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Weather spotters are the ‘eyes in the field’

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 29, 2018, 9:16 p.m.

A woman tries to stay dry while crossing Main Street in downtown Vancouver. (Columbian)
A woman tries to stay dry while crossing Main Street in downtown Vancouver. (Columbian)

The National Weather Service’s forecasters in Portland can cross-reference regional radar stations, check satellites and look at remote weather sensors.

However, according to meteorologist Amanda Bowen, sometimes what they really need is someone to look out a window.

“That’s where you all come in,” she told a dozen or so people learning to be weather spotters at Pacific Middle School Thursday night. “You are our eyes in the field. Your reports verify what we see on radar, or what we think is happening.”

After all, she joked, their office has only one window as it is.

National Weather Service forecasters’ winter weather outlook calls for a relatively warm season, but even with all their radars, satellites and remote weather stations, they still occasionally need help.

The agency regularly trains volunteer spotters for its Skywarn Program, who send the weather service on-the-ground weather updates or take occasional phone calls when forecasters are trying to confirm what their instruments show.

The weather service attributes to the program a marked decrease in deaths due to severe weather.

The reports help everyday people respond better to weather warnings, Bowen said.

“There’s been a whole lot of social research that’s been done that says, especially if it’s something like a tornado warning, people go through a lot of different steps before they get to the actual reaction,” she said.

One of those mental steps is evaluating a threat, and if officials can point to information from a spotter, people tend to take notice and take steps to ensure their safety, she said.

The Portland office covers 14 counties in Oregon and five counties in Washington, and has about 1,500 volunteer spotters, Bowen said.

Spotters take a short training and might receive calls from the forecast office, Bowen said, but forecasters are always interested in certain weather conditions.

You don’t need to be a spotter to be helpful, she said. Forecasters want to hear about it, and will gladly take your information, if you spot:

Rotation: Is it rotating? Any weather-related phenomenon, especially funnel-shaped clouds that are rotating, forecasters want to hear about.

Hail: Dime-size or larger. When hailstones get around that size, Bowen said, they’re in the neighborhood of being able to do damage, and forecasters want to hear about it.

Winds: “High winds” typically mean about 40 mph or greater in our area, Bowen said. Around that speed, people have trouble staying upright. Any significant wind-related damage is important for forecasters to hear about as well.

Freezing rain or sleet: Especially if it’s not in the forecast. Both can lead to slippery roads.

Snow: Again, if it’s not forecast, they want to know. They’re looking for about an inch or more, but Bowen said her guideline for issuing some kind of advisory notice is whenever the forecast indicates it’ll stick.

The reporting process for spotters is a bit more streamlined, and they get a crash course in meteorology as part of their hour-and-a-half training, but input from anyone can be helpful.

“Basically, if you’re seeing winter weather and you weren’t expecting winter weather because you didn’t hear about it being in the forecast,” let them know, she said. “As we all know, winter weather can be really high-impact really quickly, so if it’s happening at your house, it might not be happening at our office. We definitely want to know about it.”

Reporting information and information on becoming a Skywarn spotter are available at the Portland forecasting office’s website, https://www.weather.gov/pqr/.


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