Special Report: Boosting Your Weather IQ

Updated: May 08, 2019 10:44 PM

We’ve all looked up in the sky at one point and wondered, "What does that cloud mean?"

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Understanding the weather is the first step in being prepared for the weather. Meteorologists have a range of tools to figure out what's coming, but in the event of severe weather, radar can only tell so much.

"There's a piece missing, and that's the eyewitness account of what is actually happening with the storm," National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Carol Christenson said.  "What size is that hail? Is there a wall cloud forming? Are there damaging winds? What else is going on?"

The eyewitness accounts are supplied by trained spotters. The National Weather Service's Skywarn program offers free training to any volunteer who attends one of their 2 hours sessions.

Christenson said that you'll find first-timers and experienced spotters at each training. John Lindquist has been spotting as a ham radio operator for decades.

"Without Skywarn spotters, both civilian and hams, calling in what really happens on the ground," Lindquist said. "We don't know how large the branch is that fell. We won't know how big that hail stone is, whether it's a pea size or a quarter size or a golf ball size, or it's-time-to-run size."

Bill Krall recently became a spotter. He thinks having a trained eye is a matter of safety. "Sometimes you're in a car, you've got no place to go. If you see something, and know how to spot something, then you know if you've got to head back home or find the nearest safe spot," he said.

These kind of decisions can be made with a basic understanding of how storms are formed, and knowledge of what to look for in the event of severe weather.

It all starts with a cumulus cloud. We often see these as air rises on a warm day. As that rising continues, the result is a short-lived, garden variety thunderstorm. Under the right conditions, the storm continues to grow and lasts much longer.

"Because the storm can last a really long time, it has a much better chance of producing the big hail, extreme damaging winds, and tornadoes," Christenson said.

A severe thunderstorm can be spotted from a distance by its anvil shape and overshooting top, which is the round bubble interrupting the smooth edge on top of the cloud. These storms typically move in the direction the longer, thinner edge of the anvil is pointing in.

A common sign of a severe thunderstorm heading your way is when the wind suddenly shifts directions with strong gusts. Christenson said, "maybe just enough to ruffle your hair, or to tip over your trash can."

This is caused by air rushing out ahead of the storm, which won't be far behind.

When you know what to look for in a developing thunderstorm, that information can both help meteorologists alert the public of severe threats, and allow yourself to be more prepared if caught outdoors.

"Weather really plays a big part in what we look forward to on a day-to-day basis," Lindquist said. "Particularly with our tourism up here, and fishing, and our Boundary Waters, people really are much more affected."

The last two Skywarn trainings of the season will be from 7 pm to 9 pm on Tuesday, May 14th, at the Duluth House Of Refuge, 115 W Myrtle St, and from 6 pm to 8 pm on Thursday, May 16th, at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth in the auditorium on the second floor. Participation is free and no registration is needed.

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