Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cultural Meteorology: The SKYWARN Program

Throughout the field of meteorology, there are many different aspects.  Tropical meteorology, fire weather, space weather, aviation weather and climatology are all different areas within the central idea of meteorology.  Another branch that has gained recognition over the past few years is cultural meteorology, or the idea of how weather and society interact.  From public education and outreach to improving the warning system, many of today's top discussions revolve around this idea.  Throughout the spring and summer, we'll try to offer a view into some of the programs and discussions that some of the general public might not know about, but should.  

Many regard the SKYWARN program as one of the first ventures into integrating weather and society. SKYWARN is a program designed by the National Weather Service for volunteer spotters, who have taken the severe weather spotting class, to report in with key reports where the reporting stations cannot see. Since it's inception in 1970, almost 300,000 spotters have been trained across the nation. Each one of every 122 NWS Weather Forecast Office's manage their area's SKYWARN training and certification.

When the program began in the 1970’s, the main method of communication expected was ham radio.  Operators would sign into the net and give observations to the central operator at the WFO.  The idea was to create “ground truth”.  Meteorologists who issue a tornado warning might be able to detect rotation within a thunderstorm on radar, but that radar cannot tell them if it has reached the ground.  Storm spotter and chasers alike can provide remarks about conditions that happen at the ground level. 

Today, with the advent of smartphones and the internet, spotting and reporting can be done much quicker.  Many forecast offices have set up hotlines to call or even email.  Some experiments have been done on reporting via twitter or facebook.  Many television news stations across the country who employ their own spotters, also report what they see.  Some forecasters are fortunate to be able to use airport Doppler radars, called Terminal Doppler Weather Radars. 

SKYWARN training is actually two different levels of certification.  The Basic level encompasses what to look for in the sky and what to report.  Most SKYWARN classes teach at this level and this is all you need to start spotting.  The class takes about two hours.  The Advanced level is for people who take more than an interest in meteorology.  This class dives deeper into the science on how these phenomena form.   

For more information on SKYWARN, go to the Local or National SKYWARN pages.  Registration for training is usually free and is taught by NWS meteorologists.  Happy Spotting!