Published: Sunday, April 15, 2007
Keeping their eyes on the storms
These spotters know a funnel cloud from a harmless wisp.
AUSTINTOWN We can all see images when we look at clouds.
We use our imaginations and see dogs. Clowns. Donald Duck.
We might look up at a dark cloud and figure it's going to rain.
That's about it for many of us. To a few of us, though, cloud formations tell a lot more.
They can tell when a tornado is a real possibility, or when a thunderstorm isn't going to be all that much of a threat. Is that an ominous wall cloud? Or just a benign shelf cloud?
Imagination has nothing to do with what these enlightened few see in the clouds. What they see is based on science and training.
It's fortunate for all of us, then, that when spring launches severe-weather season, storm spotters trained under the National Weather Service's Skywarn program are ready to turn their eyes toward the skies to see what the rest of us can't.
They can look toward a town 15 miles away and know it's raining there, because they see the multicell cluster storm hovering over it.
If there's a funnel cloud under a thunderstorm, they'll see it and be able to tell it from a funnel cloud look-alike. Any dangling piece of cloud isn't always a funnel. A funnel cloud rotates they know that.
Sure, the National Weather Service in Cleveland, where spotters in this area report, has Doppler radar. But the radar can't do everything.
Gary Garnet, warning meteorologist with the Cleveland branch of the NWS, explained that the spotters verify what could be happening based on what the radar picture suggests. They can help the NWS change a watch, in which conditions are favorable for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms or flash floods, into a warning, meaning those weather events are imminent or occurring.
Many of them are amateur radio operators and communicate with Cleveland that way.
Dean DeMain of Boardman and Doug Sage of Canfield are assistant emergency coordinators for Mahoning County Amateur Radio Emergency Service/Skywarn.
DeMain has been spotting storms since 1991, and Sage since 1995.
DeMain usually works from his radio at home, though at times, he and Sage use the equipment at the county's Emergency Management Agency building on Industrial Road. He and Sage met there recently to talk about their unusual volunteer jobs.
Sometimes they work as a kind of dispatcher, taking reports from other spotters. And they stress that you don't have to know how to operate a radio to be a storm spotter. You can pick up a telephone and notify the weather service that way.
Skywarn, which is a registered trademark of the National Weather Service, sponsors training seminars. Once you have been through a seminar and are given an identification card, you're in.
What will you be looking for? You may be able to distinguish between the four main types of thunderstorms and decide how much danger the storm poses. But many storms have the same characteristics, so it isn't easy to tell, DeMain said.
A supercell, which poses a serious threat of severe weather including tornadoes, will have an anvil. A multicell cluster storm might have one, too, but is not necessarily as dangerous. A multicell cluster is more likely to occur here. It is, in fact, our region's most common type.
Because it's not always easy to tell, the weather service gives guidelines on what to report.
What they look for
It's not lightning. Please don't be the spotter who calls to report severe lightning, Garnet told a gathering of about 80 spotters at a March seminar in Austintown. Rather, spotters look for:
Tornadoes, funnel clouds or wall clouds.
Large hail, 3/4 of an inch or greater, poses a greater threat of a tornado.
Wind damage or winds measured at 65 mph, flooding and serious injury or death round out the list.
DeMain said he has never seen a rotating cloud. Sage has, once, before he became a spotter. He described it as whirling dust bunnies in the sky.
Spotters use several prime locations in Mahoning County. Some can do it from home, if they live in a wide open area. They go to high locations with a good view to the south and west especially the west.
In Boardman, a good location is Market Street and U.S. Route 224, DeMain said. State Route 46 and Calla Road is another good spot; Palmyra Road and Route 224 another.
Some spotters also use their expertise to help the weather service assess damage after a storm. DeMain figured out that a tornado that barreled through Clark, Pa., in 2002, killing one person and injuring dozens more, actually started in a field in Ellsworth Township.
But don't confuse storm spotting with storm chasing. Chasers are the "nutsos," DeMain said.
"Or someone is funding them or their equipment. They're getting paid to risk their lives, Sage said.
Sage advice: If you're close enough to observe a rotating wall cloud, run the other way.