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Volunteers help warn about severe weather

A higher-based thunderstorm builds of Black River Falls, Wis., as seen from the National Weather Service facility near La Crosse, Wis. Photo by Dave Schmidt, National Weather Service, La Crosse, Wis.1 / 4
Storm clouds release a lightning strike. The National Weather Service says that 60 % of lightning occurs in the updraft side of a storm system. Stock photo2 / 4
Donna Dubberke, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis., teaches a class to train storm spotters in Lake City on April 16, 2019. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
A storm cloud over water shows the downdraft and rain falling in the lower portion, right of center. Stock photo4 / 4

With severe weather season fast approaching, hundreds of Minnesotans have become trained storm spotters to assist the National Weather Service in gathering accurate weather data so the NWS can provide weather watches and warnings as needed.

"Storm spotters are important, because their reports provide the real time account of what is actually happening," said Donna Dubberke, meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in La Crosse, Wis. "It is part of what we call the integrated warning process."

READ MORE: Storm season has arrived

Dubberke taught a storm spotter class in Lake City on April 16 as part of dozens of classes designed to help more area volunteers become trained in what to observe and report to the NWS. Dubberke was in Lake City because Wabasha County, Olmsted County and counties to the south are in the La Crosse district of the NWS while Goodhue, Dakota, Rice, and counties to the north fall in the Twin Cities/Chanhassen district.

While radar constantly tracks weather patterns throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, Dubberke said it "is not perfect. It does a good job of telling us about the storm, but it does not tell us what is actually happening on the ground where you live."

That's where spotters come in, and Dubberke said the data reported by spotters is often what makes people heed the NWS warnings.

"People want to confirm a threat," she said, noting that people often hear a weather warning, then go to the window to see if it is true, rather than seeking shelter. She added that people are more likely to find protection if they have heard specific information about a storm heading their way.

"Our goal is the protection of life and property," Dubberke said. "I can give you the best information, but if no one responds, it won't help."

Dubberke said that when people hear the term "storm spotter" they often think of a scene from the movie "Twister." Driving into the eye of a storm is not what the NWS wants people to do.

"Storm spotting is not the same as storm chasing," she explained. "Storm spotting is knowing what needs to be reported, knowing how to observe it and report it, and then reporting it when it happens."

During the two-hour class, Dubberke showed photos and videos of different types of storms and explained how they develop.

Storm spotters are asked to report such information as the amount of rainfall, the size of hail, the types of clouds forming, wind gusts, and any damage they may know about.

By having spotters throughout the coverage region, the NWS can use the data from reports to determine how a storm is developing, where it is moving, and what type of threat it might bring. From that, they can issue warnings, if needed, and add information to their weather records.

The NWS office in La Crosse provided 18 training sessions through their region with several hundred people becoming trained as storm spotters. In Lake City, 55 people attended while 94 attended in Winona and 247 were at the Rochester meeting.

The reports from storm spotters are important to the NWS because those reports "go into the warning decisions," Dubberke said. "We share them with the media and others so that people in the path of the storm know what to expect."

For more information about storm spotting in the Twin Cities/Chanhassen region including Goodhue County and areas north, go to https://www.weather.gov/mpx/skywarn. For information about storm spotting in the La Crosse region including Wabasha County and areas south, go to https://www.weather.gov/arx/skywarn_schedule.

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

(651) 301-7872
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