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Earth Sense: Weather spotters are essential in determining forecasts
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We all watch the weather in one way or another. It takes some training, however, to be able to interpret different cloud shapes, or make an educated guess by looking at a satellite image, or understand what online radar images tell us.

No university-grade meteorology course is necessary for learning these essential skills. Next month, the Hall County Emergency Management Authority is offering a weather spotting workshop again. It’s free, open to the public, with no registration necessary.

This session, titled “Skywarn Storm Spotter Training,” will be offered at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 2 at the Spout Springs Library. Hall County EMA is collaborating on this project with the National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Typically, National Weather Service Skywarn workshops last two hours and include the basics of thunderstorm development, fundamentals of storm structure, identification of potential severe weather features, what and how to report, and basic severe weather safety.

Volunteer spotters have been part of NOAA’s operation since the 1970s. There are more than 350,000 Skywarn spotters all over the country today. The weather service offices in this country have some of the world’s best equipment for measuring and observing weather phenomena.

But even with Doppler radar and satellite imagery, there’s no replacement for the human eye. People looking at the sky from their porches can supply information that even the most sophisticated instruments at the weather station don’t see.

The main emphasis is on storms and flash floods. A trained spotter may see a tornado forming in its early stages, or confirm an observation relayed by the weather service office. People who work outdoors have experience, but formal instruction can take it further.

For example, a set of cirrus (feather-shaped) clouds crawling across the horizon from the southwest doesn’t mean that a big system is coming from there. More likely it’s the first sign of a warm front, which will be part of a much bigger frontal system advancing from the northwest.

In the spring, such an observation becomes crucial because squall lines of severe thunderstorms tend to form soon after the arrival of the warm front. Likewise, when large hail begins to fall, a quick notice from a Skywarn spotter will be most helpful to the weather service because that’s where the biggest trouble might develop.

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