Warnings in the sky

While talking about the weather can be considered somewhat of a flimsy, inconsequential topic when making conversation with someone, there is also a scientific side that makes it important and useful.

On the important and useful side of weather talk is the Skywarn training program offered by the National Weather Service.

In recognition of North Dakota Severe Summer Weather Awareness Week, which is during the week of April 28 to May 2, Ward County Emergency Management will be hosting the National Weather Service for their annual Skywarn training program. Skywarn will be held on Wednesday, April 23, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Old Main Theater at Minot State University. The lecture is free and open to the public.

The topics covered at the Skywarn training program will include thunderstorm formations, thunderstorm hazards, definitions of severe weather related terms, a review of severe weather from 2013, how to report severe weather to the National Weather Service, how and what to report, safety, storm types, storm strength, and storm structure.

John Paul Martin, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Bismarck, said severe weather spotters will also be sought after at the Skywarn training program. Severe weather spotters are volunteers who are trained in weather observing and reporting for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service and its mission, the protection of life and property. Essentially, Skywarn is one community or neighbor helping another in the protection of life and property.

“We do not support or encourage weather chasers,” Martin pointed out. He said they want spotters who are just at home who happen to spot severe weather and report their sighting to the National Weather Service by phone or through social media.

The Skywarn training program is offered once a year around Severe Summer Weather Awareness Week and in various cities in North Dakota as a way to help educate people what to look for in severe weather and how to report it to the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service started the Skywarn training program in the 1970s, Martin said. The idea came out of the tornado alley region of the U.S. and the Ohio valley when there were tornadoes doing tremendous damage, he continued. The National Weather Service decided that meteorologists would come to communities and give trainings on weather safety and identification of storm features. They would be invited from the county emergency management or the designated fire chief of the city, Martin said.

Each year the Skywarn training program is different. The same material is offered, Martin said, but presented in a different way.

“The difference comes in who presents it because we all have different styles,” he added. “People often come back the next year so we try to put a different twist on it.”

Martin said at the upcoming Skywarn training session, the meteorologist will talk about storm structure and to help people better understand individual features of a storm, as well as spending time on tornado lookalikes.

“It’s probably only a matter of time before we get a tornado going through a major North Dakota city,” he added. “The chance of (a tornado) hitting a city is increased because the cities are getting bigger.”

The vast majority of people tend to like the Skywarn training program, Martin said. “It’s not only educational, but it’s also fun,” he continued. “Talking about the weather can be boring, but the presenters try to make it interactive.” People are also encouraged to share their experiences with severe weather, Martin added.

People today seem to have a little more interest in the weather, Martin said. However, there is also the tendency of people to report what they think they see as opposed to what they actually see, he continued, or they report what they want to see.

“So it becomes a tornado when it’s actually not,” Martin said. “We need trained weather spotters giving reports so that we’re getting the most accurate and reliable information.”

He said a person does not need any kind of training to say the hail was the size of a golf ball, but there are other features of severe weather that require some extra training.

One thing to note is that there’s a difference between where a person is as compared to where a tornado actually is that people seemingly forget to think about. Martin said there was confusion about that not too long ago with a tornado in Hettinger. The person reported seeing a tornado three miles west of Hettinger, but it was actually eight or nine miles north of Hettinger, he added, a fact that was discovered when there was no sign of a tornado at the person’s identified location and the meteorologist from the National Weather Service discovered the farther away location.

Martin said there is something interesting for everyone at the Skywarn training program session. Amanda Schooling, Emergency Management Coordinator for Ward County Emergency Management, added that Skywarn is for any age group and people are invited to bring the whole family to learn about the weather. However, Martin thought children younger than third grade might not get much out of the training.

Before the flood in 2011, Schooling said the Skywarn training program was held at the Oak Park Theater and was jam-packed with people.

“After the flood, though, there was a decrease in attendance and there were only about 50 or 60 people there,” she added. The hope is that there will be more people in attendance this year, Schooling said.

There is no pressure to sign up to be a weather spotter, Martin pointed out. “If you want to come and learn about weather and safety, those are good reasons to come.” However, he added he’s hoping that people from outside of Minot will attend the Skywarn training program, like people from small communities or from farms. “We’re really hoping to get farmers and ranchers as spotters,” Martin said, since they would probably be more likely to spot severe weather than people living within the city.

Currently, there are 2,251 official trained Skywarn spotters in 36 counties in western and central North Dakota covered by the National Weather Service office in Bismarck. On average, around 1,250 people attend Skywarn training.