LAGRANGE — It turns out what goes on in your backyard when a storm rolls through is important information to the National Weather Service of Northern Indiana.
Accurate, reliable and timely information about the weather you just saw could help save the lives of people in the places where that same storm is headed, said meteorologist Michael Lewis.
So, to ensure the weather service has a reliable network of people who can give the National Weather Service the information they need to be able to accurately warn people in the path of dangerous weather, Lewis and his colleagues are hosting a series of weather spotter training session around northern Indiana. And he’s encouraging as many people as possible to volunteer to become a weather spotter.
“The history of a spotter program goes back in time. During WWII, British spotters were placed on the coastline to spot enemy aircraft and identify the type of enemy aircraft coming in to give people an advanced warning,” Lewis explained. “It’s similar to what we do during severe weather, putting people’s eyes to the sky, looking at what’s going on and telling us what occurring as those storms come through —Was there severe weather? Was there damage? Was there hail? — and reporting that to us in a safe manner so that we have a heads up ahead of the next county in the path of that storm. So our spotters are trained to give up quality reports when severe weather has come through the area.
“We’ll quantify what we need to report, how to be safe during that process – our focus is not on chasing, it’s on life safety first, reporting second, and trying to get that information to the National Weather Service and our partners in a timely manner so we can warn for the next county downstream.”
The training sessions are free. Lewis said trained spotters provide the weather service with vital information about severe weather that even the best radar and satellite technology misses.
“Spotters have long played an important role for the National Weather Service and its job to warn people when severe weather strikes. Spotters tell the NWS meteorologists what radar can’t, what’s going on at ground level, “ he said. “Your eyes can tell us the truth of what’s going on. Radar is a great tool but it doesn’t tell us everything that’s happening below the beam and on the ground. We need to hear from people that have been trained to tell us exactly what happened on the ground.”
When people think of severe weather, Lewis said they tend to think of tornadoes, and tend not to take warnings about severe thunderstorms as seriously. That, he said, is a mistake.
“One of the things we talk about in that training is that, statistically, while we do get tornadoes here, the greatest threat to life from thunderstorms is damaging winds,” Lewis said. “There tends to be a preconceived notion that because I had a tree fall down in my yard, it had to be a tornado. What we show in our training is, in reality, the potential for a tornadic thunderstorm in our area is a relatively rare occurrence, and that thunderstorm winds are more prominent and actually pose a great threat than tornados. We’re trying to get people to understand that the severe weather threat is a threat for a reason, it has life-threatening danger associated with it.”
To properly train spotters to provide the weather service with the right information, its meteorologists need to create accurate severe weather warnings. So the service is hosting a series of nine more two-hour-long, spotter-training sessions in communities around the region.
Those training sessions include two meetings in this area. The first of those meetings is scheduled for Wednesday, March 11, at the DeKalb County Office building, 215 E. 9th St., Auburn. That session starts at 6:30 p.m.
The second is scheduled to take place on Thursday, March 12, at the LaGrange County Courthouse Annex Building, 144 W. Michigan St., LaGrange. That training session begins at 6 p.m.
Other training sessions take place in Elkhart on March 17 and in Whitely County on March 24. A complete list of where those meetings and their locations can be found on the National Weather Service of Northern Indiana website.
Lewis said those interested are welcome to attend any session regardless of address.
“Those sessions are the same, no matter where you go. So if it says LaGrange County and you live in Noble County, don’t let the word LaGrange scare you. The people in the LaGrange will be glad to have you come over, they’re not going to chase you out,” he said. “All of our training classes are the same. It’s just a matter of trying to get centralized locations. So if you can’t make it to LaGrange, we’ll be having other sessions in other areas and you’re welcome to attend any training session we offer.”
Lewis said the weather service hopes to train as many as 700 new spotters this spring. The goal is to have between 150 to 200 spotters in each community the northern Indiana post protects. Lewis said it’s important to get more spotters signed up in LaGrange, Steuben, Noble and DeKalb counties.
“The more people we can get, the better, because not everyone can be there all the time and we’ve found in some of our lower population counties, like LaGrange, we just don’t have the numbers that we need,” he said. “So the more we can get, the better. And just because we have a warning out, just because a storm has occurred, doesn’t mean we at the National Weather Service know exactly what happened on the ground. That’s why we need our spotters. Help us fill that void.”
Lewis said the sessions cover a multitude of topics aimed at teaching people to be a good weather spotter.
“We emphasize the need for people’s reports and the need to get those reports in a timely manner. We talk about how thunderstorms develop and what types of thunderstorms you can expect on any given day. We talk about the classification of those storms, and then after a break, we talk about what we need you to report and how to report it efficiently to us,” he said.
Spotters, Lewis emphasized, save lives.
“You have to remember, your report could be the difference between life and death,” he added. “The more people we have looking, the better. We know people are worried about the weather. We want people to help us do something about it.”
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