In its mission to protect people and their property from North Carolina’s sometimes volatile atmospheric conditions — such as Sunday’s tornadoes and tree-toppling thunderstorms — the National Weather Service’s Raleigh office collects data from some of the world’s most sophisticated instruments.
Is that freezing rain, or hail? If hail, is it the size of a golf ball, or a grapefruit? Is that gray formation a funnel cloud, or a spinning tornado touching the ground?
“When we’re monitoring a storm, we’re basically looking at it in the sky,” said Nick Petro, warning coordinator for the weather service, who conducted a Skywarn class for 10 volunteers in a Person County office building last week. “We have a lot of really good tools, like radar and weather satellites and surface observation stations. But what we get from weather spotters is ground truth: what’s actually happening on the ground. And we incorporate that into the process of making decisions about weather warnings.”
Petro conducts the classes year-round, about once a month in the fall and winter, and as many as three or four a month in the spring, when North Carolina’s tornado season is at its peak.
Classes are free and last about 90 minutes, enough time for Petro — pronounced PETE-troh — to remind spotters how to keep safe in any storm and when it’s appropriate to call, Tweet or post to the National Weather Service’s Facebook page what they’re seeing, weather-wise.
The training, open to anyone, attracts first responders, students, retirees and a lot of people whose default TV station is The Weather Channel. They have three or four weather apps on their mobile phones. Some confess to having pets that act weird when severe weather is coming, or an arthritic joint that portends rain.
“I’ve just always been fascinated with weather,” said Tonya Howell, a community college student working on a degree in human services, who works for Person County part-time. She brought her son to the class and both sat riveted through Petro’s slideshow, which talked about the difference between tornadoes and straight-line winds and explained how thunderstorms develop.
In North Carolina, Person County is a bit of a weather anomaly, located far enough east that it’s included in Raleigh weather forecasts, but meteorologically more aligned with counties further west.
“In the winter, when a storm is coming, if anybody is going to get snow, we’re going to get it,” Howell said. “We are a weather phenomenon up here.”
Howell, 52, thinks she first got interested in the weather as a teenager, seeing reports about tornado strikes where the living room of a house might get blown apart while the flower arrangement on the dining room would sit untouched.
Robert Eggert grew up in Indiana and has lived the past 40 years in North Carolina. He retired from managing auto parts stores a few weeks ago, but says, “I missed my calling. I should have been a meteorologist.”
Eggert, 64, learned some things at Skywarn training, such as the names of different storm cloud formations. He’s ready to put his new knowledge to work, pushing pertinent information to the weather service when he has it. One of Petro’s slides was a photo of the room where weather service meteorologists work, and he highlighted the actual phone that will ring when weather spotters call in.
On a busy weather day, Petro said, spotters sometimes get excited, and even if they have nothing useful to report, “Some just want to call and chitchat, because they love to talk about the weather. But when there are storms happening, we don’t have time to chitchat. Call me back on a pretty sunny day.”
Weather spotter reports, which also may come in the form of photos or videos, help meteorologists confirm that what they are seeing through their instruments is actually happening, and can help them as they advise state Department of Transportation officials, school system administrators and county emergency managers like Doug Young, who brought the training to Person County.
It’s one thing to have a tornado watch or warning for a region, Young said, but once a video of a tornado, hail or flash flooding hits social media, meteorologists can issue more specific advice on who needs to take cover where, and how fast.
It’s a hobby, Young said, “But it’s also a public service. They’re helping out their neighbors.”