In Part 1 of our week-long series on severe weather, I wanted to discuss the process used in tracking dangerous storms. It’s a unique system that starts on a national scale and works itself all the way down to the storm chaser or storm spotter who witnesses the severe weather. My hope is that after reading this article you understand the massive undertaking that’s involved in forecasting, tracking and warning people of impending weather. So let’s begin on the national scale…
The Storm Prediction Center’s National’s Responsibility
When it comes to forecasting severe weather, it all starts in a building located in Norman, Oklahoma. That’s where you’ll find the Storm Prediction Center, or SPC. This specialized branch of the government’s weather forecasting arsenal is tasked with predicting when, where and how much severe weather will happen on any given day. What makes this job challenging is the fact the SPC must forecast severe weather threats for the entire country. That’s a massive area of responsibility when you consider the science of meteorology remains far from perfect.
Anything that involves forecasting severe weather is handled by the SPC. That includes convective outlooks, mesoscale discussions and severe weather watches. All of these forecast products are put together for the entire US out of a central location. Later this week we’ll get into what all these products mean and how you can find them. Once storms begin to develop, the responsibility begins to shift to our next group which covers a much smaller area.
National Weather Service: All Eyes on the Radar
So now we have a watch in place for a certain area. Once a watch goes up for an area, the prime responsibility shifts to that area’s National Weather Service branch. You can see in the graphic to the right that there is a large network of such offices. On a normal day, these offices work on more detailed forecasting for their geographic coverage area. But when the weather threatens, these offices are responsible for issuing the warnings many of you are familiar with. Meteorologists at these offices have access to the most powerful radar network in the country. Next Generation Radar, or NEXRAD, was first rolled out in the early 90’s. Developed in 1988, it’s official title is WSR-88D.
In the years to come this powerful but now outdated radar network will be upgraded to a new type of radar designed to better analyze storms in an effort to increase warning times before bad weather strikes. Although old, the NEXRAD radar still remains the best tool in detecting severe weather. When forecasters see that severe weather, they draw a box similar to a severe weather watch but much, much smaller. These boxes are called warning polygons. These are the boxes you see and hear about when television and radio stations break in to talk about severe weather.
The purpose of these warning polygons is to warn people inside them that severe weather is occurring and will affect them, usually within approximately 30 minutes or less. A warning serves as the final line of defense and notification before a strong storm hits any given area.
In the Field: The Power of Boots on the Ground
Boots on the ground is a common reference to ground troops on the battlefield. It’s very similar when you talk about storm spotters and storm chasers. I want to be very clear that there is a very distinct different between spotters and chasers. Let’s begin with storm spotters.
Storm spotters are trained to travel to a stationary position and keep an eye out for severe weather as far as they can see. Spotters most often come in the form of law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, etc. These are public servants who can visually confirm severe weather is happening. Often times they set up shop just outside of a town in an effort to provide a final security barrier. If a spotter sees a tornado or large hail, people in the path of the storm can be warned just minutes before the storm hits.
Storm chasers are a much different breed. Chasers often travel hundreds of miles in a day to follow, track and hunt down severe weather. The most common targets are of course tornadoes. Although storm chasers do play a crucial role in the “first warning” barrier, often their reason for chasing is research, collecting as much information on tornadoes and other forms of severe weather as possible in an effort to better understand why these storms form.
I hope this basic explainer gives you a better explanation of the chain of command involved with forecasting and tracking severe weather. Now that you have that base knowledge, our next chapter of this week’s special coverage will focus on what the Storm Prediction Center and National Weather Service do in the days before a severe weather event.