Local weather spotters first line of defense

Weather service says volunteers crucial to agency

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter



Eyes on the sky report freakish weather events

eyes on the sky report freakish Weather events

Keep watching the skies -- but not for strange disk-shaped phenomena. There's equally intriguing, scientifically explainable stuff at work up there.

And sometimes, it's just as malevolent as an invader from outer space. Even in the wet-but-mild environs of the Pacific Northwest, the weather can turn sour in a second. The National Weather Service and the agency's team of volunteer "weather spotters" say there's plenty to keep an eye on.

So what exactly have been some of the freakiest-of-the-freakish weather events?

• On average, between three and four tornadoes a year land in Oregon and Washington. In the last five years, Clark County has seen two twisters.

• The largest recorded hailstone to fall in Oregon was the size of a baseball. It fell near Condon, Ore., in 1995. Shortly after that, near Spokane, an even bigger hailstone was recorded.

• Across the United States, 54 people a year are killed by lightning strikes.

A veil of clouds stretched across the sky in the far sightline last April, as Ron Baldie glanced out his Vancouver dining room window. In the distance, a swirling speck caught his eye.

Through the window, Baldie tried to make out what he thought he was seeing. It was a glorious day to spot weather. And he'd just spotted a doozy.

Through the void, somewhere in Oregon, Baldie saw it -- the dervishlike twirling of a small tornado or funnel cloud, slightly transparent but unmistakable to his trained eye. Even for an experienced "weather spotter" such as Baldie, the sight was a rare one. Tornadoes and funnel clouds are uncommon in the Pacific Northwest, and they typically stay small, as this one did.

Baldie's training as a volunteer weather spotter for the National Weather Service helped him notice the freak occurrence. "If you looked at it real hard," he said, recalling the sighting, "you could see the rotation of the clouds."

As one of Clark County's 145 or so weather spotters, Baldie is part of a specially trained corps of volunteers who watch weather, record their findings and report them to the weather service in Portland.

By some estimates, there are more than 100,000 volunteer weather spotters

spread across the U.S. who participate in the SkyWarn program. Most spotters reside in places prone to spectacular weather patterns, such as tornado alley in the Midwest.

But in the Pacific Northwest, there's a growing need for spotters, the weather service says. Oregon and Washington are two of the most underserved areas in the country, despite both states' penchant for producing interesting weather.

Tyree Wild, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service in Portland, calls weather spotters the "eyes and ears of their communities." Without them, there would be less information about fog banks, rain and snowfall and flash flooding.

"We found out from social scientists looking at a lot of the tornado outbreaks throughout the country that one thing people really like to hear about is personalized information," Wilde said. "That's why we like to use the storm spotter information."

At a training session Tuesday for prospective and current spotters in Battle Ground, Wilde told a crowd of 16 soon-to-be spotters that the weather service is always on the lookout for new volunteers. Before signing up for service, though, they have to take the 90-minute class and a test.

After the training, Wilde handed those who were still interested the tools of the spotter's trade: A rain gauge and a six-inch ruler -- for measuring snow. The tools are officially part of the SkyWarn system.

Baldie, who's been an official weather spotter since 1995, comes to the training sessions to refresh his knowledge. But he uses more than a rain gauge and half-sized ruler.

His backyard is dedicated to his meteorological obsession. Telescoping poles rise 75 feet into the air and double as ham radio antennas. He has a makeshift weather station -- a louvered box containing a device measuring high and low temperatures and humidity -- rain, snow and hail gauges, for measuring precipitation, and a handmade wind station.

Like many weather spotters, he can trace his fascination with powerful weather to a particular event. In the early 1960s, Baldie was in the Navy. He was stationed in Guam when Typhoon Karen struck. With wind gusts of more than 185 mph, the storm was the most violent tropical cyclone to ever strike the island.

The storm, Baldie said, "literally flattened the island."

"It showed me what nature can do," he said.

Who are the spotters?

Weather spotters come from various walks of life. Contrary to one popular perception, they're not all old porch-bound coots complaining about how dropping temperatures are making their arthritis act up. They're retirees, young people and run-of-the-mill weather wonks.

"Everyone seems to be a closet meteorologist," said Liana Ramirez, a forecaster for the weather service, who works with the region's team of weather spotters.

Weather spotters can trace their lineage to a time after the Civil War, when the U.S. Weather Bureau, as the weather service was known at the time, began coordinating storm observation and forecasts.

But it wasn't until World War II that the weather bureau, in coordination with the military, established spotter networks to protect storage facilities.

In 1949, a tornado hit the Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, causing millions of dollars of damage. A week later, weather spotters noticed another tornado spinning toward the base, resulting in the world's first tornado warning.

For years after the war, weather spotters were grouped near military installations, but no place else. It wasn't until a tornado struck Udall, Kan., in 1955, killing 80 people, that the weather bureau founded the spotter network. The first training program for spotters began in 1959.

The prevalence of Doppler radar and other new-fangled gadgetry hasn't relegated weather spotters to the annals of history just yet -- despite, even meteorologists acknowledge, the seemingly anachronistic nature of the work. Technology may show a storm is barreling through. It may provide a fantastically detailed snapshot of the barometric pressure working to rile up the sky, but it can't represent what's happening at ground level.

Ground level -- that's where weather spotters sow their rain-sodden seeds.

When a late-spring storm blitzed Clark County last year with a barrage of lightning, rain and hail, a weather spotter in the McLoughlin Heights neighborhood called the National Weather Service to report that 1.4 inches of precipitation had just fallen at his home, along with penny-sized hail.

In 2009, a Vancouver weather spotter reported nearly half an inch of rain had fallen in only 10 minutes. Other spotters have reported downed trees or power lines. Technology typically can't differentiate between rain and hail, and it can't tell how big the hail is.

"We're focusing on significant weather events with weather spotters," Ramirez said. "The whole point is to help us fine tune our forecasts."

A growing need

Although the Pacific Northwest's weather is not as wildly fluctuating as other places in the country, there's still a need for properly trained spotters, Wilde said.

Eric Frank, emergency management coordinator for the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency and an avid weather spotter, said the summer months can be an active time for spotters, even though the weather can seem pleasant because the sun is shining.

Flash floods and lightning strikes that could lead to wildfires top the list of events to be on the lookout for, he said.

Frank has seen thunderstorms develop and last hours during the summer months. In dry conditions, it's important to monitor where lightning is striking, he said.

Weather spotters, as they've been for decades, are the first line of defense, he said.

"I think people have a false sense of how they get information through technology -- how it just happens," Frank said. "But when you're exposed (to wild weather), growing up in a rural area, it just becomes a way of life."

More information about the SkyWarn program is at http://skywarn.org.

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.