Supercells, updrafts, downdrafts, wall clouds, funnel clouds, downbursts, microbursts, tornadoes, hail, and flash-flooding were discussed earlier this week during Skywarn 2020, a National Weather Service program designed to educate the public and train new storm spotters.
A group of about 25 men, women, and children listened and learned Monday during a two-hour presentation in the Copperas Cove Police Department community room from Juan Hernandez, a meteorologist with the NWS office in Fort Worth.
“What we’re trying to do here is increase the knowledge that will help save lives, when a storm is coming through,” Hernandez said. “For people who aren’t able to come to the class, there’s actually a website: www.weather.gov/fwd, and on there is an online version of this training. It is a 2019 version, but it still has all this same information.
“After this class, everyone who is here are all considered trained (storm) spotters. They know what it takes to cause damage, basically, and they know how to best report it to us.” Hernandez told the class that even though the NWS, which has 122 offices across the country, features teams of highly trained experts and a vast array of high-tech equipment to detect, examine, follow and report severe weather, it also relies heavily on the public for information on storms and potentially damaging developing storm systems.
Storm spotters help the NWS locate and gather information on such things as tornadoes, flash flooding, hail, and damaging winds. Reports on severe weather can be made via shortwave radio, telephone, email, Facebook, Twitter, and a smartphone app called MPing. While NWS gets a lot of information sent its way during severe weather, some is useful and some not so much, Hernandez explained.
What the meteorologists need to know is: What specifically is being reported? For example, are tree limbs being downed or tree trunks being snapped by high winds; what size hail is being seen; what kind of flooding is being observed? When and exactly where did this occur? Any property damages or injuries? Photos and video are also helpful.
Things on the NWS “not to report” list, Hernandez said, include: heavy rainfall; radar and satellite images; “scary-looking” clouds, lightning (unless it causes injury or significant property damage). It was just eight months ago, on June 9, when an EF-2 tornado with winds estimated up to 135 mph touched down about two miles northwest of Copperas Cove just after 5 p.m., damaging scores of homes along Big Divide Road, but causing no injuries or deaths.
Tornadoes, Hernandez said, almost always come out of a storm structure called a supercell, which is a thunderstorm with a strong rotating updraft of winds in the mid-levels.
Known as the least common of the four storm classifications (there are also squall line, multi-cell, and single-cell storms) supercells have the potential to be the most severe, and one in five results in tornadoes, along with large hail, damaging winds, and heavy rainfall.
Spotting a tornado can be tricky, since the tell-tale funnel cloud, which occurs on the updraft side of a storm system, can be hidden from view by heavy rainfall, and may not always reach the ground.
“Once you notice there’s a funnel cloud, then start looking close to the ground,” Hernandez explained. “Sometimes that funnel cloud stops, but you might be able to see some dust being picked up, or some sort of debris, and that means there is actually a tornado. You might not be able to see the condensation funnel (going) all the way to the ground, but that rotation at the surface means the tornado is there.”
When severe weather occurs or threatens, it can strike quickly, Hernandez said. The best way to protect yourself is to be prepared ahead of time.
“Having a plan is the most important way to stay safe,” he said. “Severe weather is something we central Texas residents have to experience from January 1st through December 31st . There’s peaks to the severe weather season, but overall, severe weather doesn’t have a season here in Texas.
“Have a plan in place when (high) winds are coming your way; when a tornado is coming your way. And then have a reliable source of weather information, whether that is the National Weather Service, or your local TV meteorologist.
“Get used to turning on that TV when severe weather is possible. Listen to those meteorologists – they’re trained; they’re in conversation with the National Weather Service throughout the day. Get yourself prepared.”