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Weather spotters a lifeline for forecasters

The National Weather Service’s geostationary satellites, Doppler radar and electronic flood sensors are all aided by a large network of ham radio weather spotters. Colorado weather forecasters have relied on their services since 1955.Self-proclaimed weather geeks and engineering buffs of all ages provide on-the-ground weather data, which is out of the reach of the National Weather Serviceís radar. The NWS national Skywarn program comprises 290,000 trained severe weather spotters nationwide. The Pueblo office, which provides forecasts and warnings for southeastern Colorado, including El Paso and Teller counties, has 1,500 volunteers trained to report snow amounts, high-wind events and hail sizes, said Tom Magnuson, a warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS Pueblo office. ìYou don’t have to go to an in-person training to be a spotter, because some of the things we want don’t need any or much training,î Magnuson said. ìAnyone can measure hail with a ruler and call it into us. Some of our spotters have rain gauges; and, if it reaches a certain criteria, they’ll call us.îSpotter reports are logged into a database in real time, and some reports are used directly in severe weather warnings ó if the storm looks like it will continue to impact the area. ìIt provides what we call ground truth information,î Magnuson said. ìIt helps because we have our radar, which looks at all the different aspects of the storm; and, if we can get ground truth, we can calibrate the radar and understand what different radar returns mean on the ground for next time. It’s a very important part of our warning process.îDay-to-day weather reports also help the weather service by providing more data points for record keeping and forecasting model improvement. ìWe have a daily radio net with about 50 to 60 operators on the list supplying high and low temperatures, precipitation and any snow cover on the ground,î said Sid White, weather operations coordinator for the Pikes Peak Amateur Radio Emergency Service. White, who uses the call sign K4ARM on the radio weather net, has been providing daily reports to the NWS for more than 14 years. ìIt gives you a reason to get up in the morning,î White said. ìAnd sometimes when it’s really cold out and you have to go through the snow to your equipment, you need that reason to get up.îThe team of spotters, with their own equipment, provide more information for the weather service, which has limited financial resources and personnel. ìOne of the things we’re bringing to the table that NWS doesn’t have is that they can look at the radar all day long, but that doesn’t go all the way to the ground,î said John Bloodgood, public information officer for PPARES whose call sign is KD0SFY. ìThere are hills and ground clutter in the way. They may not be able to see the last 2,000 feet to the ground. They do have rain sensors and weather stations they can monitor, but those are scattered out. We’re mobile and can go do a measurement and let them know what’s really going on. That allows them to put out alerts that aren’t false alarms. They want to make sure they’ve got a very accurate alert system to save lives and property.îThe PPARES weather spotters will also send damage reports back to the NWS. ìIf we see damage, we’ll give exact location info to them so the NWS and insurance folks can come out and certify things,î White said.The cost to become an amateur radio weather spotter can be as low or as high as the new spotter’s interest in the hobby, White said. ìThe weather equipment is expensive by comparison,î he said. ìTo do anything as a hobby or amateur can get kind of expensive. But we all enjoy it and enjoy knowing what’s going on under that big blue umbrella above us.îSkywarn spotters do not need to have a radio license to participate, Magnuson said. ìMost of our spotters call us up on the phone, and there is a way to report online,î Magnuson said. ìBut there is a lot of amateur radio in Southern Colorado and especially El Paso County. We’ll call up a severe weather net and those folks will call in their reports in real time, and we’ll monitor that. We have eight people with radio licenses in the office so we can communicate in real time with them.îKnowing that a hobby can save lives and property drives many of the spotters to help during severe weather. ìThe time I was most proud of was the July 3, 2014, storms,î said Chris Schroeder (call sign KD0UQI). Schroeder grew his weather spotting hobby into a nonprofit weather education organization. ìThere were three storms that day I was able to track out east and tell Pueblo to get warnings out for, which might not have happened otherwise,î Schroeder said.The Colorado Springs and El Paso County Emergency Operations centers also use spotters and PPARES radio operators to monitor stream flooding and provide communications support during disasters and large special events. ìA lot of the stream gauges are not electronically monitored, so sometimes we’ll ask if anyone is able to go check them, and let Pueblo or the EOCs know if they need to get cops out there to divert people,î White said. The organization also used mobile transmitters and hand-held ham radios to help the Red Cross and government agencies coordinate their response to the Black Forest fire and flooding in Manitou Springs. ìWe need more people in the areas under recent development: Banning Lewis Ranch, Falcon and the other areas that used to be called ‘rural Eastern El Paso County’ but now have more homes and people,î White said. ìYou just need a pair of binoculars and a non-corded telephone. You don’t want to call in a thunderstorm report on a corded phone and take a lightning strike to the head. That’s pretty important.îPeople with a passion for weather can register for the Skywarn spotter program and take online training by clicking on ìother useful linksî and then clicking on ìspotter informationî at http://crh.noaa.gov/pub/.

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