What does it take to be a severe weather storm spotter? Other than a high tolerance for boredom peppered with intense bits of sheer excitement. Storm spotting is more a waiting game than anything else. I’ve been a severe weather storm spotter for almost 15 years and I can safely say that I’ve spent a lot more time in my car watching rain, wind, and nothing than actually observing severe weather. But when you are in the right spot at the right time, the show can be amazing. Convection, rotation, even a funnel or tornado.
Storm spotting can be dangerous work, and I’d be remiss to say don’t do it without the proper training and guidance. You can get yourself into a very bad situation if you aren’t constantly aware of the changing weather and your surroundings. Some of the things to be concerned about: lightning, wind, heavy rain, flash floods, hail, tornadoes, etc. Know your surroundings and have an escape route at all times. You notice I reference the activity of observing severe weather as storm spotting. I don’t advocate to anyone to be a storm chaser; but instead be observant and aware of your position so you can stay out of harm’s way.
Which brings me to the discussion, what pieces of equipment should you bring along to be a weather spotter? Weather spotting is a game involving technology and gut instinct. Equipment you need to be a successful weather spotter breaks down into three categories: observation, communications, and personal safety. These three categories should be what comprises your weather spotting arsenal.
Weather observation equipment
The best observations are those that can be made with measurement equipment- Anemometers for windspeed, a ruler to measure hailstones. Now a days we can have near live weather radar on our smart phones, making it easier to position ourselves into good spots. For measuring windspeed, I carry a Kestrel 3000 pocket anemometer. This handheld device does a great job at recording average and max wind gusts, although you do have to stand outside to get a wind reading. In order to prevent getting wet, fellow spotters have installed RM Young anemometers on their vehicles to record windspeed, although those stations may be out of the budget of most weather spotters.
You can estimate wind speeds manually using the Beaufort Scale. This takes skill and practice. I’ve found that many spotters will overestimate wind speeds by as much as 10-20 mph. So if you are estimating wind speeds, know the scale and temper your estimations with a dose of reality.
As for weather radar, Radarscope is available for both Android and iPhone devices and offers excellent radar products on your phone. If you have a wireless hotspot in your vehicle, then Gibson Ridge’s GR Level III, the gold standard of personal weather radar applications, would be available for your Windows compatible computers. But I caution against relying too heavy on online radar to guide you in and around the storm as the imagery can be several minutes old.
Communications is one of the most important components to a storm spotter’s job. Why go into the field and make observations if you can’t report the data to somebody. Many spotters are aligned with their area’s SKYWARN or amateur radio emergency communications group, and being a ham radio operator is extremely beneficial to a storm spotter. I know of a few spotters that go alone and report directly to the National Weather Service office via cellphone. But the ham radio link and working with a team of fellow spotters and net control station can give you a bigger picture of the storm’s true scale.
As for radios, I prefer a dual band amateur radio with a dual band antenna on the vehicle. The ability to monitor two channels at once can be vital, although I will turn down the volume on one channel if the traffic get too crazy. Your radio should have at least 50 watts of power on the VHF side; don’t try to spot with a handheld radio. It just won’t work. All of the major manufacturers: Kenwood, Icom, Yaesu, etc, make high quality equipment, so pick a model that you feel comfortable with.
Another reason why amateur radio is so important to the weather spotter: I’ve been out in situations where cell phone coverage is light to nonexistent. You can’t reliably trust that your cell phone will work if you are in a rural or fringe area. If you must spot with a cell phone, consider installing an external antenna and cell booster in your vehicle. Wilson Electronics makes a full line of cell boosters for vehicle use and may make the difference of that call going through in a storm situation.
Should you carry a police scanner with you to monitor other radio channels? I’ve seen non-hams that are solo operators have a scanner to listen to the ham frequencies and police/fire channels. This helps them get in position based on where the activity is. Monitoring is fine, but never call in a report based on what you hear on the radio. If you are going to make a weather report, it needs to be observed first-hand. Otherwise you are doing nothing but repeating old information.
I can’t stress personal safety enough. You are in a potentially dangerous situation, so being properly outfitted for storm spotting is essential. Highly reflective gear: like safety vests, reflective raincoats, etc are important in making your presence known. Some spotters like to outfit their vehicles with flashing warning lights. The legality of warning lights on non-governmental vehicles can vary from state to state, so if you are planning to install any lighting, be sure to first check your local and state ordinances.
Carry a good set of maps and be familiar with your surroundings. I like the detail that the DeLorme Gazetteer provides. A GPS unit is also good to have, but don’t solely rely on these. I’ve had many a GPS lose it’s lock under heavy cloud cover and driving rain. A good set of paper maps are essential.
My favorite storm spotter accessory is a bottle of Rain-X. Apply Rain-X on your windows and the water will instantly bead up and spread off the surface. It’s amazing what a different it makes when trying to look out of your car window in a driving rain. Bring towels. Keep them in a ziploc or plastic dry bag. I don’t know how many times a towel was invaluable in wiping down wet seats and dashboards, fogged windows, or even your face and head.
Storm spotting can be a dangerous activity, but with proper training, knowing limits, and staying safe, it can be an exhilarating experience. I really enjoy being out in the field and watching the awesomeness of mother nature while at the same time providing a valuable public service to my community. Do you have a favorite piece of storm spotter gear you like to use? Why not share it in the comments below