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UofL employee helps spot severe weather

by UofL Today last modified Mar 02, 2010 03:09 PM

When the sky is blue and cloudless, Pete Womack is a medical technologist in a Department of Pathology research lab.

UofL employee helps spot severe weather

Pete Womack's office is in a good building to spot severe weather.

When severe weather threatens the area, he puts on another hat - that of severe weather spotter for the National Weather Service.

A severe weather spotters' main responsibility is to identify and describe severe local storms. In the average year, 10,000 severe thunderstorms, 5,000 floods and more than 1,000 tornadoes occur across the United States, according to NWS.

Womack will co-present two classes on spotting severe weather on March 9.

UofL Today recently asked Womack about his unusual activity.

How long have you been a severe weather spotter?

Since 2000, locally.

How did you become one?

I got my amateur radio license in 1997 and then took a weather spotter class given by the National Weather Service in 1999. At that point, I was considered part of Skywarn, the National Weather Service-sponsored weather spotter program.

Why did you become one?

I became interested in 1992 when I lived in Bloomington, Ind. I had a radio scanner and found the amateur radio frequencies used by spotters in the area. I learned that I could find out about severe weather more quickly by listening to them than waiting for information from the NWS office in Indianapolis. The local spotters were sending reports to Indianapolis, who would then relay that information back to the public, if appropriate.

As a severe weather spotter, what do you do?

Three things: 1) operate the amateur radio station at the NWS office in Louisville when they're tied up issuing warnings and other types of communication; 2) take reports of severe weather by amateur radio (and now also by Twitter: @SkywarnLMK) and relay them to the NWS in as close to real-time as possible; 3) Watch the weather myself and report severe weather when I see it.

We give our reports directly to the meteorologists, who then add that to information from radar and remote sensing equipment. They put all of that together to issue warnings or to validate a warning they issued. If they issue a warning, they are expected to validate it with a sighting of an actual severe event. So, they rely on us and local government (i.e. fire and police) to look for validating events.

Do you receive any special training?

The NWS spotters class was one such training. The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana has an online course open to the public. I have gone through their severe weather module several times over the years to keep my knowledge fresh.

How do you know when to go to work?

Weather spotters are usually weather buffs, so we know what's predicted to come in the next hours or days. We'll be watching, and if we see something that fits the NWS criteria for severe weather (i.e. rain falling at a rate greater 1-inch/hour, wind speeds greater than 55 MPH, quarter-sized or larger hail, funnel clouds, tornadoes, flooding, storm damage) it is called in. I use my amateur radio to collect reports from other amateurs and relay them the NWS office here. I have to stress that you do not have to have an amateur radio/license to be a weather spotter, but it helps when the power goes out or if you're on the road. That was one reason for creating the Twitter account.

How do you know when your job is done?

When the sun shines. :-)

When severe weather has passed through and things have calmed down, our job is done. If I'm at the NWS office, I may be there for several hours, as their radio station can reach a fair number of counties in the forecast area (roughly from Salem, Ind., to Bowling Green, Ky., and from Ohio County, Ky. to Richmond, Ky.). If severe weather is in the forecast area, they want me to try to contact spotters out in the state or in southern Indiana.

Storm spotting probably can be pretty intense.

It can get pretty intense at times. When I have run the station at the NWS office, I have had to listen to three radios at the same time. When something big is happening in the Metro area, I might have 10 people trying to give reports at the same time, so I have to quickly decide who has the most important report and keep things organized so no one is talking over anyone else. The NWS provides free access to the weather radar, and things can get intense when we see what's coming right at us in the next 30 minutes to an hour.

Have you ever been the first person to spot a dangerous storm?

No, not really. With radar, we know what's out there well before it gets here. I have been the first to report a severe condition a few times, though.

How many severe weather spotters are in the Louisville area?

At one time there were about 20 active spotters. Last summer (2009), I had about six faithful spotters. The number of participants comes and goes with the weather. If we're in a drought, it's hard to get many people participating because severe weather is rare. At other times, when there's one storm after another over a period of weeks, people get interested again.

What should I have asked that I didn't?

Ask me about my vacation. I was in California last June when I got a tweet about severe weather around 8 a.m. I logged on the NWS chat that I have been given access to, pulled up Louisville's radar, logged into Twitter, and while having a leisurely California breakfast, passed three or four severe weather reports to the NWS in Louisville. That was pretty cool.

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