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‘We need eyes on the ground’

‘We need eyes on the ground’ Courtesy graphic NWS

National Weather Service meteorologist holds training session in Powell  

The National Weather Service has nearly 5,000 employees, a $950 million budget and access to the best-available technology to monitor and predict weather.

But it also relies on people who witness storms, record conditions and watch what is happening in their neck of the woods. That’s one reason a NWS warning coordination meteorologist held a training session at Northwest College last week.

“We need eyes on the ground,” said Chris Jones.

Jones, a 20-year weather service veteran who is based in Riverton, showed photos and video, detailed weather conditions and explained what causes storms during the two-hour presentation on April 22 at NWC’s Fagerberg Building. It was presented as part of Wyoming Severe Weather Awareness Week and sponsored by the Powell Valley Community Education.

He urged the approximately 45 people in attendance to contact  the NWS to report storms and weather conditions. In addition, they can call the service to ask about forecasts to plan travel or for other reasons.

“We’re there 24 hours a day,” Jones said. “What should you report? Anything.”

The meteorologist said while the NWS welcomes assistance, he didn’t want to encourage people to become storm chasers.

“I don’t want to see you on The Discovery Channel,” he said.

Powell now has three authorized volunteer spotters and Jones passed out cards at the end of the presentation, hoping to recruit more. He said the NWS welcomes as many reports as possible, since weather can vary greatly in a relatively small area.

He pointed to the hailstorms that lashed Powell and rural areas last summer. Some crops received severe damage while other fields close by had little or no impact from the thunderstorm.

Jones also urged people to develop an emergency plan and prepare to take action well before a storm draws nigh or actually hits. There is precious little time to prepare when strong winds or even a tornado bear down on you, he said.

Stay south of a thunderstorm to observe it, he said. If a strong storm is headed toward you, remain or get indoors. Get as low as possible in an interior room to avoid being struck by flying objects.

If you are outside, there is a divide on what is best to do, Jones said. Some feel it’s best to remain in a vehicle, while others say get into a ditch or ravine.

But the best advice is to keep an eye and ear on the weather forecasts and not be outside when a storm hits, he said.

During the presentation, Jones’ familiarity with the topic was apparent. He spoke without a note, having given it many times over the years. Jones also lightened the mood with one-liners and some doctored video which drew laughs from the weather fans in attendance.

“I am glad the humor lightens it a bit,” he said Friday during an email exchange with the Tribune. “It is a lot of info to throw at people.”

Indeed it was, as Jones used both technical and commonly used terms to explain what causes storms to erupt. Included in that were descriptions of some of the terms that are used by the NWS.

A weather outlook is an advisory for a period from one to seven days. A watch tells people to be prepared for bad weather that day or in the next few hours. A warning indicates a storm is within an hour of occurring — or may be in the area at that moment.

Tornadoes are rare in this corner of Wyoming and only about 12 touch down in the state each year, primarily in the eastern third of Wyoming. It takes three conditions for a twister to develop — instability, lift and moisture. The arid conditions of this part of the state prevent many tornadoes from spawning.

“That is lacking in Wyoming,” Jones said.

There was a tornado near Meeteetse on May 27 last year and four tornadoes touched down in Park and Big Horn counties on June 1, 2005.

But thunderstorms are not uncommon and that was the focus of the training.

The life of a storm

Jones showed photos of the three stages of a T-storm — the towering cumulus clouds that develop as a storm forms, with their bright white color and light rain. They last 10 to 15 minutes.

Then there are the cumulonimbus clouds, darker clouds with strong winds, heavy rain and hail. Tornadoes can form in such conditions. This lasts up to 20 minutes.

Lastly, the storm dissipates, as an updraft carves out tall, billowing clouds. There is less chance of rain, but lightning is still common, and strong wind and hail are possible. These conditions can last for up to 50 minutes.

Jones also discussed and fielded questions on anvil clouds, supercells, microbursts, dew points, relative humidity and other topics.

While wind and rain are often the twin signs of powerful storms, lightning is the most deadly aspect of storms. It’s the biggest reason for storm-related deaths in Wyoming, he said.

There have been four documented deaths by a tornado in state history, Jones said. By contrast, three people were killed by lightning in 2010 alone.

In 2013, 62 people were killed by lightning in the USA and several hundred were injured. You only have a 1 in 700,000 chance of being struck during the year, but being outside, especially in higher elevations, lowers the odds against you, Jones said.

Jones said people need to get low, avoid standing in open areas as well as in caves and gaps — you could end up serving as a conductor for electricity passing through — and to be aware of the conditions. Hikers and climbers need to be especially mindful, he said.

Jones said he was caught in a lightning-filled storm one night a few years ago while camping. It was a terrifying experience.

“All I could do was lay there and hope for the best,” he said.

Jones also warned about flash floods and against driving through moving water. He said if you see water covering a road, and cannot see the road under it, do not cross.

“Turn around, don’t drown,” is a useful reminder, Jones said.

The NWS wants to prevent death, injury or damage, so it tries to both ascertain what is happening and inform the public as soon as possible, Jones said.

“Which is why your reports matter,” he said. “Your eyes — you’re a huge help in these situations.”

At the same time, Jones said the weather service is aware of its limits.

“We’re weather people — we know we’re going to be wrong,” he said. “If we forget, we know you’ll remind us.”

Weather fans

He didn’t have to worry about too much criticism at the event. The people who came were weather fans, eager to learn more. That included Linda Schwope, 69, of Lovell, who said she has been fascinated by weather since she was a girl in Nebraska. The storms there were more powerful, she said.

Schwope had missed other presentations Jones had given, so when she saw this one was scheduled for that night, she made plans to drive over and attend it. Weather is of great interest, she said, and the forward lean she had and her flashing eyes showed she was absorbing every detail.

“I keep a pretty close eye on it,” Schwope said.

Jake and Connie Dillinger of Powell said while they don’t plan to become weather spotters, they enjoyed the program.

“Lots of good information, that’s for sure,” Connie said.

Boy Scouts Kevin Campeau and Weston Moore, of Troop 26, said they really enjoyed the program. Jones, a former Scout, teased them several times during the program but they liked that, too.

“It was very good,” Weston said.

The Weather Bureau was founded in 1870. A century later, its name was changed to the National Weather Service. It has 123 offices, including the Riverton facility and one in Cheyenne.

That office and its Doppler Radar monitors an area larger than the state of Illinois — 56,396 square miles. That’s 58 percent of the state of Wyoming and includes 11 counties and Yellowstone National Park.

The Riverton office has 23 staff members, including 17 meteorologists, and it is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The federal government has made a large investment in weather forecasting and there’s a good reason for that, Jones said.

Every year, approximately 5,000 people are injured and about 500 are killed by storms and floods, based on a 10-year average. Wild weather also causes $14 billion in damages annually.

Jones, 41, grew up in Colorado. He has spent 14 of his 20 years in the NWS in Wyoming, including 12 in Riverton.

A presentation on general aviation and Wyoming weather, including a question-and-answer period, is set for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Powell Municipal Airport. It is open to the public.

For more information, go to the NWS website for the Riverton office: weather.gov/riverton.

 

SHARING THE

INFORMATION

To report weather conditions or ask a question, call the NWS Riverton office at

1-800-211-1448.

You can also make a
report online at
www.weather.gov/riverton.

 

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