Storm Spotting and Skywarn, what is it and how can I become involved?
Under the right conditions severe thunderstorms can threaten Wisconsin during any month of the year, for example, the January 7, 2008 Southeastern Wisconsin Tornado outbreak
The majority of these storms occur during the spring, summer, and
fall. They can produce large hail, damaging winds, and tornadoes.
Prior to a severe weather event, many different storm
spotter groups monitor the developing situation days in advance of the
forecasted severe weather event.
This site will provide information on Wisconsin storm
spotter groups, when and how to report severe weather and how to become a
History of storm spotting and Skywarn
The history of storm spotting began during World War II. In an article by Dr. Charles A. Doswell, he explains the history of Storm Spotting and how it evolved into the (spotter network) we know today.
Storm chasers and Storm Spotters
Storm chasers and storm
spotters are two different types of people. On the Web site
(Storm Chasers and Storm Chasing Frequently Asked Questions), by Elliot
Jones and Sandra Coleman, answers the most frequently asked questions about
storm chasers and Storm Chasing.
introduction to storm spotting by. Michael L. Branick, he explains why
storm spotting is so important, and emphasizes the importance of never spotting
without proper training.
Importance of storm spotting
With all the advances in technology such as Doppler radar,
and weather satellites, storm spotters are still extremely valuable to the NWS.
The storm spotter is able to see what is going on at the
base of the thunder storm.
The radar can obtain wind returns, and amount of moisture
within the storm.
Satellites are able to give information as to the height of
the storm, and be able to help with a wider view of the storm complex or squall
Why the spotter is so important is because the radar and
satellites can only see what is going on inside the storm, where the spotter is
able to see what is developing at the base of the storm where radar can’t see.
The spotter is able to see cloud formations such as wall
clouds, funnel clouds, and other clues that show that the storm is becoming
Over the years the NWS has been able to give the public
more advanced warnings for severe thunderstorms, and more importantly,
This is because with the installation of Doppler radar
systems, the NWS is able to monitor what is developing inside a thunderstorm by
using wind speed, increase or decrease of moisture, or drastic changes in wind
speed and direction in different parts of the storm.
With the Doppler radar technology, the NWS is able to pick
up on the beginnings of a tornado.
If the radar image shows a hook echo, this indicates
rotation within the thunderstorm; this is also called a tornado vortex
signature, or (TVS).
The TVS will prompt a tornado warning for the county or
counties it is affecting.
Once the TVS is indicated by radar, the NWS will issue a
tornado warning. And the trained spotter will watch the storm and report any
funnel cloud or tornado that develops.
Tornados, Funnels and Other Cloud Formations
There is a difference between funnel clouds and actual
A funnel cloud is a cone shaped rotating cloud that is
inside the thunderstorm. Once this drops down out of the storm and reaches the
ground, it is now a tornado.
Even before a funnel is spotted, there are other clues that
a trained spotter will recognize as the beginnings of a possible tornado.
A rotating wall cloud, (A tall cloud that extends up from
the front of the storm) can start to rotate, and when this occurs it sometimes
means that a tornado could develop out of this situation.
A trained spotter needs to know the difference between a
funnel cloud, rotating wall cloud, or even clouds that look like they are
rotating, but in truth are just traveling in different directions.
It is very important to know the difference between a
funnel, tornado and wall cloud.
Most of the warnings that are issued each year are prompted
by the observations of a trained skywarn storm spotter.
Skywarn In Wisconsin
Many Wisconsin counties have a group called Skywarn. Skywarn
groups are trained to identify, evaluate, and report hazardous weather events.
&With today’s technology, Doppler radar software loaded onto a lap top computer
to track storms, a cell phone and
(Amateur Radio) make storm tracking and reporting just one call away.
The main goal of any Skywarn group is to provide vital
severe weather information to help protect life and property.
How Severe Weather is Reported
Most Skywarn groups are affiliated with Amateur (ham)
radio. There is a well developed network that is used to pass along severe
This network involves several very important elements. The
storm spotter who identifies the severe weather, the Net Control Station, or
(NCS) who controls the radio traffic between the spotters, and a relay operator,
or (RO), the RO is responsible for relaying the severe weather report to the
National Weather Service, or (NWS).
The spotter witnesses a severe weather event, reports it to
the NCS, in turn, the RO writes down the information, and relays it to the NWS.
Usually this whole process takes about 40 seconds to reach the NWS so they can
then issue the appropriate statements and warnings.
(TLCS) is used. The TLCS means, time, location, condition, and source.
- time is the clock time the weather was observed, for
example (at 9:04 PM,)
- Location is the position where the spotter is located.
The NWS has developed reference points for each city in southern Wisconsin.
- Condition is what was being observed, I, e tornado,
large hail, or strong damaging winds.
- source. This is the name or radio call sign of the
person reporting the severe weather.
Area Spotter Groups:
Midwest SSTRC And Milwaukee Area Skywarn Association
In Dane, Iowa, and Rock counties there is an Organization called Midwest Severe Storm Tracking Response Center, or
And in southeast Wisconsin there is the Milwaukee area Skywarn
When the forecast is predicting a large severe weather
event, these organizations are looking at the Storm Prediction center, or
(SPC) located in Norman Oklahoma, to see where the projected track for
severe weather will be, and also analyze the forecast maps, computer modeling
and convective atmospheric outlooks to get the best idea of where the risk level
for severe weather will be the greatest.
Both groups are looking at all the information related to a
severe weather outbreak, days, or even a full week in advance of the expected
Spotter Training Resources
Storm spotting is not something a person can just do, there
is training involved in order to understand and recognize different types of
clouds, and to identify storms that could produce a tornado.
There are several web sites that will explain what to look for and how to recognize it.
Here are many excellent resources to learn more about, or become involved in storm spotting.
- The Milwaukee County Skywarn Association will provide online spotter training, as well as give other useful information about storm spotting.
- Keith Brewster’s article, Getting Started in Tornado And
Thunderstorm Spotting gives very useful information about storm spotting, and also a section on
becoming a licensed Amateur Radio operator.
- The Midwest Severe Storm Tracking Response Center (SSTRC) This site explains how the SSTRC works, what counties in South central Wisconsin they serve, and also how to sign up and become an active storm spotter.
Weather Radio codes
Weather alert radios have been available for many years. The first weather radios did not have S.A.M.E technology. They sounded for every alert that NOAA issued.
About 10 years ago, the technology was introduced that brought about the S.A.M.E weather radio.
S.A.M.E. stands for (Specific Area Message Encoding)
This technology uses a digital code that contains information about the type of watch or warning, duration of the event, and for what county or counties the watch or warning has been issued for.
Each code is sent out in what is called a (packet) of information. This packet contains at least one, and sometimes several sets of numbers. These numbers are what tells the weather radio what county is being effected, and what type of weather event will impact the county.
When programming a S.A.M.E. weather radio, codes can be entered for each county you would like alerts for
The difference between this technology and the older type of weather radio is that the older weather radio sounded for every alert for all the counties in the coverage area of the weather radio transmitter.
The S.A.M.E. technology makes it possible to select specific counties as well as specific weather events, i,e, Severe Thunderstorm watch or warnings, flash flood watch or warnings, Tornado warnings, and many more.
Severe Weather Outlooks
These Internet sites will provide information on the severe weather outlook for your area, as well as provide useful resources from local media outlets to keep track of severe weather events.
- Need to plan a trip, or just want to know the outlook
for severe weather?This site will provide the Hazardous weather outlook for
portions of East Central, South Central, and Southeast Wisconsin.
- This page of the Milwaukee Area Skywarn Association
web page is the place to go to sign up for email alerts
of severe watches
and warnings. This information can also be sent to your cell phone or pager!
- MASA also gives you a weather panel that provides watch and warning information. This site also provides other useful weather
maps and U.S radar loops.
- Living in Northcentral Wisconsin? Channel 7, (WSAW) in Wausau, WI, offers a desktop alert application that alerts you of severe weather watches
and warnings directly to your computer desktop.
- In West Central Wisconsin, Channel 13, (WEAU)in Eau Claire, WI offers a desktop
alert application for Severe weather warnings, and local and National radar.
- In Southcentral Wisconsin, Channel 3, (WISC)in Madison, WI provides email alerts of
severe weather watches and warnings to your email address, or cell phone. [I
use this, and it is very effective)
Becoming a trained storm spotter
No matter where you live throughout Wisconsin, you can
become a trained weather spotter. If you are interested, please contact your
local Emergency Management office, or contact
Chad Nelson who is an Amateur Radio Operator and weather enthusiast.
Do not chase or spot for severe weather unless you have proper training.
There is one very important rule that all storm spotters follow, (this is told to spotters on all Amateur Radio and Public Service Weather networks), If you feel unsafe, take all precautions and take cover. Storm spotting is not worth your life.
Storm Spotting Can be Rewarding!
Storm spotting is a very serious activity, but if you enjoy
the thrills of a good storm, and use common sense, spotting for severe weather
can give a lot of satisfaction by knowing that lives are saved by early
detection of severe weather.
This page is provided for informational use only, and not intended to provide spotter training.
Last updated: Saturday, October 14, 2017