It is hard to estimate how far a weather event may be away from you.
By Brad Mosher
That was just one of the weather-related tips that John Paul Martin of the National Weather Service office in Bismarck explained to about a dozen people who attended a Skywarn weather observer training session April 8 in New England’s Memorial Hall.
The training at the Memorial Hall, is part of a program which started in the 1970s.
It is designed to combine information from volunteers with input from Doppler Radar, satellites and other sources to help the National Weather Service issue warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods.
There are currently between 350,000 to 400,000 trained severe weather spotters in the program throughout the United States. Every year, the country has more than 1,000 tornadoes, 5,000 floods and 10,000 severe thunderstorms.
“We are always looking for severe weather spotters and people who have been through the training,” Martin said, starting off the session in the building’s basement.
“When a thunderstorm comes through the area we will plot you on a map if you sign up to be a spotter for us. We will call you and ask if you had any or had any hail, that sort of thing,” he said.
A 2018 tornado in Dunn County was the early focus of the training. “It was up near Dodge. This was the second of two tornadoes just outside of Dodge,” Martin said while showing a series of photos.
Tornadoes are measured on what is called the enhanced Fujita scale, he explained.
But a key part of registering on the Fujita scale in the amount of damage it caused.
The first tornado near Dodge was a one on the scale. The second, bigger tornado was rated as a zero because it hit nothing and caused no damage, he said.
“The scale is not a wind scale. It is a damage scale. So no damage – it is a zero.”
The tornadoes were witnessed by people attending a concert in New Salem. “We were getting phone calls galore from New Salem because the people there thought it was about five miles away. People in Beulah saw it and thought it was five miles away. People in Hazen and all over Mercer County were calling. Everybody was underestimating how far away it was – but not five miles away – 40 or 50 miles away.
“It is very hard to estimate how far away a tornado is,” he added.
The Bismarck office has an area of responsibility that covers central and western North Dakota, Martin explained.
The area that the Bismarck office is responsible for is the ninth-largest of the 122 offices in the United States.
“Radar data is very critical for us, but it is not the only thing. We rely on satellite pictures today. We also rely on observations. Out of the Dickinson Airport, there are observations taken all the time – what is the temperature, the humidity, the air pressure and the wind. It is taken at the Hettinger Airport. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has put equipment at smaller airports like Bowman, Hebron and Glen Ullin.
“The North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network (NDAWN) has sites all across the state that they have put in,” he explained. In addition, the state’s department of transportation has observation sites – including one on Highway 22 and another on Highway 8.
“We use all the data we can get, including from weather spotters. Radar may indicate large hail, but I need a human being to indicate how big it was….,” he said, adding that the system need its human spotters.