Get wind of this: Every year, about 18 tornadoes tear through Michigan, usually between April and July. But being able to tell the real deal from a faux funnel can be tricky — and dangerous. A trained eye can mean the difference between playing Chicken Little and suffering the same fate as the Wicked Witch of the East.
Accurately identifying and reporting a tornado is just one skill attendees learn at Skywarn spotter-training classes, coordinated by Oakland County’s Homeland Security Division and conducted by the National Weather Service (NWS). “The more trained eyes we have in the sky, the better service we can provide to the public,” says Bethany Kenney, Oakland County’s Skywarn coordinator.
Since the program began in the 1970s, Skywarn has trained nearly 300,000 volunteers across the country to help their communities provide on-the-ground reports of severe weather to the NWS. “We have a lot of new technology,” Kenney says, “but there’s only one instrument that can detect a tornado with complete certainty — the human eye.”
Anyone with an interest in public service is encouraged to attend the free, two-hour classes, which cover the basics of storm development, identifying potential severe weather features, how and what information to report, and basic weather safety. Once properly trained, storm spotters are able to report wind gusts, hail size, rainfall, and cloud formations that could lead to tornado development.
It’s worth noting that Skywarn spotters are not storm chasers. While their functions may be similar, spotters stick close to home. “We don’t want people to put themselves in any danger,” Kenney says. “But if you’re driving or you’re at home and you see bad weather, you’ll know who to call and what to report.”
And it will be a little more detailed than “the sky is falling.”