By Tim Leeds
The National Weather Service is looking for a few good spotters.
Joe Goodsward, meteorologist for the NWS Forecast Office in Great Falls, held a seminar in the Hill County Justice Center on Wednesday about being a severe weather spotter. Goodsward explained why severe weather, such as severe wind and hail from thunderstorms and tornadoes, occur and how to spot the situations in which they are likely to occur. Having spotters who can see the severe weather about to happen and who will call the NWS about it is crucial, he added.
"We rely heavily on spotters to identify and track severe weather. If you see it or suspect it, call it in," he said.
NWS is a federal agency under the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The history of the administration, and NWS, begins in 1807 when President Jefferson established a survey of the coasts of the United States. In 1870, Congress enacted a law authorizing and requiring the Secretary of War to take meteorological observations at military bases and provide warnings of storms.
Congress created the Weather Bureau by an act in 1890, transferring the duties of the Weather Service from the Army to the newly created Department of Agriculture, then in 1940 the duties were transferred to the Department of Commerce. At that time the service began to issue its first daily forecasts. In 1951 and '52, the service established its first severe weather warning center and severe local storms forecasting unit.
In 1970, President Nixon used an executive order to create the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, combining several agencies and functions, including the Weather Service, under the Department of Commerce and bringing them to the administrative point they are at today.
Goodsward said the mission of NWS is to provide forecasts and warnings to protect lives and property in the United States. He added that NWS offices are constantly busy working on basic tracking and forecasting, but "all that stuff gets put on hold when severe weather occurs." NWS is the only agency allowed to issue severe weather warnings and watches.
That duty is serious business. Goodsward said weather causes 500 deaths, 5,000 injuries and $14 billion in damage in the United States every year. NWS works to minimize those deaths and damages with its forecasts and warnings.
The NWS offices are staffed seven days a week, 24 hours a day. There are three people on duty in Great Falls at all times in rotating shifts. Goodsward said there's always enough work to keep them busy. They cover about 52,000 square miles of country.
"There's always something going on across the country," he said.
Since the agency is funded through taxpayer money, Goodsward said, everything NWS produces is available to the public at all times.
Goodsward said NWS has downsized considerably in recent years, because new technology doesn't require the staff the service used to have. NWS has closed 154 offices, including the manned reporting station in Havre, which was changed to an automated station during a changeover from 1989 to 1992. Because of modern technology, he said, that hasn't hurt operations. In fact, operations are even more efficient.
"We're getting the word out faster, doing much better with less people and resources, mainly because of the technology we have now," he said.
The Great Falls office houses a Doppler radar unit, which Goodsward said gives the office much more capability than older radar units the NWS used to use. He said it can now track many more kinds of weather and get more information about the weather systems than ever before.
However, Goodsward added, Doppler radar has limitations. The farther from the unit the signal goes, the more chance there is that it might miss something. It also can be blocked by solid objects, such as mountains or cliffs, and it travels in a straight line, not following the curvature of the Earth.
While NWS has some of the best equipment available to forecast weather and spot and warn about severe weather, Goodsward said, live people to spot and report weather are crucial to the service. He said a trained spotter gave the first warning before a tornado went through Lewistown on May 14, 1999, which allowed NWS to get the warning to residents seven minutes ahead of the tornado.
That helped to save lives. While the tornado caused three injuries and about $3 million in damage, no one died that day.
Goodsward showed during the seminar how to spot severe weather conditions. He talked about tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, flooding and more.
He talked about how to tell how much potential there is for severe weather. Goodsward explained why severe weather happens, and what the situations leading to it look like.
He showed different kinds of cloud formations and explained why they look the way they do and why they cause severe weather. But, he said, even if a cloud formation doesn't or even can't mean severe weather will occur, spotters should call a report in if they think there might be a problem, because they may be right.
For more information, call the Great Falls NWS Forecast Office at 543-2081.
On the Net: Great Falls NWS Reporting Station: http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/greatfalls