Two years ago in Durango, a weather-spotter for the National Weather Service spotted a rotating wall-cloud and borrowed a cell phone to call in his sighting. Based on his report, the National Weather Service issued a severe weather warning minutes before a tornado dropped from the clouds, damaging crops and a trailer.
"His training as a weather spotter allowed us to react quickly," said Jim Pringle, warning coordination meteorologist with the service.
Pringle came to Northwest Colorado from his office in Grand Junction to conduct training classes for weather-spotters in Craig and Steamboat Springs this week.
Participants of the Monday basic classes in Steamboat Springs and Tuesday's session in Craig have the opportunity to attend an advanced weather-spotter training class scheduled for Thursday evening at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion.
"Weather-spotters supply critical eyewitness reports to our office at the National Weather Service," Pringle said. "Radar and satellite images give us indications of weather patterns, but they don't show the data below the clouds, what we call the 'ground truth' data."
Every year, Pringle tours western Colorado and eastern Utah talking to emergency managers at broadcast stations and print media outlets, and also training weather-spotters.
He said tracking storms is no problem for the radar system used by the weather service. The hard part is getting ground reports of the size of the hail, flash flooding reports and the formation of tornadoes.
"Fog is also something that we can't see on the radar," Pringle said. "We rely on ground reports from weather-spotters so we can provide the public with accurate weather information."
Spotters work in conjunction with weather observers that are stationed in most towns, making daily reports of high and low temperatures in the past 24 hours, as well as rainfall or snowfall amounts and moisture content. They also report the total amount of snow on the ground and offer remarks about flooding or hail occurring.
"There is no limit to the number of weather-spotters we would like to have operating," Pringle said. "Anybody with an interest in weather or weather-spotting, give us a call and we'll sign you up."
With 450 spotters in western Colorado and eastern Utah covering 53,000 square miles of ground, that's roughly 120 square miles for each spotter. Pringle estimates that only 25 to 30 percent of weather activity is reported.
This summer, the Weather Service is planning to bring online a new broadcast tower on Rabbit Ears Pass that will keep Northwest Colorado informed of changing weather conditions around the clock. Weather radios will instantly be alerted to hazards and potentially dangerous weather approaching.
Pringle encourages anyone seeing hazardous weather conditions to report their sightings to local law enforcement officials and have them notify the National Weather Service.
For information, call Jim Pringle at (970) 243-7007, ext. 726. For weather information go to www.crh.noaa.gov/gjt/.
Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or firstname.lastname@example.org.