Mid-June marks the beginning of monsoon season throughout most of Arizona, and the National Weather Service in Phoenix has been building its army of watchers ahead of the strike of storms.
With COVID-19 halting in-person sessions, the National Weather Service shifted its Storm Spotter classes online, allowing people of all backgrounds to learn about the weather and become certified to alert the agency of on-the-ground happenings.
“Spotters provide what we call ground truth information,” said Austin Jamison, a meteorologist and forecaster at the National Weather Service Phoenix Forecast Office. “We do have technology like radar and satellite, but they have limitations. They can’t tell us everything in high detail in terms of what’s really happening on the ground. We can be confident that there’s flooding happening... but we don’t know for sure if there is serious flooding happening and the precise locations.”
That’s where the storm spotters come in. The classes teach them how to properly identify and report significant weather phenomena and contribute to public safety. They learn how thunderstorms work, how to identify cloud features associated with microbursts and tornadoes, and how reports relate to warnings and advisories.
“These conditions on the ground in high detail really helps us to know that either yes, we’re on the right track with the warning,” Mr. Jamison said. “Or it could be that the report from the spotter lets us know that it’s worse than we thought, and we need to get a warning out so the broader public can take measures to be a safe place.”
The next two Skywarn Storm Spotter classes are available 6-7 p.m. Tuesday, June 9 and Wednesday, June 10. Visit the NWS Phoenix website and scroll down to the Training Class Schedule to register. If you miss out on a class, resources are available at the website for untrained spotters.
Mr. Jamison said the Phoenix Forecast Office covers all of Maricopa, La Paz and Yuma counties, northwest Pinal and southern Gila counties, along with a small portion of southern California — Imperial and eastern Riverside counties.
While the NWS encourages people in all parts of the coverage area to become storm watchers, they’re hoping more people in rural areas join.
“We would love to increase the number of people we have in rural areas where there’s a lot less information, less ground-based weather stations and so forth,” Mr. Jamison said. “And where the terrain can be such that flash flooding is more prevalent… and open highways where you can have dust storms more easily.”
Hopes are high this year for a wetter monsoon season in the Valley and Arizona. Last year was Phoenix’s fifth driest recorded, according to The Associated Press. Monsoon season runs from mid-June through the end of September, characterized by a shift in wind patterns and moisture being pulled in from the tropical coast of Mexico.
While monsoon season officially kicks off June 15, parts of the Valley have already seen some showers, especially in the eastern areas the last two weeks.
Mr. Jamison said monsoon season is when the bulk of the region’s severe weather happens, leading to more reports during that time from spotters.
Aiding monsoon warnings, the Arizona Department of Transportation began installing a dust-detection system in Fall 2019. The system includes long-range radar set near Picacho Peak that can detect approaching dust storms from 50 miles out and short-range radars to detect dust particles. They are set every mile between areas where most of crashes along Interstate 10 occur.
Placed every 1,000 feet for the first mile in each direction and then every 2 miles, variable speed limit signs can change from 75 mph to as slow as 35 mph when there is blowing dust. Electronic message boards placed 5 miles apart in the pilot area will alert drivers to blowing dust, while ADOT traffic operators can use overhead message boards on the way toward the dust detection zone to warn drivers of potentially hazardous conditions ahead. Closed-circuit cameras allow staff at ADOT’s Traffic Operations Center in Phoenix to see the real-time conditions on the roadway, while in-pavement sensors will report the speed and flow of traffic.
“Technology can’t replace common sense when it comes to driving into a dust storm,” ADOT states. “Though drivers will have almost instantaneous warnings about hazardous conditions along these 10 miles, the safest course of action will remain putting off travel if a severe storm is imminent. If caught in a sudden dust storm in or beyond the pilot area, a motorist should pull far off the roadway, turn off lights and remove one’s foot from the brake.”
As people prepare to become a storm spotter, there’s an important thing to keep in mind.
“This is not storm chaser training,” Mr. Jamison said. “We advocate that storm spotting is best done from within safe shelter.”
Those who go into the field — at their own risk — are advised to always have an escape route and shelter location available.
Storm spotters are encouraged to take refresher trainings every two years, although the NWS welcomes them to take a class each year. Training guidelines and reporting methods are always subject to change over time.
Reporting methods for trained spotters include the NWS webpage, email, phone and radio. However, untrained spotters can send the NWS a tweet on Twitter or post on their Facebook page.
“If you have an interest in weather and want to contribute to public safety, this is a great way to combine those two concepts,” Mr. Jamison said.
What monsoon memories do you have? Share them at firstname.lastname@example.org.