Official ‘spotters’ are the weather service’s extra eyes

“The observations they make are very, very important,” said Mike Montafusco, a meteorologist at the weather service’s office in Wakefield.

Montafusco recently led a session of the weather service’s spotter-training program, called Skywarn. Skywarn offers free basic and advanced courses on identifying preparing for severe weather events.

Having trained eyes on the ground is important, Montafusco said, because meteorologists can’t be everywhere. This “ground truth” can assist with issuing watches or warnings and dispatching emergency services.

During the two- to three-hour course, spotters learn about concepts such as cloud types, a thunderstorm’s life cycle and how tornadoes form. They’re taught how to identify severe weather, what to report and the correct way to report it.

For example, you don’t want to say you have “marble-size” hail, Montafusco said, because marbles come in different sizes. Using measures such as peas, dimes or golf balls is more accurate.

Because time is critical, especially during a severe event, it’s vital that weather reporters follow the correct procedure by identifying they’re a certified Skywarn spotter, providing specific details about what they observed, the time it occurred, and the approximate location.

Montafusco said during the derecho storm in June, the weather service received numerous reports from spotters, ranging from trees blown down onto homes and power lines, to minor structural damage from straight-line winds.

There are about 1,200 spotters in the Hampton Roads area.

Gary Dubour earned his Skywarn certificate late this past winter but he said he’s been fascinated by the weather for years, starting with a tornado in western Massachusetts in 1979. Dubour was three years old at the time, but says he remembers being pulled away from a daycare center window where he could hear and see the tornado approaching.

The tornado missed the daycare center but seriously damaged a nearby school, Dubour says.

While he didn’t end up becoming a meteorologist, the 36-year-old library assistant said he’s studied weather most his life and has lived through other events such as blizzards, floods, hurricanes and a microburst — “a sharp blast of wind.”

“I can look at the clouds and tell you what type of storm it is,” he said.

That’s what happened on June 1 when he and a friend were traveling on I-64 toward Norfolk, where he lives. They had just left downtown Hampton when he saw a “wall cloud” — a large cloud formation at the rain-free base of a cumulonimbus cloud that can indicate the presence of tornadoes.

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