Bulletins from the National Weather Service will often say that a "trained spotter" observed a funnel cloud or large hail or something.
If you're not paying close attention, you might think, "What does trainspotting have to do with measuring baseball-size hail?"
No, that's a different hobby. A trained storm spotter is just a fancy title for someone who has participated in a short training course on how to identify and report severe weather.
The regional NWS office in Paducah offers the courses every year, but I've always missed them because they were scheduled at inconvenient times, or held somewhere far from Cape Girardeau.
This year is different. Paducah is offering free spotter training by webinar. Four webinars remain on the schedule: March 12, 19, 20, and 30.
Just register and watch the webinar from home, and you'll become an official storm spotter with your own printable certificate.
I participated in one of the recent webinars. The first part requires sitting through the boring introductory stuff (difference between watches and warnings, how the NWS issues warnings, obligatory safety guidelines, etc.).
Then it got more interesting. The webinar instructor revealed the phone number for the super-secret spotter hotline and explained how to use it properly to quickly relay reports of severe weather to the forecasters at Paducah so they can issue warnings as appropriate.
The forecasters monitor Facebook and Twitter for reports from the general public, as well, although a report from a trained spotter carries more weight. In particular, they watch for tweets tagged with #nwspah from the public (spotters have their own hash tag).
Spotting in this part of the country, as the webinar presenter explained, is difficult because tornadoes are typically obscured by rain, trees, and hills. It's not like the Great Plains where spectacular videos of tornadoes are often shot. We also see -- as demonstrated last week -- more than our fair share of tornadoes at night, which are particularly dangerous and deadly.
A large chunk of the webinar detailed how to identify funnel clouds and tornadoes, and how to tell them apart from harmless SLCs (Scary Looking Clouds).
A typical Scary Looking Cloud
We see lots of Scary Looking Clouds around here -- almost every thunderstorm has them -- but the NWS doesn't want to get a report of a "funnel cloud" every time somebody sees a dangling cloud.
This dangling cloud wasn't rotating, so there wasn't anything to worry about -- except the heavy rain right behind it.
The key thing is that funnel clouds and tornadoes always rotate around a vertical axis. The presenter emphasized this point repeatedly. "If it's not rotating, it's not anything."
Several video clips were played showing a real tornado or funnel cloud versus just some random cloud. It's not always obvious. If in doubt, spotters are advised to "report what you see, not what you think you see."
I've only seen a real funnel cloud once in my life. Nevertheless, it's good to know how to use the spotter hotline and other reporting tools just in case. And thanks to the webinar format -- and don't worry, there wasn't a test at the end -- it's as easy as ever to become a trained spotter.