They can tell the difference between grapple and snizzle.
They brave the biting cold to record the snowfall in the teeth of a 50-mph wind.
They run out into a hailstorm to measure the biggest chunk of ice.
These are weather spotters, the unpaid men and women the National Weather Service counts on to tell them what is actually happening, and radar just doesn't cut it.
“When I see a good storm coming on the radar, I'm outside filming the clouds,” explained Lori Dankert of Perrysburg, a 19-year veteran spotter for the weather service in northwestern Cattaraugus County. “It makes you feel like you're helping, and it makes you feel like you're involved.”
Spotter Devin Sobieraj made an early morning check on his own snowfall gauge in Orchard Park last week, then jumped in his car and took a three-hour jaunt to the Tug Hill Plateau northeast of Syracuse just to take some pictures of the massive lake-effect storm that left snow piles creeping toward the tops of power lines.
“Tons of snow,” Sobieraj told a reporter by phone from a Thruway rest stop. “I got some awesome pictures.”
It's that kind of spirit that the weather service hopes to harness during its ongoing regionwide recruitment effort to increase the numbers of its volunteer weather “SkyWarn” spotters across Buffalo Niagara.
“There are a lot of things the radar can and cannot tell us,” Judith M. Levan, who coordinates warning signals for the weather service's Buffalo office, told trainees during a recent two-hour session at Kenmore West High School. “That's why I need you guys. I'm not looking at the surface; you guys are.”
With an average of 10,000 thunderstorms, 5,000 floods, 1,200 tornadoes and two “land-falling” hurricanes hitting the country each year, the United States “is the most severe-weather-prone country in the world,” Levan said.
And each year, that weather causes about 500 deaths and $14 billion in damage.
Yes, radar helps. But it takes more to track those storms.
“We have a lot of fancy equipment, but there isn't anything we can do to replace the trained spotter on the ground,” Levan said. “We see the value of having spotters out there giving us reports.”
Looking for an enemy
Spotters are the battlefield scouts surveying the physical landscape for an enemy: life-threatening weather.
Sobieraj, an Erie Community College student who will pursue a degree in meteorology at SUNY Oswego, said the proudest moment of his five years as a spotter came in early December 2010 when a nasty lake-effect storm blitzed the region, turning portions of the New York State Thruway from Cheektowaga to Westfield into a virtual parking lot.
In West Seneca, the weather service determined 3-4 inches of snow was falling per hour during that storm.
But the information Sobieraj provided from the ground aided meteorologists in tailoring their forecasts.
“We had no snow,” said Sobieraj, who lived in Amherst at the time. “Knowing how little snow I got in Amherst helped them determine where they would issue warnings in their text forecast.”
Dankert, the spotter in Perrysburg, has seen many storms: lake-effect snowstorms blowing in off Lake Erie in the winter, wind and rain storms during the summer. Rotating cloud formations. Toppled trees. Ice storms.
The one she'll never forget – nor will the village of Gowanda – was the flood of August 2009.
“There was lightning that was nonstop. It was like flash, flash, flash. It looked like daytime” in the middle of the night, Dankert recalled. “In between my basement flooding, I went out and measured my rain.”
At one point, she slipped and found herself “chest high in water.” Six inches of rain had fallen in about 90 minutes.
Later, when Dankert called the weather service to report the totals, there was disbelief.
“Are you sure you got that much?” the meteorologist asked.
Providing 'ground truth'
Meteorologists can't rely exclusively on radar estimates, so they turn to people like Dankert and Sobieraj for what they like to call “ground truth.”
“It's pretty important. If it wasn't for us, it would be hard for the National Weather Service to make warnings to the general public,” Sobieraj said. “If there isn't any 'ground truth' to it, it's hard for them to get that information.”
Added Dankert: “It's awesome to know as a spotter that you can give your reports to the weather service, and you can warn the people that might possibly get that severe storm or heavy snow or whatever Mother Nature brings. It's helping your community and helping the weather service warn those ahead of a storm.”
Even so, the flow of information is often two-way.
Like the time a tornado was forming just southwest of Dankert's Perrysburg house – where she keeps a backyard weather station.
Her phone rang with a personal weather warning from a live meteorologist. “They told me to get in my basement. I was outside taking pictures of the clouds,” she said. “It's pretty cool to have the inside scoop.”
The weather service's “SkyWarn” program, which consists of trained weather spotters, was developed in the 1960s. Spotters are charged with providing “reports of severe and hazardous weather to help meteorologists make life-saving warning decisions.”
For instance, Levan explained that the average lead time between when a severe thunderstorm warning is issued and when it strikes is about 15 to 20 minutes. For a tornado, it's 10 minutes or less.
Learning to spot disaster
Every moment counts.
That's why spotters are trained in identifying cloud types and formations and the atmospheric ingredients necessary to generate severe storms that can spawn life-threatening conditions.
Spotter trainees learn the life cycles of thunderstorms – how they're born and why they die. They're instructed on the structure of the “main storm tower,” how to look and identify the updrafts that feed the storm's energy and learn to distinguish the differences between rotating columns of air that spawn tornadoes and decoy “scud clouds.”
And they're encouraged to keep the weather service informed of what they're observing. Levan said the weather service relies on its spotters to provide reports on funnel or wall clouds, tornadoes or waterspouts, torrential rains, heavy snow, the presence or size of hail, wind damage, flooding or any weather-related injuries or deaths.
“Don't assume we know what's happening,” Levan told trainees at a recent session.
Though the training is open to anyone with an “interest in the weather,” many of the spotters have another hobby – amateur radio.
“I can describe to them firsthand what is going on,” said Stu Scott, an amateur radio enthusiast who recently renewed his training as a weather service spotter, something he's been doing for four to five years.
In the event of a weather emergency, say a severe thunderstorm, freezing rain or tornado touchdown, amateur radio operators link up with the weather service's band and instantly transmit information that could lead to the issuance of a severe weather warning. That could save lives.
Information, instant communication and unfailing power makes emergency weather reporting a natural attraction to amateur radio operators, according to Robert Fleischauer, the president of the Amateur Radio Association of the Tonawandas, who also serves with the North Tonawanda Fire Police and Emergency Operations Center.
“We do have two-way communication. We can get a hold of (the weather service) easily, and that information is logged in and passed on,” said Fleischauer, who recalled that amateur radio operators were called into duty as essential personnel during the October Surprise snowstorm of 2006.
Power was out for days – even weeks – in some parts of the Tonawandas back then, so amateur radio enthusiasts were brought down to the Emergency Operations Center at the North Tonawanda Fire Hall, where they helped relay information back and forth about road conditions, residents in peril and other hazards.