Storm spotters class equips public to aid tracking of dangerous weather

March 27, 2013 10:06:46 AM



Before Steve Wilkinson explained what Tuesday's course was about he had to explain what it wasn't about. 


"This is not storm chaser training," Wilkinson told the crowd of about 20 who had gathered at the Atmos Energy Training Center in Columbus for a Storm Spotter Class. "We are just trying to get people to report what they see." 


Wilkinson is a Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service (NWS) out of Jackson and emphasized Tuesday that the safety of each spotter is the first concern. He said chasing a storm is never recommended.  


But, as Wilkinson pointed out, if you are in a safe place and see something you think needs to be reported, the NWS wants to hear about it. Tuesday's class was aimed at informing amateur spotters about what to look for. 


When Wilkinson asked the class where they thought the most tornadoes in the United States occur, states that make up Tornado Alley in the Midwest began popping out of people's mouths: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas. Wilkinson stood quietly for a moment, and then shocked nearly everyone in the room with his answer. 


"There is no other place that gets more tornadoes, especially as of late, than right here in Mississippi and Alabama," he said. "Tornado Alley gets them, no doubt, but we have the evidence that shows we have had more than our fair share." 


Wilkinson showed studies from the NWS from the last nine years that indicated over that time period, northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama have been hit with more tornadoes than all of Tornado Alley combined. 


Though the reason behind the recent trend may be a more complicated matter, Wilkinson said, the numbers reveal a simple truth: Southern states, especially those that border the Gulf of Mexico, are likely to report more tornadoes because on top of the spike in tornadoes during the spring and the fall, cool breezes and hot humid temperatures during the end of August and beginning of September make for an extra season of perfect conditions for storms capable of producing tornadoes. 


The recent spike in reports is one thing, but the ferocity of the storms in this southern region is baffling.  


Wilkinson pointed to numbers from the NWS, which showed 26 violent long-track tornadoes occurred in the United States from 1950 through 2011. A tornado is only labeled a violent long-track if it travels more than 100 miles and is ranked a 4 or 5 on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale. For reference, EF 5 tornadoes can bring winds greater than 200 mph.  


Of the 26 violent, long-track tornadoes in the United States from 1950 to 2011, 13 occurred in Mississippi and Alabama, many crossing the state line that separates the two. The Southeast, in general, rang in 16 of the 26.  


But Tuesday afternoon's class was about more than just tornadoes, Wilkinson reminded those in attendance. 


He said when calling to report storm-related information, the NWS and the local emergency management want spotters to be able to fill in the gaps. Is it a tornado, or is it just a funnel cloud? Is there hail? How big is the hail? Is it bigger than a quarter? Where are there trees or power lines down? Be as specific as possible, Wilkinson said.  


Radar technology is continuing to grow and can already do some amazing things, but eyewitness reports from informed spotters is invaluable, Wilkinson said. 


There are several ways to report information as a spotter, whether you are trained or just an amateur. Wilkinson recommended that trained spotters forward reports to 1-800-294-1944, the NWS hotline, or local emergency management, but he added there have been an increasing number of reports from amateurs coming in via social media. 


On Twitter, simply attach #wxreport to any significant weather-related post, and the NWS will be relayed the message.  


Alex Grimes, a first -year graduate student in meteorology at Mississippi State University, said Tuesday's spotter training was her first. She admitted that much of what Wilkinson went over was basic knowledge to her at this point, but she thought it would be very informative to anyone without any prior knowledge on the subject.  


Grimes said she has never actually called in as a spotter during a storm, but the class definitely encouraged her to do so. 


"I'd probably end up using social media to report it," she said. "I would use a picture or a video if I could." 


The recent storms in Jackson that produced hail the size of softballs, the tornadoes in Hattiesburg that ravaged the Hub City in February and the generally unpredictable, often violent weather that afflicts this region of the country, affirm that it is likely only a matter of time before Wilkinson's trainees will get a chance to test their new knowledge.  


For more information on the NWS or on spotter training, visit