Guest Blog: A Beginner’s Guide to Skywarn Severe Weather Spotting (Tornado Quest)

This is the first guest article by renowned storm chaser and voice in the storm chasing community, Jeff Richardson.  Jeff is the founder of Tornado Quest, a long-time Kestrel user, and has been a weather hobbyist for nearly 40 years.

In spite of the winter weather that’s front and center across North America, National Weather Service offices are scheduling Skywarn storm spotter training classes across the United States. In fact, many of these classes have already taken place. Many folks with an interest in the outdoors or nature also have an interest in weather with a particular fascination with severe storms. While taking to the road when storms develop may seem to be the easiest way to catch a glimpse of a spectacular thunderstorm, there are some important steps the aspiring storm spotter/chaser needs to be aware of. After three decades of storm chasing and conversations with countless other chasers, spotters, emergency management officials, and research meteorologists, I’d like to share some helpful information that I hope will be of benefit to you.

Get to Class
For the beginner, attending a Skywarn spotting class from the National Weather Service is imperative for getting the basics of severe weather information. The meteorologists will present to you the basics of storm structure, severe weather forecasting, communications between the spotter in the field and the weather service office, and spotter safety. It’s also highly recommended that if you’re not experienced with the severe weather environment, spend a season or two riding along with an experienced spotter partner. This will give you the benefit of learning from their experience while observing first-hand how storms behave and avoiding any potential hazards.

With Great Power...
Keep in mind that becoming a Skywarn spotter involves a serious commitment to public safety in your community. A keen awareness of the responsibilities of the spotter is of upmost importance. It’s not unusual for meteorologists at your local National Weather Service to need a real-time verification of what they’re seeing on radar or public reports of severe weather that they cannot verify. You will have an important role to play as the “eyes and ears” in the field who could report valuable lifesaving information.

Risky Business
During your Skywarn spotter training, you’ll be educated as to the functions of the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, OK and the products they issue. Watching the forecasts issued on the SPC website is a great way to keep tabs on a day when spotter activation may be necessary. Once a severe weather forecast is refined, a Slight, Moderate, or High risk will be issued. Keep in mind that the type of risk issued has more to do with real coverage and the chances of experiencing all modes of severe weather than intensity of storms or the possibility of seeing a tornado. I can recall several Moderate risk days were the probabilities of tornadoes was less than 10% but, because of certain atmospheric parameters, there was a 45% to 50% risk of damaging straight line winds from a squall line scenario.

Eyes on the Road
I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of being aware of the greatest danger to the storm spotter which is…driving on the highways. Many of you are well aware of every day road hazards and every one of these applies to the storm spotter. Add to that poor visibility, rain slick roads that are often narrow or poorly maintained, the temptation to multi-task when driving, and you’ve got quite a safety challenge on your hands. If you’re a part of a spotter network and are activated for severe weather operations, be sure you are well rested, your vehicle is in tip top shape, and you’re familiar with the road networks and topography of the area you will be observing from. It all goes back to our first driver’s education classes where they emphasized the rules of defensive driving.

Stay Sharp
When you’re finally in the field and storms begin to form, situational awareness is extremely important. The storms you saw in your Skywarn training may not look like the storms you’re seeing in person. Training materials, while excellent, can’t offer the complete array of storm structure and behavior that you may encounter. Field observations with an experienced spotter partner is the best way to stay out of trouble. Another important factor to be aware of is the severe storm environment quite unlike the weather most of us encounter every day. Some of these storms can become unbelievably violent so quickly that you may not have time to react rationally and reach a place of safety. Blinding rain along with hurricane force winds, varied flying debris, and wind-driven hail to the size of baseballs will clean your clock…all without a tornado in sight. Again, your safety and situational awareness is of the upmost importance.

Get Equipped
Finally, a quick note on equipment. Ten or fifteen years ago, my minivan chase vehicle was bristling with antennas, loaded with camera equipment, and more bells and whistles than I care to remember. This is where I realized that most of what I packed was never used and less became more. This is where Kestrel meters excel as a tool for gathering weather data. In the palm of my hand I have a meter than can record wind speeds on the leading edge of a powerful supercell thunderstorm, help me locate the approximate position of the dryline (where storms often form), and keep tabs on barometric pressure, temperature, even compass headings. Expensive equipment mounted on racks located on the roof of many vehicles is often prone to damage by hail, dust, flying debris, and even theft. A Kestrel meter is easy to maintain, handy, and can be kept securely in your pocket. I’ve used them for almost fifteen years and can’t recommend them highly enough.      

It’s my hope that the tips I’ve shared with you have been helpful and will be useful for those interested in becoming a severe weather spotter. The best information and training can be obtained from your local National Weather Service Skywarn training classes. For further information, visit to find a spotter training class close to you. Gain the proper knowledge and you can play an important part in public safety for your community. Good luck and stay safe! 


About Jeff Richardson:

Jeff Richardson is a storm chaser and weather hobbyist based in Tulsa, OK. He’s studied weather as a hobby for almost 40 years and has been a storm chaser and Skywarn spotter since 1982. He formed Tornado Quest in March, 1998 to share weather information online with other people who have mutual interests in earth science, meteorology, and climatology. Jeff’s also an advocate for citizen science and the valuable contributions that laypersons can bring to professional scientific research.  He currently has both a Kestrel 4000 and Kestrel 3000 for the field.  You can follow and talk with Jeff on Twitter @TornadoQuest.

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