What is SkyWarn?

The SKYWARN program is a partnership between the National Weather Service (NWS) and the community. It was formed in the early 1970’s after major tornado outbreaks ravaged many areas, with its chief aim being to reduce the threat to our communities from severe storms.

The key element of the program is a network of volunteer non-NWS personnel (“storm spotters”) who relay reports of severe weather to the community and NWS. Even with today’s new technology at our disposal, only one instrument can detect severe weather phenomena directly with absolute certainty — the human eye.

A large network of spotters can be of great benefit to the NWS warning program. The basis for, and/or verification of, many severe weather warnings, issued by the NWS, may be directly attributed to SKYWARN storm spotters. Their reports are considered highly credible by NWS personnel, and are regarded highly. They assist the NWS in performing our top mission, which is to prepare and distribute warnings and forecasts of impending severe weather. SKYWARN storm spotters help to provide the citizens of their community with potentially left-saving information. We realize that members of this elite group are volunteering their time and effort to provide this invaluable service. Their efforts are greatly appreciated.

Many NWS storm spotters are also Amateur Radio operators. This dual role can be helpful during a major storm such as hurricanes, tornados, and severe storms when phone and power lines are down. Amateur Radio operators, manning  strategic sites around the community, may become the primary means of communications.

While there are no specific requirements, it is preferred that SKYWARN volunteers are reachable in the event something suspicious is happening in the skies in their area. It must also be stressed that we are looking for reliable and objective reports. When wind speed or hail size is exaggerated, for example, it can do more harm than good.

Storm spotting classes are conducted yearly by the NWS in La Crosse, WI. It is encouraged that those wishing to become storm spotters to attend a class near your community.

Handling Information

In ham radio emergency communications, we often are asked to receive and send information that is crucial to disaster cleanup and rescue operations. Here is one rule to live by above all others: WRITE IT DOWN! If you aren’t sure of what was said, ask them to repeat it or read it back to them and request verification.

If you DO NOT WRITE IT DOWN, you may get confused and report incorrect information. Worse yet, what happens when your relief shows up and you leave that post? If the information is not written down, you may forget to pass it along at all!

People depend on us for ACCURATE INFORMATION; the key to that accuracy is a written record. So, when you are activated as a STORM SPOTTER, always take a notebook and writing tool with you.

Severe Weather Spotter Training

Scheduling for the current storm spotter training season is on going or complete.  Spotter training will be held in March or April, Monday through Thursday nights in various communities around the region.

NWS La Crosse Skywarn Schedule

For the Latest NWS La Crosse Skywarn Storm Spotter Class Schedule Click here

There are several on-line storm spotter training modules and reference materials available:

Do you have questions about SKYWARN or becoming a spotter? Click here for the NWS SKYWARN FAQ page. Most sessions are open to the general public with no need to pre-register.  All training is free and usually lasts around 2 hours.

Main NWS La Crosse contact for spotter training is Todd Shea, Meteorologist in Charge.

Surrounding NWS Forecast Office Spotter Schedules:

Outline for most storm spotter training classes

 First Half

  • Introduction to Storm Spotting
  • Information about NWS La Crosse
  • The Spotting Process
  • Sources of weather information
  • NWS Information / Outlooks
  • Spotter deployment
  • Spotting locations
  • Stages of the thunderstorm (updraft/downdrafts)
  • Thunderstorm Hazards (Flooding, Lightning, Hail)
  • Downbursts
  • Thunderstorm Wind

Second Half

  • Squall Lines / Shelf Clouds (updated!)
  • Supercells
  • Elements of the Supercell
  • Wall Clouds
  • Tornado definitions and examples
  • Funnel clouds
  • Challenges to spotters
  • Communication
  • Spotter reporting procedures/guidelines
  • Spotter safety
  • Information on local reporting guidelines

In previous years, the annual Storm Spotting classes sponsored by the La Crosse NWS were well attended. Dozens of Richland County agencies and and residents from all walks of life, as well as those from surrounding counties, signed up for the course which was taught by Todd Shea of the La Crosse NWS station. Those who completed the two-hour class were given cards which identify them as certified Skywarn weather spotters. They will now be able to report weather occurrences they observe either using an online system, or by phone.

As for the Pine Valley Repeater ARES/RACES Storm Spotters, they report directly to the EOC via their HT’s or mobile radios. Some of the spotters were taking the class for the first time. One resident who lives north of Richland Center, said that he came because of an interest in the weather. Another said, “We live out in the western part of the county, at one of the highest points. Most hazardous weather comes into the county from the west so reports from my home would be of great interest to those hearing them. Not only that, but I have always been interested in clouds.”

Shae used a PowerPoint presentation to teach the features of clouds, and what those features mean about imminent weather. Video clips of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms were used to demonstrate the weather happenings observers can watch for. Shae also stressed the importance of reporting hail, wind damage and the appearance of cloud formations, which can be an alert to a coming tornado. The difference between funnel clouds which do not touch the ground and tornadoes was one lesson he emphasized. “Accurate identification of funnel clouds is a key to accurate reporting,” he said.

Some in attendance have been to the class before, and said there were new things explained from past years. It is important to note the updates.

The Pine Valley Repeater ARES/RACES Storm Spotters have worked with Emergency Management because they know the importance of the reports they make to a weather emergency when phone lines are down.

One point is always stressed: REPORT WHAT YOU SEE — ACCURATELY!

If you would like to become a Richland County SKYWARN storm spotter, please contact Chris Kanable, KC9CMD, Richland County Emergency Coordinator at (608)647-4981 (h) (Evenings), or (608)475-0320 (c). You may also contact Chris at: kc9cmd@arrl. net

When going Mobile

When you go mobile and being on the road, even on a sunny day with no storms, driving a vehicle on a public roadway can be dangerous. When you add STORMS – with heavy rain, gusty winds, hail, blowing dust, etc. – the danger increases dramatically. To stay safe as a mobile spotter, keep these things in mind:

  • If you can, try to spot with a partner – This allows the driver to focus on the road while the passenger watches the sky. This also provides an extra set of eyes to keep an eye on rapidly changing situations.
  • Watch for water on the road – Hydroplaning is a serious threat for drivers, and it doesn’t take much rain to cause roads to become slick and hazardous.
  • Obey traffic laws – Speeding, parking too close to the edge of the road and making sudden turns and stops on unfamiliar roads all spell trouble.
  • Watch out for the “other guy” – Severe storms often draw a crowd of “gawkers”, from casual observers to organized groups of storm spotters. Be extra careful when stopping to view a storm, making sure to pull completely off roadways and keeping an eye out for traffic, even in places where you would never expect to see traffic.
  • Make sure your vehicle is ready for action – A well-maintained vehicle with a full tank of gas is crucial for a mobile spotter’s safety and success.


All thunderstorms produce lightning, and people are killed and injured each year by lightning. Storm spotters may put themselves as risk from lightning by being in the open, being on a hill or high spot (for better visibility, parking or standing next to metal fences or underneath power lines, standing close to camera tripods or using radio equipment attached to an antenna).

Remember that lightning typically provides no warning – the first strike that you see may be the last. Follow these basic lightning safety guidelines:

  • Avoid being the tallest object, and stay away from other tall objects (like trees, power pole/lines).
  • Don’t stand close to fences or power poles/lines. Even though you may not be in an area of frequent lightning, lightning can travel a considerable distance along these pathways.
  • As mentioned before, you should not wait for some type of warning (hair standing on end, sounds on AM or other radio equipment, etc.) before taking shelter from lightning – the first strike from a storm could be the one that gets you. Treat lightning with respect and stay in a protected area when lightning is in the area. Stay in your car!
  • CPR training is an excellent idea for all mobile storm spotters. Remember that a person struck by lightning carries no residual charge and CPR could save a life.

The Storm

If a mobile storm spotter is well trained, experienced and knowledgeable about severe storm structure and behavior, they can usually avoid becoming a victim of the storm itself. However, the environment in and near a severe storm can change dramatically in a short period of time, and these changes can catch you by surprise. These basic tips can help you stay safe:

  • Avoid the most intense areas of storms – This seems obvious, but each year spotters, for one reason or another, make decisions that place them in the core of a dangerous storm. Storm chasers — not  the same as storm spotters — call this “core punching” and it’s a very dangerous practice for a number of reasons. First, you may drive into very large hail, which can damage your vehicle and injure you. Second, you could drive right into the path of a tornado with very little time to react. And finally, the core of the storm is a dangerous place with low visibilities, heavy rain, and violent winds.
  • Keep your head on a swivel — When observing a storm, it is easy to lose focus and become fixated on some feature you’re watching. You should maintain awareness of what’s going on all around you and always mindful of a surprise event. This points out the important of spotting with a partner, who can be an extra set of eyes and ears to help you stay safe.
  • ALWAYS have an escape route in mind — Mobile spotters should always plan an emergency escape route that will take them out of harm’s way should the storm change direction or otherwise threaten them. Determining that escape routes require a great deal of knowledge about the storm’s movement and behavior. A detailed set of current maps of your spotting area is a critical part of a mobile spotter’s go-bag, but be mindful of the fact that roads sometimes change before maps do, and they may not reflect reality in every case.
  • NEVER drive into areas where water covers the road — This is especially true when you cannot be certain how deep the water is. Many people die each year by driving into flooded areas and drowning in their vehicles. Find another safer route.
  • Keep your engine running — Especially when operating close to a severe storm You do not want to find out about a vehicle problem as a violent storm bears down on you.
  • Be extra cautious at night — Obviously, it is more dangerous to deal with something you cannot clearly see. Storms at night present special problems for spotters and you should be extremely cautious when observing storms after dark.

FINALLY — If you don’t have much experience in storm spotting, start by teaming up with someone who does! 

Observing Weather Radar

When interpreting weather radar, you might see something like this: dBZ. What does this mean? This is used for reflectivity in meteorology. dBZ is related to the number of drops of water per unit volume and the 6th power of their diameter. It can also be related to rainfall rate. You will especially see this in the charts on the Weather Underground radar and the legend found on the La Crosse NWS radar.

In the table below, a guideline on the interpretation of dBZ factors are given. Hope this helps:

10 ~0.2 Significant but mostly non-precipitating clouds.
20 ~1 Drizzle, very light rain.
30 ~3 Light rain.
40 ~10 Moderate rain, showers.
50 ~50 Heavy rain, thundershowers, some hail possible.
60 ~60 Extremely heavy rain, severe thunderstorms, hail likely

Winter Weather Information

Winter storms can be extremely hazardous and you can find our much more on winter weather preparedness here.

Wind Chill Chart

We often hear the term “wind chill” when listening to weather reports. Here is an interesting chart that you can use to determine wind chill temperatures.

A Weather Radio an inexpensive safety tool

A weather radio can make the difference between a close call and a tragedy in a severe weather event. Weather radios are one of the most important weapons in your weather safety arsenal. They get you warnings and alerts directly from the National Weather Service as fast as possible. Since they run on batteries your weather radio will operate when your electricity does not. Many dangerous storms that cause casualties occur at night. This is because people often do not get the warnings while they are sleeping.

A weather radio will solve this by awakening you presumably before the dangerous storm strikes. If you travel it may be difficult to find a radio station that gives up to date weather alerts, this is solved with a weather radio in your car. The importance of weather safety while enjoying outdoor activities such as camping can not be stressed enough. Timely alerts are important in all types of weather events including floods, snowstorms and thunderstorms.

PVR would like to remind everyone about the importance of having a weather radio when Spring comes rushing in with its high winds. If you aren’t familiar with them, modern weather radios are able to silently monitor your local transmitter and will only speak up when an alert has been issued for your county.

Many PVR members have the weather radio, shown below, as part of their radio equipment inventory in their homes. Weather radios range in price from $30.00 on up. The Midland radio has a price of $30-$35.


A link to Midland Radios can be found here .

A link to other Midland Radios can be found here .

A link to Weather Radio Information here .

If you do purchase one of these weather radios, we are including a link to the county codes that may be programmed. The link is: County Codes

The codes are under the heading SAME#. See the Programming Manual that comes with the radio.

Converting KNOTS & MPH

If you wish, you may use this table to convert KNOTS to MPH mathematically.

1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour = 6076 feet per hour = 1.15078 mph
1 mph = 1 mile per hour = 5280 feet per hour = 0.86898 knots per hour

For instance. Suppose your anemometer, calibrated in KNOTS, shows wind speed at 10 knots. Simply multiply 10 by l.l5 = 11.5 mph. To verify, try this with the above chart.

If you want to convert a wind speed of 20 mph to knots. Multiply 20 by 0.86. You get 17.2 knots. Check it with the chart. Pretty close, right?

Some Good Weather Links