Monitoring Severe Weather Outbreaks Online

Fair warning; this is a VERY lengthy post. However, the information within this post is EXTREMELY important, especially for those who live in areas that are prone to severe weather. I do ask you to read through this post, as it breaks down the steps taken to monitor severe weather; using today’s (11/17/13) severe weather outbreak as an example. Additionally, some of the links may change following today’s event (they are “live” pages) – however, archived information can be pulled from the links by entering the date for Nov. 17, 2013.

First of all, in order for chasers and spotters to be activated by National Weather Service officials, there must be a considerable chance of severe weather. Many spotters and chasers analyze model imagery for elevated chances of severe weather. When the models begin to come into agreement, the potential of an event arises and usually, the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issues a statement on the threat. These statements can be found on the SPC’s Convective Outlook, which are detailed for days 1 through 3, and threat areas mentioned for days 4 through 8. At the bottom of each image is a synopsis and analysis of the threat (although with the extensive meteorological jargon, it may be hard to understand for some). Today’s Convective Weather Outlook is a prime example of what the product looks like for an outbreak.

With today’s event, many NWS offices have activated their storm spotter networks. The individual NWS offices release statements, commonly in their Hazardous Weather Outlooks, that have a statement regarding spotter information. For an example, here is the Hazardous Weather Outlook for today’s event from the NWS office of Lincoln, IL. Additionally, the SPC will issue Public Severe Weather Outlooks (PWO) which is aimed at state and local emergency managers, along with spotters, chasers, and the general public. The information within a PWO is explained in terms that are easier to comprehend compared to the convective outlook discussions, and also provides a statement of precautions for the public to follow. I suggest to take the time to compare today’s PWO with the discussion of the convective outlook hyperlinked in the prior paragraph; can you tell the difference? Additionally, Severe Weather Specialist Dr. Greg Forbes of The Weather Chanel updates his Tor:Con for events such as these, with today’s highest Tor:Con value as a 9 for central and eastern Illinois and Indiana.

Now for the day of the potential severe weather outbreak, Mesoscale Discussions (MDs or MSDs) are issued by the SPC regarding the threat and potential for watch issuance. A national list of MSDs can be found on a branch of the SPC’s website. To view the MSD, simply click one of the red areas or one of the items on the list below. For an example of a MSD, here is MSD #2011 that was issued for much of IN, central/lower MI, and northwestern OH. Within the MSD discussion, the threat is listed and described (meteorological jargon, yet again), along with the probability of watch issuance and sometimes, even the specific type of watch (which for #2011, was 95% for a tornado watch).

Continuing on from Mesoscale discussions are the watches that are often issued shortly after the issuance of a MSD. Watches mean that conditions are favorable for the occurrence of a specific weather event. For this example, I want to focus on the tornado watches that have already been issued for today’s event. Additionally, I can take you a step further by introducing you to a rare form of a watch; a PDS. First, all active convective watches can be found on another branch of the SPC’s website. First example is of a regular tornado watch, TW #563; along with an evaluation of the threat, there are many other sections of information along with safety precautions within the watch page. I also suggest taking the time to flip through the different tabs at the top of the watch image to familiarize with the different information.

Now, for the introduction to the PDS watch. A PDS watch is issued when the threat is extremely high for significant severe weather and/or tornadic activity. PDS stands for Potentially Dangerous Situation, and although it can be issued as a severe thunderstorm watch (usually for a high probability of damaging winds or extremely large hail), it is most commonly seen as a tornado watch. For this example, I will use PDS TW #561 (which was the resulting watch issuance of MSD #2011, linked above). The information within the watch is similar to that of the normal tornado watch. However, there is a considerable difference regarding the risk evaluations.

Following the development of a thunderstorm, there is the potential for a warning to be issued. Warnings mean that the event is imminent or already occurring. Although you can find a list of warnings on a branch of SPC’s page, I prefer the self-updating warning page from the College of DuPage’s Meteorology department. Within the warning texts are reports, radar information, hazard information, location of threat, path of threat, and precautions for the public to follow. Something to always remember is to heed all warnings issued by your local NWS office!

The last topic I wish to touch is storm reports. Storm reports are very important when it comes to producing new warnings or analyzing an event. Even though most storm reports are relayed by emergency managers, state/county officials, and trained storm spotters and chasers, the public is also encouraged to make reports to their local NWS offices. The SPC keeps a current list of storm reports, which are separated into unfiltered and filtered categories. Often times, there is a statement within warning text on how to make a report to your local NWS office. First of all, here are the guidelines, events, and criterion for making a report. Additionally, if there is no information regarding how to make a report, different methods and instructions for making a report can be found here.

Radar Review: SimuAWIPS

As a weather enthusiast, trained Skywarn storm spotter, and a meteorology student, I need a radar system to satisfy my needs of monitoring the weather. For this review, I would like to focus on the SimuAWIPS meteorological workstation. SimuAWIPS, known as “Simmy” in my household, is one of the best radar systems I’ve come across. SimuAWIPS is a FREE, donation-run, meteorological workstation that satisfies the basic needs of a radar system. I’ll go into further detail on the many tools that are within SimuAWIPS, including my personal favorites, later on in this post.

I came across SimuAWIPS in January of 2012 while searching for a decent radar system. I had been using Intellicast, but due to that system’s constant bugs while going through updates, I needed something more reliable. I first found the Gibson Ridge (GR) radar software, but I knew I couldn’t afford to drop $80-$250 on radar software. After spending a bit of time practically drooling over GR2Analyst, I pressed on in my search. Not long afterwards, I came across SimuAWIPS, and our geek-relationship was born.

SimuAWIPS requires users to make an account, however, this is for personalization purposes only (once again, SimuAWIPS is funded through donations). At first, all the settings and options can be very overwhelming, and it’s not the most user-friendly to brand new users. Once you get past all the setup and basic personalization for your closest weather station and get some time to play with the settings, it will become much easier to use. I’ve had my SimuAWIPS account since January 11th, 2012; even though I’m still a fairly new user, I’ve played around enough to know most of the workings of the system. If you have any questions regarding the setup or settings of your account, leave a comment regarding your question (please be specific, I cannot read minds) and I’ll try to help you out as soon as possible!

SimuAWIPS is Nexrad-radar fed and has layers that include watches, warnings, mesoscale discussions, base velocity, base reflectivity (main radar), satellite (visible, infrared, and water vapor), models, analysis, observations, dew points, frontal positions, convective outlooks, and more. Loops can be set from a 1hr to 24hr frame (although the 3hr and 1hr loops are much easier to load). Multiple radars and layers can be added on easily-accessible tabs, and local radars specific to your area can be added to a quick drop-down list. However, one of my favorite features is the personalized warning system, which can be set to receive specific products from chosen NWS offices. Whenever a product is issued, an alarm is set off, making SimuAWIPS your personal weather radio.

Now that you’ve heard all about the amazing features SimuAWIPS has to offer, I’ll do a quick walk-through of setting up your own account. Once you’ve arrived at the SimuAWIPS website, begin by clicking on the “Register” button on the toolbar of the page. This will direct you to another page that asks you to create a unique user name, and fill out a form that asks for your name, valid email address, a password for the account, and a secret question with an answer in the event you forget your login information. Fill out the spam verification field at the bottom of this page, then click “Next” to continue. Afterwards, you will be sent an email to activate the account (do NOT give an old email address for this reason and make sure to check your spam filters). You may be asked to select a default NWS office (choose the office that serves your area) or a zip code. This will customize the console to your local NWS office. You can add more NWS offices (I recommend your surrounding NWS offices) by going into the user options menu under the “Offices” and “Radar” tabs. In that same menu, you can choose specific products you wish to receive, set a default panel layout, set a default region and map background (I prefer black), set default loop settings, and choose alarm settings.

Yes, it may be very confusing at first, but if you play around on your console, you will learn how to use SimuAWIPS in ways that are helpful to you. As stated earlier, if you have any questions regarding SimuAWIPS, please leave a comment (be specific about the question) below this post. If you have any suggestions for other online weather sites you want me to review, you can also leave those in the comments section. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this post and take the time to explore SimuAWIPS!