You Can Help Scientists Improve Weather Warnings Right From Your Living Room

The United States experiences thousands of severe thunderstorms every year. Whether it’s a tree limb falling in your yard or softball size hail pounding a town on the Plains, every occurrence of severe weather in those storms is a data point that can help meteorologists better predict dangerous storms in the future. One of the best ways everyday folks can contribute to improved warnings and improved forecasts is to report this severe weather to the National Weather Service (NWS). 

Eyewitness accounts are the backbone of severe weather warnings in the United States. Radar imagery gives us a good idea of what’s going on inside a thunderstorm, but meteorologists can’t know for sure what’s reaching the ground unless someone caught under the storm reports back. 

The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) is the agency tasked with collecting severe weather reports for wind damage, measured thunderstorm wind gusts of 58+ MPH, hail the size of quarters or larger, and suspected tornadoes. Most reports are sent directly to local National Weather Service offices or phoned into emergency services, but regardless of where they’re sent and by whom, all of the records are collected and maintained by the SPC.

Why go through the trouble of reporting something so trivial as a snapped tree limb? These storm reports are more than a statistic to satisfy our curiosity. They have real-world implications that can both help people in the moment and help meteorologists improve their products and training to bring us better forecasts and warnings in the future.

Reporting wind damage or large hail to the NWS can have an immediate benefit for your neighbors. If gusty winds in a thunderstorm knock down a sturdy tree in your yard, a quick storm report can let forecasters know that the thunderstorm over you is producing severe wind gusts. That information can help them issue warnings for folks downstream so they have time to prepare for what’s on the way.

These reports are good for more than just current information. Knowing where wind damage, large hail, and tornadoes occurred can also improve the quality and accuracy of forecasts and warnings down the line.

Meteorologists constantly audit their own performance to improve their knowledge and techniques. Studying successes and mistakes helps forecasters grow on the job, making us all safer with each passing weather event.

Storm reports are a critical part of this verification process. The only way a forecaster will know if their severe thunderstorm warning verified is by receiving a report of high winds or large hail from beneath the thunderstorm in question.

Identifying the radar signatures and environmental conditions that lead to strong winds, large hail, and tornadoes is important to developing better and more accurate forecasts. An increase in severe weather reports will help forecasters get an idea of which storms weren’t severe, too, and they can apply that knowledge to cut down on the false alarm rate.

The quickest way to report severe weather to your local NWS office is to send a message that includes your exact location, a picture (if possible), and a short description of what happened. Most offices have social media pages, email addresses, and telephone numbers that allow you to submit storm reports.

A nifty app called mPing is a great tool for reporting severe weather. Not only can you use the app to send in severe reports, but you can use it to report all instances of precipitation—from downpours to flurries—with the goal of developing better forecasts and radar products.

If you spot damage that’s an immediate threat to the safety of those nearby—a tree that’s fallen across a road or on a home, for instance—report it to emergency services so they can both respond to the scene and report it to the NWS themselves.

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