A winter storm warning has been issued for the area.
The clouds are rolling in, dark and heavy. The temperature continues to drop, and the first flakes of what promises to be a huge amount of snow deposited throughout the area starts to fall.
What do you do?
If you are a winter skywarn spotter, you’re probably getting out a special ruler, with a gage marked off in tenths of an inch, in preparation of reporting snow depth and other vital information to the National Weather Service in Binghamton, N.Y.
To become a certified winter skywarn spotter is easy, requiring only a few hours of instruction. David J. Nicosia, a Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the NWS out of Binghamton, provided a class to about 20 participants on Thursday at the Wyoming County Emergency Management Agency.
Nicosia explained that the primary concern of the NWS is the safety and security of U.S. citizens. Many private entities who provide regular weather reports have a tendency to ‘hype’ their information in an attempt to attract viewers. By contrast, the NWS attempts to provide as accurate information via its forecasts as possible.
“It’s not our joy to hype things up,” he explained.
The importance of skywarn spotters, Nicosia continued, is they provide eyewitness information at ground level concerning various weather conditions. Because different locations - such as valleys compared to hills - can produce different weather situations - such as snow vs. rain - the role of the spotter can be vitally important in the information they pass on to the NWS.
Nicosia cited an example, in which spotters reported four inches of snow falling on an area, when the forecast called for rain.
“What changed the forecast was the temperature was off by one degree,” he said. “That’s all it takes.”
There is so much variation in the elevation throughout Northeast Pennsylvania and Southern New York, weather conditions can change dramatically within just a few miles. Amateur radio operators are often particularly useful in providing information cellular telephones have a tendency to become overloaded during emergencies. Other sources used to report information include the Internet, as well as regular land-line telephones.
Although the NWS employes extremely advanced technological equipment in its efforts to obtain and provide information about weather conditions, there are still limits to such procedures. Radar, for example, is often limited by mountains and other terrain.
“Spotters help fill in a lot of gaps,” Nicosia explained.
One of the most dangerous weather conditions, he said, is freezing rain. This occurs when the temperatures is around 34 degrees and a considerable amount of precipitation falls. Water collects on the road and other surfaces, making for very hazardous traveling conditions.
Ice storms are also bad news, Nicosia continued, because the ice freezing on utility lines, causing power failures and other outages. The result is a ‘cascading effect’ with ambulances and other emergency vehicles unable to get through due to blocked roads and other hazards.
One of the most important functions a spotter can perform for the NWS is to measure the amount of snow that is falling in the area over a particular time period. On average, Nicosia said, it is best to record the depth every 3 hours during a snow fall. Rulers, measuring tape, and yardsticks can be used, and the amount of snow should be recorded to within a 10th on an inch. Nicosia advised that people not measure too close to buildings, because the heat from the structures have tendency to melt the snow. Getting too close to trees is also not recommended, because the information can be faulty.
The best device used to measure snow accumulations is a snowboard, Nicosia explained. It is usually made of plywood, two feet by two feet, painted white, with flags, reflectors or sticks attracted to make it easy to find. The spotter simply sticks a measuring device in the new snow, records the depth, and reports the information to the NWS.
Reporting the information to the National Weather Service can be done in a variety ways. Nicosia provided the participants with an toll free number used by the NWS to exclusively take calls from spotters, along with the procedures they should use when phoning in snow reports.
Other reporting methods include email, social media such as facebook and twitter, as well as going online to the NWS website at www.weather.gov.