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Storm Chasing and Spotting

I attained my storm spotter certification from the National Weather Service in the spring of 2007. Since then I've taken part in 9 different severe weather nets, and reported a grand total of 0 severe weather situations (I guess I'm either really lucky or really unlucky depending on your point of view).

The most common question I get is "What is the difference between a storm spotter and a storm chaser?" A storm chaser is someone who purposefully puts them selves on or along side the path of severe weather systems for the purposes of getting research data, filming or photographing severe weather situations or just for the thrill of it. A storm spotter is a person who monitors their local weather during times of possible severe weather and reports severe weather situations directly to the National Weather Service via a pre-arranged communications method (usually HAM radio).

There are two important distinctions between storm spotters and storm chasers.
  1. Storm chasers are out to "catch" storms for their own reasons, where as storm spotters are there specifically to provide a community service. A storm chaser may very well be a researcher that is working to help increase our understandings of storms and to improve early warning systems. As noble as that is, it doesn't help the people who are in the way of the tornado he is chasing. A spotter's sole responsibility is to get a warning out as fast as possible when a severe weather situation is present.

  2. Training:   Storm spotters all go through a training class specifically oriented around identifying severe weather situations. Storm chasers range in training from compete armatures with no training to speak of to PHD meteorologists. As a result the NWS takes reports from spotters seriously, but treats reports from chasers with skepticism since there is no way to know if they know what they are talking about and since most chasers today are armatures out for the thrill of seeing a tornado. I remember one story of a chaser who was so excited to see his first tornado that he called it in before really verifying it. It turned out to be a column of smoke going up to the clouds from a burning leaf pile.
As important as weather spotting is, I also hope to do chasing some day. With kids in the house it's a bit difficult as I could never justify bringing a child with me on a chase. But in the future it's something I hope I'm able to do.