Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An Evening with SkyWarn and the Capital Weather Gang

The Washington Post Capital Weather Gang host a SkyWarn Training session
Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist.org

Tonight I had the rare opportunity to meet over 250 citizen scientists and talk about our shared love of Washington DC weather and meteorology. The occasion was sponsored by the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang as a chance for their blog's "Capital Weather Watchers" to chat with the newspaper's weather team in person and meet their fellow readers too.   As an added bonus we also received Spotter training from the Federal governments Skywarn program.  This was a very interesting evening with a large audience of energized citizen scientists, so I'm publishing Thursday's post early so I can share the excitement with you too.

I've previously written about the program in my SkyWarn blog post but never had a chance to attend a training.  Until now.  All I can say is that it is highly informative, easy to understand, and quite exciting to watch.  Knowing that I am now a person qualified to "spot" for the weather service and make the reports of hail or flooding heard on the news is a very odd experirnce.  Even odder is knowing that weather service will call ME for updates when severe weather is in the area is an odd feeling.  But I feel I now have a much better understanding of what I'm looking for.

Chris Strong of NOAA's National Weather Service delivered the main training session.  After quickly describing the role of spotters and organizational structure at the weather service, he dove into the basics of spotting and science of meteorology.  We learned the proper way to measure hail (measure the largest hailstone you can find along the longest axis, and describe it in terms of fixed-size objects, not marbles).  He also went into great detail about how tornadoes form and the various thunderstorm phenomena spotters are asked to report on.  We also learned about the danger of lightning that kills men (like me!) three times more often than women, and the danger of downdrafts, including dramatic footage of a backyard suddenly ripped apart during a storm.  In fact there were many evocative videos included in his slides, such as a funnel cloud over Andrews Air Force Base and a growing flash flood that starts as a trickle and ends up washing away cars in a nearby parking lot.  They really are a sight to behold and if you have the time I highly recommend viewing it yourself here.

The Capital Weather Gang also spent some time in the spotlight.  They talked about their history and continuing efforts to keep the local community of weather watchers engaged in the sight.  I can attest first-hand that it's a highly energetic and very informed community that interacts with the site, and this energy comes through in everything they write.  It's also a great place to learn about the weather...every forecast is described in great detail with all the factors leading it it, so not only can you learn about the weekend's coming snowstorm, but you also get a detailed analysis of the moisture flows and computer models that lead to the forecast.  They call themselves weather enthusiasts, but they are true citizen scientists in my book.

Finally, what intrigued me most were the wide variety of people in the audience.  We had young and old, white and black, and just slightly more men (60%) than women.  All were quite interesting and fun to talk to.  So nothing like the stereotypes many people have about weather watchers or citizen scientists.  These are people just like you and me with an interest in the world around them and an intellectual passion to understand it further.  And they couldn't be nicer.

Finally, on a personal note, I went in to this evening not knowing a single person of the over 250 attending.  But I sat down and quickly entered into a lovely conversation with everyone at my table.  Nobody knew each other, or at least we initially thought.  But after a brief discussion we discovered that I had sat next to a co-worker I've spoken with many times but never met in person, and also met the husband of another woman I've worked with in the past.  Such a small world!  So it turns out citizen scientists really are just the people next door.  Just in this case it was the office next door.

UPDATE:  Check out the Capital Weather Gang's own synopsis of the event here.  I recommend clicking over to look; not only do they feature a number of different perspectives on the event, but they featured OpenScientist quite prominently!