On March 6, 2017, the earliest tornado in Minnesota’s history struck the state. With climate change threatening to extend the tornado season, the need for trained volunteer storm spotters to keep the storm warning system accurate is greater than ever before. People who know the basics of storms and clouds and can tell the difference between scary clouds and a tornado are crucial to the storm-warning system.
A few weeks ago, I attended a training session at Ridgedale Library hosted by the Twin City FM Club for Metro Skywarn, a network of volunteer storm spotters in the Twin Cities and nearby areas who coordinate over HAM radio and communicate with the local National Weather Service office in Chanhassen. This system of volunteers helps the National Weather Service fill in the gaps that the radar cannot see to get a more detailed picture of the weather to pass on to news services. They use HAM radio for the same reason people keep weather radios in their home: because radio is a reliable form of communication even when the Internet and phone lines stop working, a frequent occurrence during a storm. Last month’s training consisted of a general overview of weather phenomena, such as the characteristics of updrafts and downdrafts, with a specific focus on tornadoes: what they are, what they aren’t, and what causes them. The second part of the training consisted of HAM radio protocol for reporting weather events.
You do not need to be a HAM radio operator in order to be a storm spotter, and everyone HAM or not is encouraged to participate. However, in order to get the most out of Metro Skywarn training, one should consider becoming a HAM radio operator—which involves paying a $15 fee and passing an exam that should not intimidate you at all. It’s actually very neat! To study for the exam, I simply checked out the ARRL Technician Exam guide from the local library, read it from cover to cover, and then used the free Ham Test Prep app. If you’re interested in taking the exam but don’t self-study well, there are classes available. You need Technician privileges to help, but since you can take all three levels of the exam at the same time for the same fee, it might be a good idea to study and take the General and Extra Class exams. I took the exam administered by the St. Paul Radio Club.
Do be warned: the FCC will publicly post your address on the Internet, connected to your name, in a public searchable database—useful for contests, but ill advised if you have privacy and safety concerns. On the bright side, you can probably stalk your favorite astronaut. (If you know a thing or two about the law and care about people with privacy concerns being able to participate in the wonderful STEM community around HAM radio, you should submit a petition for rulemaking on this matter. People shouldn’t have to choose between cyber security and awesome radios.) If you have no plans to become a HAM operator, there are other ways to report to the system, like this web form.
Once you are an operator, it’s it’s time to put your weather-geek hat on and go to a Metro Skywarn training! Volunteers are required to attend training every two years to keep storm spotting with Skywarn so that you keep an up-to-date knowledge of storms. There is a list of classes available here. There are classes in most places, and there are many classes to choose from. The best part is that they’re free! (Though they do sell rad stickers at their classes.) After that, you can watch the weather and do your part to help society.