Storm Chasing vs Skywarn Storm Spotting: What’s the Difference?

People who actively pursue severe local storms, as opposed to those of us who seek appropriate shelter, fall into two main categories: Storm Chasers and Storm Spotters. The two groups each are comprised of weather enthusiasts, but have a distinctly different purpose for their activities. Here is an overview.

Storm chasers are a diverse bunch. There are subsets of interests driving people to seek out severe local storms. We can split them into three categories: 1) scientists who are doing cutting edge research. They use advanced photogrammertry, mobile Doppler radar, ground based sensors and ultra high resolution modeling to grain understanding about the microscale processes driving tornadogenesis. Over the last 30 years, such efforts have been essential to advancing the science. 2) Commercial storm chasers, who are trained meteorologists who either work for electronic media to observe, report and provide live imagery. Or, they host groups of untrained enthusiasts who seek to observe tornadoes at close range. If the group leader is very good, the enthusiasts can have a rewarding and memorable experience. 3) Untrained amateurs who are thrill seeking. These are the folks who often get themselves into trouble.

Staying out of trouble is what Skywarn Storm Spotters are all about. The National Weather Service (NWS) launched the Skywarn program decades ago to formalize the collaborative efforts of volunteers and first responders to relay critical weather information to the NWS. Even today, ground truth is essential to confirm the existence of a tornado. In concert, the NWS developed the spotter training program to equip spotters with advanced knowledge about storm structure and motion, visual severe weather signatures, reporting procedures, and how to stay safe. Other than first responders, Skywarn spotters are often amateur radio operators, so the NWS has amateur radio base stations at the Forecast Offices. Critical information can be quickly forwarded to meteorologists during severe weather to add specificity to a warning. It’s all about minimizing loss of life and property. To become a Skywarn spotter, contact your local NWS Forecast Office.