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Eyes on the sky

National Weather Service trains local storm spotters
Jim Pringle, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, displays a map of weather radar coverage in the Four Corners. The blue areas have coverage, while the dark areas have little or no coverage, increasing the importance of weather spotters in the area.

Is that super-cell thunderstorm a potential tornado?

Actually, it's difficult to predict.

But training from the National Weather Service can give you a good idea of when to get off the water, golf course, or Fourteener.

This training also qualifies you to call in and report weather incidents to the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction, although that function is also available to the public, as well.

Jim Pringle, the warning coordinator meteorologist at the NWS office in Grand Junction, was in Durango Tuesday to teach a storm spotting class, along with other classes and media visits around the area.

Grand Junction is one of 124 NWS forecast offices around the country and the closest to Southwest Colorado. Its Doppler radar is the second highest in elevation in North America. Because of the area's topography and distance, the Four Corners is one of the areas in the U.S. that does not have complete radar coverage.

That means that weather spotters are even more important in our area than elsewhere in the country, Pringle said.

Even with radar and satellites, there are still things meteorologists can't see, Pringle said, such as the smoke from the Missionary Ridge fire in 2002 that they didn't know about in Grand Junction until someone called and reported it.

A good portion of weather spotter training covers lightning and thunderstorms. Lightning strikes are the number-one cause of weather-related deaths in the West, followed by flooding.

Lightning storms are divided into single-cell, multi-cell and super-cell storms.

Mini super-cells, the most common of the super-cells here, are made up of multiple stormclouds, but only rise to heights of about 35,000 feet, compared to 70,000-foot towers of stormclouds in the Midwest, for example.

Mini super-cells can create updraft and downdraft winds of up to 100 mph, he added.

He advised that people wait until 30 minutes after a storm has passed before heading back outside, because lightning is still possible that long after a storm dissipates.

Hailstorms are another meteorological phenomenon we often face here. A storm on Sept. 22, 2013, created tennis-ball sized hail in western La Plata County, as well as flooding roads here.

And even though we live in the mountains, tornadoes can occur in Colorado. There were 27 reported in Colorado last year. A few were on the Western Slope, while the rest formed in the Eastern plains. Most tornadoes in Colorado are F0 to F1 in intensity, meaning they're small in force compared to the F4 and F5 variety in the Midwest. An F1 did hit Durango on Oct. 5, 2004, Pringle said, and because a volunteer weather spotter called the storm in, the weather service was able to issue a warning about four minutes before it hit the ground.

More storm spotters are needed in this area to call in reports, he said. The NWS is staffed 24 hours a day, with 14 people working on rotating shifts in the Grand Junction office. There is storm spotting training available online, but it is geared primarily toward tornadoes, Pringle said.

Another opportunity for people to participate in weather observation is CoCoRAHS.

That stands for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. It was founded in Ft. Collins after a flash flood there killed several people, and has now expanded across the country and into Canada and Puerto Rico. More than 12,000 people nationwide volunteer for CoCoRAHS, and more are needed in this area and Eastern Utah. The only requirement is the purchase of a four-inch professional rain gauge. Reports take about five minutes a day to log in, or less when there is no precipitation. More information is at cocorahs.org.

Also important for this area are the Skywarn Spotters, amateur radio volunteers who receive special training from the NWS and are called to observe weather phenomena. In the case of a telephone or cellular system crash, there are enough volunteer radio operators between Durango and Grand Junction to relay a message or weather report, Pringle said.

The National Weather Service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One of the Congressional charges to the NWS is "the protection of life and property."

Pringle said a new program in the NWS is Weather Ready Nation, which seeks community ambassadors to help prepare for weather-related emergencies.

More information from the weather service is at weather.gov/gjt.

Weather reports can be made on facebook, Twitter, or by calling the Grand Junction office at (970) 243-7007.

Budgets permitting, Pringle visits the area every spring to conduct storm spotter classes. He also teaches them twice a year in Grand Junction.