Learning to Read the Clouds
In the basement of the Franklin County Courthouse, where we would be safe from any form of severe weather, people from northern Utah and southeast Idaho are training to become weather spotters. Weather-wise it's a calm night in Preston and a little stuffy in the basement meeting room where John Keyes, from the National Weather Service office in Pocatello, is explaining what kinds of weather conditions should be reported by the volunteer spotters:
"If it's been a big one or two day event, tell us how much snow it snowed over those two days. Blowing and drifting snow? That is obviously a big one due to visibly. If some of the county roads are closed we want to know that. If you’ve got county roads closed because of flood, let us know. That’s information that’s needed."
In a region that doesn't suffer from tornados and severe weather of that sort, Keyes focuses on fire conditions and winter weather conditions that the weather service is interested in following.
He also talks a lot about flooding. Even though the kind of flood common in these valleys is sheet flooding, where it's so flat that just an inch of water can fill up a field and creep over a road, we watch videos of torrential walls of water and what not to do when you come to raging river of a roadway.
Cache County in Utah and Franklin County in Idaho are in a unique location for weather watching. Warren Wilde, the Franklin County Emergency Manager, explains why the region is so dependent on amateur spotters to know exactly what's happening on the ground.
"It’s interesting where we join with Utah that our weather sits right here in the middle between Salt Lake and Pocatello. What Salt Lake tells us is not quite true and what Pocatello tells us is not quite true. So you take the two together and flip a coin and decide what you want."
"Radar has a hard time seeing through mountains" says Keyes, and since we're boxed in on all nearly all sides by mountains, human eyes are often more useful for spotting dangerous weather conditions.
The goal of weather spotting is safety. Keyes says that volunteer weather spotters save thousands of lives each year.
Anyone over the age of 13 can take the 90 minute training to become a spotter. Spotters in the region are encouraged to be proactive about reporting weather conditions by calling in to the offices in Pocatello and Salt Lake, tweeting weather reports to the national weather service, and emailing digital photos. Most trainings happen in the late spring and early summer in anticipation of thunderstorm and fire season in the region.