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Mystery snow found by spotters

Radar unable to detect storm that left moisture

— On Sunday morning, the National Weather Service reported two fresh inches of snow in the Hahn’s Peak.

But on Saturday night, and even early Sunday morning, the National Weather Service’s equipment did not detect the clouds that produced the moisture.

“We had no idea there were two inches of new snow up there,” forecaster Joe Ramey said.



Though great strides have been made in reporting and forecasting weather in the last 40 years, modern equipment, such as Doppler radar systems, is not perfect. To make up for the equipment’s shortcomings the National Weather Service depends on the eyes of volunteers, known as spotters, to help report and forecast weather.

That’s how Ramey found out about the snow on Hahn’s Peak a spotter called the office to report the accumulation.



“We still need educated eyes on the ground to tell us what’s going on,” Ramey said.

About 250 spotters watch the weather in Northwest Colorado. They make up one of the most essential rolls in the National Weather Service’s ability to report and predict weather.

Doppler radar is imperfect, Ramey explained, because it can only see clouds 15,000 feet above the ground. Clouds producing rain or snow in areas of high elevation, such Hahn’s Peak and even Steamboat Springs, are often below 15,000 feet out of view of any equipment reporting to the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction.

When forecasters want to see those clouds in hopes of predicting if severe weather is in the future, spotters are especially important.

A “wall cloud” forming in the high plains, for example, often is a precursor to a tornado, Ramey said.

If it forms below 15,000, Doppler won’t detect it.

Much of the time forecasters at the National Weather Service will get information from Doppler radar that hints at severe weather.

To help confirm their suspicions, a spotter in the area will be called to look at the clouds.

But learning to identify the clouds takes special training, which the National Weather Service must make sure each spotter has.

An outflow cloud, which is not related to tornadoes, looks very much like a wall cloud.

A spotter that does not understand the difference can contribute to inaccurate forecasts.

Training for spotters is being provided in Steamboat Springs and Craig over the next week. Those interested in becoming a spotter and active spotters are invited to learn some basic observation skills for identifying, anticipating and reporting severe weather.

There will be instruction offered on identifying the differences between funnel clouds and imposter funnel clouds, thunderstorm wind damage, tornado wind damage, estimating rainfall and thunderstorm structure.

Ramey said most of the people who take the training are interested in weather as a hobby and are the perfect candidates for becoming a spotter.

Though purely volunteers, spotters are kept up to date with the National Weather Service through a newsletter, receive continual training and get the enjoyment of being the first to know when severe weather is coming.


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