Washington Hams are Local Eyes on the Sky

by Mike Johnston, Senior Writer
The Daily Record
– Ellensburg WA

Weather service still needs volunteers on the ground

ELLENSBURG —     There are 57 volunteers in Kittitas County who keep their eyes on the sky, ready to call out at a moments notice if severe weather threatens life and property.

Bill Carter of Barnes Road, west of Ellensburg, is one of them — a Skywarn weather spotter.

“There are things happening out there the weather service really doesn’t know about, that don’t show up on their satellite images and radar,” Carter, 58, said this week. “That’s where the weather spotters come in. We can give them real-time observations that can complete the big picture of what’s happening.”

Carter, a retired television station engineer, signed up and took training in 2002 from the National Weather Service to become part of the Skywarn weather spotter system. In past years he’s called in snow, ice and dust storms and many a windy day to the National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

“As far as I’m concerned, the public service is the big thing for me,” said Carter about his efforts, which are aided by the help of his mother, Mildred Carter, 83. “The whole idea is to help people avoid trouble, especially when they’re driving. We’re always watching the sky and our weather instruments.”

An avid amateur radio operator since the early 1980s, Carter off and on had been reporting unusual or severe weather since the early 1990s to an informal network of other hams whose information ultimately ended up at the National Weather Service office in Pendleton, Ore.

Joining the Skywarn cadre was a logical next step for Carter. Now he radios in his reports to the Pendleton office, and meteorologists can directly call him.

NWS needs eyes

Dennis Hull is thankful that many other Washington and Oregon residents have taken that next step, going from just talking about the weather to, sometimes, reporting it.

Hull is the warning coordination meteorologist at the Pendleton NWS office and organizes more than 1,200 spotters in 19 counties in central, south central and southeast Washington and in north-central and northeast Oregon.

Despite the availability of high-tech radar and satellite reports and automatic sensors dotting the region, the weather service still needs people on the ground using their eyes and simple instruments to let it know what’s happening.

“Without having spotters to observe and report, some of the weather events, including the potentially dangerous ones, will never be reported,” Hull said. “Having a sizable number of spotters dispersed over a wide area makes sure these reports don’t fall through the cracks.”

“Without having spotters to observe and report, some of the weather events, including the potentially dangerous ones, will never be reported,” Hull said. “Having a sizable number of spotters dispersed over a wide area makes sure these reports don’t fall through the cracks.”

There are 57 certified weather spotters in Kittitas County, Hull said, including 13 who took the two-hour training on April 12 in Ellensburg. They can be called upon to send in reports via amateur radio, telephone or the Internet. They are taught how to determine which storms are potentially severe.

Most of the county spotters are along the Interstate 90 corridor from Easton to Ellensburg and along U.S. Highway 97. Hull said there are none east of 97 and east of Ellensburg and Interstate 82.

“The spotters are very valuable to us, though some are more active than others in making reports,” Hull said. “Every weather office across the state and nation depends on them. They help us make more accurate warnings. Weather, especially in winter, changes quickly.”

Wired for weather

Those driving by Bill Carter’s home 41/2 miles west of Ellensburg know something’s up. He has three, different amateur radio antennas hovering around his home and other equipment spouting from his roof that measures wind speed and direction and barometric pressure. Others measure precipitation and temperature.

He has his electronic weather station in one corner of his living room and his radio gear takes up an entire wall in the dining room.

He’ll call in if it snows more than an inch an hour, if hail is pea-sized or greater and if wind kicks up to 40 mph or greater for any length of time. He also gives the alert if rainfall ranges from 1/4 to 1/2-inch per day.

Carter was one of the spotters that tracked a huge, July dust storm that blew west into the county from Grant County two years ago. The weather service issued a warning in the two counties.

“Visibility was down to an eighth of a mile,” he said. “I could tell by the smell it was from potato ground in Grant County. Radar was showing it moving in and it was dropping dust in Ellensburg.”

Helping the weather service is only one of his ham radio services. Carter is active in local ham clubs and helps provide emergency communications for county search and rescue operations and in other situations.

“The spotters can give fresh readings that can better anchor satellite data,” Carter said. “I guess you could say the spotters sharpen the big weather picture, makes it local.”