NWS: Weather Watcher Numbers Spotty

Published: January 8, 2007
The Union Democrat

The National Weather Service relies on Mother Lode volunteers to fill in the gaps left by its instruments, but current weather watchers are scattered, leaving many areas with a lack of data.

Of 13 watchers in Calaveras County, many are located in the same communities, leaving other areas with just one volunteer.

Getting in touch with that person on short notice can prove challenging for the NWS.

Some areas have no weather spotters at all, making it tough for the service to get accurate readings across the board.

As a result, says Sacramento NWS meteorologist John Juskie, reports and alerts become less local and more generalized.

“When we get to a point, especially in complex terrain, we can only rely our devices in certain situations,” Juskie said of radar and satellites used by the service. “You would hope in this day and age we could get by that, but there’s a lot of guesswork.”

Juskie said the problem is common in rural areas, even though weather spotting can be as easy as looking out a window.

Weather Service volunteers are instructed to call when unusual or severe weather occurs — like hail or thunder.

Trained volunteers become part of NWS’ Skywarn program, helping to inform communities of the proper actions to take during severe weather.

“That kind of information is priceless for us,” Juskie said, “but we don’t have the money to pay people for it.”

Falling between the ranges of large stations in Sacramento and Fresno, the Mother Lode sits in a sort of gray area for weather forecasting and reporting.

Of the 13 spotters in Calaveras County, five live in Arnold.

Two spotters cover Murphys, and one spotter each lives in Angels Camp, San Andreas, Valley Springs, Mokelumne Hill, Copperopolis and Wilseyville.

“Cooperative observers” — paid employees that record detailed daily measurements for things like wind, rain and temperature — also record weather in Calaveras. NWS said Big Trees State Park, West Point and Camp Pardee are the only sites covered by these observers.

But many long-time weather hounds are not falling down on the job.

Preston Brown, 70, has lived in Copperopolis for 12 years and has been reporting weather to NWS and ham radio listeners for six or seven years.

Brown said he became interested in weather while in the Army, when he was stationed on a mountain-top radar site in New Mexico in the 1960s.

Though NWS does not require spotters to use instruments, Brown uses computerized equipment that updates various aspects of the weather every four minutes.

He said most weather watchers tend to be older.

“Now [kids] have TV and the Internet and cell phones and it seems ho-hum to them,” he said. “But when you get down to it, it’s pretty exciting.”

Ken Sanders, 63, has lived in Arnold for seven years and has been reporting for two or three.

He said since he got into reporting the weather through ham radio friends, he hasn’t personally reported much exciting weather.

“I’m just part of the group in case the opportunity arises,” he said. “You can just pick up a phone and call in, which they very much appreciate.”

People interested in becoming a weather spotter may call the NWS in Sacramento at (916) 979-3041, and ask for Kathy or Steve.

“We will take anyone who is interested,” Juskie said. “It’s very rewarding for [spotters] to see they can make a difference and not only help us but help their neighbors.”

Becoming a spotter requires brief training.

Juskie said the NWS would gladly schedule workshops in the area if there is an interest.

Contact Cat Sieh at csieh@uniondemocrat.com or 736-8097.