Alumni News

Keeping an Eye to the Skies 

Trenton Frey, 2015 Great Lakes Summer Fellow

Throughout his career as a forecaster at the National Weather Service (NWS) Detroit office, Trenton Frey cites public participation as one of the most important factors influencing forecasters’ ability to detect severe weather conditions. Although meteorologists have a wide array of tools available to predict and analyze weather patterns – radar and satellite imagery, weather model data, and ground-based observations from Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) equipment at airports – there is still a limit to what experts can know without people on the ground sending them ongoing observations. When severe weather conditions present an ongoing threat in a given area, meteorologists are often left blind to rapidly changing conditions. For example, while radars can detect rotation in the mid-levels of storms, they often overshoot tornadoes themselves – the part most dangerous to people on the ground. “We don’t always know when tornadoes, hail, damaging winds, etc. are ongoing without ground truth from reports in the field,” says Trent. “Spotters help fill in that gap in our observations.”

To mitigate this blind spot in meteorology, NWS Detroit offers Skywarn Spotter Training, a series of classes geared toward both children and adults that train regular citizens in entry-level meteorology. The talks delve into the annual severe weather season, how dangerous weather patterns form, how to protect yourself from storms, and how to identify severe storm features. All classes are free and open to all members of the public. Trent himself has given almost 30 of these classes, passing on valuable knowledge to about 1,000 people so far in his career.

New recruits then become the “eyes and ears” of NWS’s mission, reporting changing weather conditions in Southeast Michigan in real-time. “With the information that spotters provide, we update our warnings with the most accurate information to keep people safe,” says Trent. To bolster public participation even further, NWS Detroit regularly opens its offices in White Lake to public tours, goes into schools for career days and weather talks, and promotes the NWS’s work at public events throughout Southeast Michigan. These efforts add up to a guiding mission: integrating the public into scientific efforts in order to keep everyone safe from dangerous weather conditions.

If you are interested in becoming a spotter, your participation is welcomed and encouraged! Please visit the Skyward Spotter Training website for more details.