Watching the skies one evening in Orono, Minnesota, Joe Colianni spotted a tornado-breeding wall cloud and alerted the National Weather Service.
Soon the wail of a tornado siren nearby brought home the reason for his training as a National Weather Service volunteer SKYWARN® weather spotter: “What I was doing became tangible then,” says Joe, who became a storm spotter in 2000. “People were able to run to the safety of their basement before the tornado passed by. I realized I did something good. For me, storm spotting went to a new level.”
Joe, head of private banking for Wells Fargo’s Abbot Downing ultra-high net worth business, traces his interest in the skies to childhood vacations at his family’s lake cabin in Wisconsin. His dad would take him out on the lake in a rowboat for weather lessons using the sky as the text.
“My father was always fascinated with science and weather,” Joe says. “There was a lot of open sky on the lake, so he taught me about clouds, and we looked through weather books to understand what we’d seen. I still have those books today.”
Another generation of Coliannis are taking up sky watching, too. Joey, 14, and Ben, 32, are among nearly 290,000 trained severe weather spotters in the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN® program. The program ― coupled with Doppler radar, improved satellite technology, and the availability of other relevant data ― means more timely and accurate warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, and flash floods.
And the spotters have plenty to see. According to the National Weather Service, each year brings an average of 10,000 severe thunderstorms, 5,000 floods, and more than 1,000 tornadoes to the U.S.
Meteorologists who are “warning coordinators” in each of the service’s 122 local forecast offices train spotters in the SKYWARN program, which started in the 1970s.
Joe’s tools of the trade for spotting include binoculars, a video camera, an anemometer (or wind meter) to measure wind speed, a device to measure hail size, and what he considers his most important hardware ― an iPad to provide longitude and latitude as well as high-definition Doppler radar to pinpoint location, size, and storm direction.
He keeps a pair of binoculars handy on the credenza of his 51st floor office in downtown Minneapolis. The west-facing windows there provide a panoramic view of the region’s typical west-to-east storm track. He hits the road in the evenings when most severe weather hits in Minnesota.
Technically, the National Weather Service distinguishes SKYWARN spotters, who call in their reports from their homes, from “chasers” who often travel great distances in search of tornadoes and often have far more advanced training and equipment. Joe is a hybrid of the two. While he sometimes drives his sedan when tracking storms, Ben’s Ford F-250 truck, complete with SKYWARN magnet, is Joe’s vehicle of choice for the worst Mother Nature can dish out.
Todd Krause, the warning coordination meteorologist who trained Joe, says the tornado outbreak of June, 17, 2010, proved the life-and-death difference SKYWARN spotters like Joe can make. Forty-eight tornadoes hit Minnesota that day, including a powerful EF-3 tornado that spotters saw heading for the farming community of Blooming Prairie just south of Owatonna.
A resident heard a radio report that spotters saw the tornado on the ground and immediately took shelter just in time before it hit their home.
“Radar is great, but radar does not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what’s actually happening on the ground,” he says. “You have to have people out there watching to provide that confirmation. Even if we think there might be a tornado, when spotters report there really is a tornado, people are more apt to get to a shelter. So people like Joe are helping to save lives.”