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Watching the skies -- how amateur radio operators aid the National Weather Service

Thunderstorms, tornadoes, lightning and hail cause hundreds of injuries and deaths and billions of dollars in property and crop damages each year. The responsibility of warning the citizenry of the United States of potential weather dangers falls...

John Paul Martin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck, teaches 2019 Skywarn training for amateur radio operators with the Theodore Roosevelt Amateur Radio Club. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press
John Paul Martin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck, teaches 2019 Skywarn training for amateur radio operators with the Theodore Roosevelt Amateur Radio Club. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

Thunderstorms, tornadoes, lightning and hail cause hundreds of injuries and deaths and billions of dollars in property and crop damages each year. The responsibility of warning the citizenry of the United States of potential weather dangers falls on the shoulders of the National Weather Service (NWS).

To aid in their mission, the weather service established Skywarn in the 1970s.

Skywarn is an all-volunteer program with between 350,000 and 400,000 trained severe weather spotters. The bulk of on-the-ground information reported by the NWS comes through trained spotters who are crucial in times of severe weather, as they are the real-time eyes on the ground, giving meteorologists the reports.

On Monday, April 1, area Skywarn volunteers conducted their annual training at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center, where updated and refresher information was presented by John Paul Martin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck. The event was open to the public and attendees were trained on how to accurately identify and report severe weather information.

"The more volunteers help us, the more we can help them and the communities they live in. It's really amazing that these people do this for nothing more than a handshake and a thank you," Martin said. "With the 9th largest coverage area under the jurisdiction of the National Weather Service, it is extremely important to verify and accurately determine where severe weather is occurring. That is where our Skywarn volunteers come in."

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Although skywarn spotters are crucial in providing information for all types of weather hazards, the primary role of a spotter is to identify and describe severe local storms to the weather service. That's where volunteers like Bill Bosch come in.

"Our Skywarn volunteers work with the Emergency Manager here in Dickinson," Bosch, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Amateur Radio Club, said. "Our club works in the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) which consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment, with their local ARES leadership, for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes."

The Theodore Roosevelt Amateur Radio Club operates in Southwest North Dakota, and operate and maintain the 146.820 repeater in Dickinson, the 146.640 repeater in Killdeer and the 146.730 repeater in Sentinel Butte.

"This class teaches our members, new and old, how to report weather accurately," Bosch said. "When disaster strikes, like what happened down in Nebraska, power goes out, internet service goes out, cell phone service goes out, but we can still operate with our emergency powered amateur radio stations. So it's more than just reporting weather."

Bosch, a Korean War veteran, has been active in the Theodore Roosevelt Amateur Radio Club since 1977 and first discovered his love for amateur radio operation while stationed in Japan.

"I used to spend a lot of time with a guy named Bill while I was in Japan, and I watched him using the radio systems to make contacts," Bosch said. "He asked me one day, 'When is your mother's birthday?' and I said it was coming up, and he said, 'let's see if we can send her a message.'"

Within the hour, Bosch and his mother were speaking for the first time since he deployed to the war theater. That chance encounter with a radio operator sent Bosch on a lifelong path of becoming an amateur radio operator-a hobby he still enthusiastically participates in.

Today, Bosch and his fellow volunteers continue the tradition of amateur radio operations and community service through their volunteer work with the Skywarn program.

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Since the program started in the 1970s, the information provided by Skywarn spotters, coupled with Doppler radar technology, improved satellite and other data, has enabled NWS to issue more timely and accurate warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods-saving countless lives in the process.

For more information about how to join the Skywarn volunteer spotter program, visit weather.gov/skywarn/wfo_links

There are over 700,000 ham radio operators in the United States, and more than 3 million worldwide. Here, amateur radio operators conduct annual refresher training at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press
There are over 700,000 ham radio operators in the United States, and more than 3 million worldwide. Here, amateur radio operators conduct annual refresher training at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

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