17.5 inches. 23 inches. 33.5 inches.
Where do those numbers come from?
They come from the “weather spies” — people who are bundled up in layers and carrying yardsticks who plunge into the great outdoors, during a blizzard, to relay the latest snow accumulation from their yards to the National Weather Service.
The service is an arm of the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides weather, water and climate data, forecasts and warnings.
“I would call us agents of the National Weather Service,” Adamstown resident David Fishman said. “[We are] their eyes on the ground in specific locations.”
Fishman is one of about 200 to 250 people in Frederick County certified to provide snow accumulation readings that the weather service uses in weather statements, updates to warnings and advisories, NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts and amateur radio networks.
These residents, officially named SKYWARN spotters, also provide weather event information in the case of severe thunderstorms, floods, tornadoes and ice storms.
Sunday morning, after the blizzard subsided, Fishman took two measurements “the old-fashioned way” — with a yardstick. “It’s not that technical.”
The snow on the street where he lives, off Park Mills Road, had 19½ inches of snow, he said. The snowdrifts in his yard were 26 inches tall.
“I gave them my drift, and I gave them a flat area,” he said. “I told them probably the actual snowfall is around 21 [inches]. ... I guess it depends on the person, but I like to be a little more analytical about it.”
Chris Strong, a warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service’s Sterling, Virginia, office, said anyone can become a SKYWARN spotter by taking a free two-hour course that teaches the fundamentals of storm structure, identifying potential severe weather features, information that spotters should report and basic severe weather safety. He said the service relies on the volunteers’ information and considers it of better quality than figures from the general public because they have had training.
“The more weather spies we have out there in the field, the better,” said Strong, who helps oversee the program for the Baltimore-Washington area. “It really supplements all the high-tech and remote things we get here in the office.”
Spotter Tina Jones’ Ballenger Creek town house gets high winds around the back, so she didn’t report snow measurements over the weekend, knowing they wouldn’t be accurate.
“I was having a problem with drifting,” she said. “There would be some areas there was nothing and some it was a lot.”
Jones, who took the course in 2011, said when she was growing up in Ohio she was afraid of thunderstorms. Her father had her go outside during one so she’d realize there’s nothing to fear. She’s loved watching the weather ever since — even considering going on a storm-chasing vacation in Oklahoma or Kansas.
“It just kind of got to me,” she said. “The weather is really a beautiful thing to watch.”
She said she remembers sirens in fire stations going off at noon every day as practice for tornadoes in Ohio. “That meant get to the basement.”
When attending Bowling Green State University, she took a class on severe weather. She wanted to be a meteorologist at one point but knew it required a lot of math so didn’t pursue it. She’s an artist and substitute teacher for the school system.
Jones moved to Frederick when her husband got a job in the area in 1997. They had a brief stint in Los Angeles but returned to Frederick in 2002.
During a severe thunderstorm last summer, the National Weather Service called her to confirm what its radar was telling it was happening in the area. She said trees had snapped during the storm and it was so severe she told her two daughters to stay in the basement.
The information she provided helped officials continue to issue thunderstorm warnings, she said.
“I was pretty stoked about it. The National Weather Service called me.”
She said she’s made friends in the neighborhood who ask what kind of weather is expected when they see unusual things in the sky.
Fishman also already had an understanding and love of weather patterns because of his days as a hang glider pilot. Before flying, he said he would call NOAA to get information on the wind and barometric pressure.
“It’s important to understand everything that can and will happen,” he said. “That taught me what to look out for.”
He’s no longer a pilot because he lost too many friends to it, he said.
He often quizzes his 21-year-old son, Jeremy, who took the SKYWARN training with him, on cloud formations.
“A lot of people look down; I look to the sky,” Fishman said. “Every cloud tells a story.”
Fishman’s brother, who also lives in Frederick County, is an amateur radio operator and had taken the same course to be able to transmit weather information in the case of an emergency when cell towers and power failed. Fishman and his son joined him when he retook the course as a refresher three or four years ago.
They are all trained spotters. “We have a family appreciation for weather patterns.”
The certification never expires, and there are opportunities to take courses that specialize in specific weather events such as snowstorms or floods. The classes are held periodically throughout the region.
“Like ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine’ — once a SKYWARN spotter, always a SKYWARN spotter,” Fishman said.