Watching for Weather

Volunteers Trained to Recognize, Report Severe Meteorological Phenomenon

“I’m from the East Coast, and my friends there make fun of me for being for being a meteorologist here in sunny Santa Barbara. They say, ‘C’mon Alan, how hard could it be to predict the weather there?”‘ joked audience member KEYT meteorologist Alan Rose at the April 23 Weather Spotter Training and Recruitment session hosted by the National Weather Service (NWS) and Santa Barbara County’s Office of Emergency Services (OES). “But,” Rose continued, “the microclimates here make predicting the weather actually very difficult. That’s why the more eyes and ears out in the field, the better.”

Such was the message of Thursday evening’s event – that Santa Barbara residents can and should take an active role in observing and reporting severe weather phenomenon in the area, especially in light of Santa Barbara’s somewhat erratic climate. (Santa Ana and Sundowner winds being two of the greatest contributors to this variability.) Self-proclaimed weather nerd and tornado chaser Curt Kaplan of the NWS explained to the attendees that volunteer weather spotters are an integral part of the prediction process: The information volunteers provide to the NWS’s Oxnard office can not only verify or refute satellite and data network information, but also help weather forecasters like Kaplan more accurately issue storm watches and warnings. The end goal of these efforts, said Kaplan, is to save lives and minimize damage during severe weather events.

After going through the basics of storm formation and dissipation, Kaplan highlighted one of the most common and dangerous weather phenomena here in Santa Barbara: flash flooding. As the most costly and deadly of Southern California’s weather-related events, flash floods kill more people than any other weather-related hazard. They are caused when slow-moving thunderstorms (“training” thunderstorms) hover over the same area for a long period of time, saturating the ground and hillsides until water has no choice but to pool and flow. Kaplan went on to display a satellite photograph revealing the burned areas of the recent Gap and Tea fires and explained that such vegetation-stripped land is especially prone to flash floods, debris flows, and mud slides. He included in the segment videos of sudden and careening flash floods – the training session’s answer to Red Asphalt, the CHP’s sometimes grisly driver’s training video.

But Kaplan’s intent, it seemed, wasn’t to frighten or shock the attendees about severe weather possibilities. Instead, his presentation created awareness around disaster preparedness and mitigation. Although weather satellites, gauges, and beacons provide meteorologists with a wealth of information, sometimes there’s no better way to know what’s going on than to hear from volunteer spotters in the middle of the action. Spotters have been responsible, said Kaplan, for rushing or postponing weather warnings based on their direct observations. In the case of flash floods, attendees were educated about telltale warning signs of imminent flood danger, including the sounds of shifting boulders or trees, sudden rise in creek or stream levels, high volume of rain at higher elevations, and so on.

The NWS program operates across the country, but Jay McAmis of Santa Barbara’s OES said Santa Barbarans require even greater awareness and education when it comes potential weather-related disasters. “You don’t see this in other parts of the country,” said McAmis, referencing the area’s three recent major fires, the 2005 La Conchita mudslide, and the more than 57 flash floods and mud slides that have occurred in the years since. When asked why he thought there had been such a healthy turnout of volunteers at the training session, McAmis responded, “People are starting to realize they live in a high-risk environment, and with the succession of recent disasters, they are starting to recognize that they can do something to help. People are beginning to become more involved in something they might otherwise ignore.”

McAmis went on to stress the importance of preparation when it comes to handling the fallout from any weather-related disaster. “Preparedness is key,” said McAmis. “Our goal is to get the word out that doing something, anything, to get yourself and your family ready for a disaster is important. Preparation is a cultural engine, and it is our job to educate the community to that fact and to mitigate any impasse that might arise.”

For those who missed the training session, it is still possible to become an official volunteer weather spotter for the NWS by taking the “Spotter School” training course online here. For more information on the spotter program in general, visit


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