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A storm in Stevens County on Friday, August 12, 2011, created a shelf cloud formation, which brings high winds ahead of rain and other severe weather. This photo was taken by weather spotters Amanda Hill and Nick Elms just west of Morris.

Spotting the storm

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Spotting the storm
Morris Minnesota 607 Pacific Avenue 56267

MORRIS, Minn. - When hail hits, it's common to hear it described as "marble-sized." But that descriptor is mostly useless to weather forecasters, since marbles can come in a variety of sizes.

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Instead, National Weather Service Certified Trainer Nick Elms suggests carrying around 45 cents in your pocket during a storm. The range of coin sizes provide a standard measurement to assess hail with, which is more useful in providing information about severe weather to forecasters and those issuing weather warnings.

That is just one of the tips that will be offered when Elms and his partner, Amanda Hill, a 2000 graduate of Chokio-Alberta, are in Morris next Saturday to teach a free basic severe weather spotting course for area residents. The class - from 9 to 11 a.m. at the West Central Research and Outreach Center - is designed to teach the general public the dos and don'ts of how to spot severe weather safely, said Elms.

"There really is a right and wrong way to do it - we really don't want to produce a bunch of people who are going to go out and be adrenaline junkies and get themselves hurt," said Elms. "We really don't condone or endorse storm chasing."

Anyone who completes the course will be a National Weather Service trained weather spotter. Each person who is trained will receive a spotter identification number and access to a private hotline to make calls to the weather service to make reports during a storm.

Elms and Hill, who blog and write about their experiences as weather spotters on their website, www.prairiewindchasers.com, are volunteer weather spotters who spend their free time chasing storms as mobile weather spotters in the region. However, Elms said there is a lack of "rooted" spotters in the Stevens County area, which is part of the reason for offering the course.

Although weather radars can offer basic information about storm systems, having spotters who can offer "ground truth" to confirm what the radar is showing gives weight to severe weather warnings, said Elms.

Part of a basic weather spotting course is learning how to tell the difference between storms that produce tornadoes and storms that produce wind damage. The storms often look alike, but result in very different types of damage.

One way to tell the difference between a shelf cloud, which produces wind damage, and a wall cloud, which can (but doesn't always) produce tornadoes is to look where the rain is in relation to the cloud. A shelf cloud comes straight ahead, looking almost like a steamroller with the rain following behind, said Hill.

A storm that can produce a tornado will have rain near the front with the tornado located in the back edge, being "dragged along" by the storm.

Last August, the Morris area experienced a shelf cloud storm during the Stevens County Fair. At the time, the National Weather Service received incorrect reports that there were funnel clouds in the area because people who called in misidentified a storm formation, said Elms.

Next week, April 16 to 20, is also Severe Weather Awareness Week in Minnesota and Wisconsin. On Thursday, Tornado Drill Day, the state has scheduled two state-wide drills - one at 1:45 p.m. for school, business, hospitals and other organizations, and one at 6:55 p.m. for families and second shift workers.

"That time of day - between 5 and 6 p.m. - is when most tornadoes occur," said Elms. "The atmosphere has its most energy at that time of day."

During the drill, people are asked to take a moment to think about where they would go during a tornado - a basement, under the stairs, a reinforced bathroom - and to check for a severe weather safety tool kit. Elms recommends a safety kit include a flashlight, batteries and battery-powered radio to get weather alerts.

The central and southern United States have had a pretty violent severe weather season so far, which will slowly migrate north, said Elms. The peak severe weather season for Minnesota is between April and September, with the highest number and most severe storms happening in June. However, Minnesota has seen tornadoes well before and well after the peak season.

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Kim Ukura
Kim Ukura has served as the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune since August 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 2008 with degrees in English and journalism. She earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2010. Prior to returning to Morris to work at the Sun Tribune, she worked in trade publishing. She has been recognized by the Minnesota Newspaper Association for both business and public affairs reporting. 
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