Thunderstorm Myths

There are numerous misconceptions and myths about thunderstorms. “Lightning only strikes tall objects,” “people struck by lightning carry an electrical charge,” and “it is okay to showers during a thunderstorm” are some of the common misconceptions. I am not here to discuss these; instead, I want to highlight some of the challenges meteorologists face during active and severe weather. While reports are valuable to us, there are a lot of beliefs about storms and reporting storms that are not true, such as:

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While radar is a powerful tool, it is not a pair of eyes. Radar can but often does not confirm tornadoes. Radar suggests where damaging straight-line winds are likely, but it doesn’t confirm them. Radar data suggest where heavy rain has fallen, but it doesn’t replace what a rain gauge measures. Simply put, radar, models, satellite, and weather balloon data are great, but it doesn’t always verify the conditions where you live. In fact, your report is more important than anything a meteorologist can access at his or her fingertips. Please don’t assume someone else has reported what you are seeing because you may the only one seeing what you are seeing. Always report out-of-the-ordinary weather.

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Thank you for your report. Seriously! We need to know what you are seeing! Radar doesn’t always tell us the story. When you submit your report, however, please be specific about what you are seeing and where. Where are you located? Are you in a town, and how far/what direction are you relative to that town? A photo of hail or damage is great, but a photo with a detailed description of where you are (i.e. “I’m 2 miles west of Oxford, Ohio”) is FAR more helpful. In addition to knowing where you are, I want to know what you are seeing specifically. If you are seeing hail, how large is the hail compared to a coin? Why do I ask this? Because coins are all the same size; a quarter in California is the same as a quarter in Ohio. I need to know how big your hail is compared to something absolute in size. I don’t know how big your hand is. I don’t know how big your finger is. I do, however, know how big a golf ball is.

Also, please let me know what time severe weather occurred. Sending me a photo at 5:30pm of damage that occurred at 5:25pm is helpful, but sending me a photo at 5:30pm of damage that occurred at 2:30pm is not as helpful, especially if there are numerous rounds of storms; I don’t know what storm likely caused the damage unless you can confirm when the damage occurred.

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You might. If you’re seeing a violently rotating cloud extending from the base of a thunderstorm that’s connected to the ground, you are seeing a tornado. If you’re not seeing this, you’re probably not seeing a tornado. You may be seeing a tail cloud, a funnel cloud, a wall cloud, or another type of cloud. After going through spotter training, you’ll know the difference between these types of clouds. There are a lot of tornado look-alikes. There’s actually a “Scary Looking Cloud Club.” While these clouds may look like tornadoes, they are not.

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I am sorry. I really am. I don’t want to have to interrupt your program to tell you there is a threat for damage. I don’t want to cut into your favorite show to tell you there may be a tornado coming towards you or one of your neighbors. But if it’s a life threatening situation, I have to cut into your program. It’s not just a standard set by television station managers, but it’s also the right thing to do.

I understand you may not be in the warning, but someone nearby is; they deserve the warning just as much as you do should your town been placed in the warning. Please understand that my job – ultimately – is to make sure you stay safe. If you’re going to see severe hail, severe winds, or a tornado, you not only deserve to know, you should want to know. Big Brother, Survivor, the Olympics, the World Series, the NBA Finals, or any other program is not as important as a meteorologist telling you that you or your stuff is in danger.

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