Academy forecasters keep eyes out for twisters

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The touchdown of two large, dangerous funnel clouds in Elbert County June 15 serves as a serious reminder that tornado season is here. 

Skip Evans, chief meteorologist with the Air Force Academy weather station, said that tornado season runs roughly from April through September. El Paso County has experienced 17 tornado touchdowns from 1995 to 2008. 

The eight-member team of weather experts at the station keeps close tabs on developing weather conditions which may produce severe weather conditions, including tornadoes, lightning and severe thunderstorms, from early spring into the fall. 

Mr. Evans said the Academy receives about two serious funnel cloud threats a year, and the season is shaping up to be an active one. The Elbert tornadoes, a mere 18 miles from the Academy, were one such threat. 

"It's unusual but not impossible," he said about the possibility of a twister reaching ground on the Academy. He added that Divide and 11 Mile Reservoir both had tornadoes touch down last year. 

The Academy weather station, a part of the 306th Flying Training Group, regularly works in conjunction with the Air Force's 25th Operational Weather Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. If the 15th OWS spots severe weather on its way around the Academy outside Academy regular weather station hours, it notifies Academy meteorologists, who are on-call 24/7. 

"We live up against the mountains, and mountain weather is notorious for changing rapidly," Mr. Evans said. 

Meteorologist Dave Palumbo, who has been at the Academy for eight years, said the station has a heavy buy-in for being part of the safety process. 

"We are very, very committed to keeping people as safe as possible," he said.
Tornadoes develop in large storm cells with continuous and steady growth. When unstable updrafts and downdrafts collide, a funnel of vertical or horizontal rotating air results. 

Every morning, weather station staff begin monitoring the atmosphere and environment. By 9 a.m., if conditions show a valid potential for severe weather development and instability, the station will issue a weather watch. If conditions continue to worsen and become threatening, the station then issues a warning. 

The 10th Air Base Wing is responsible for issuing severe weather information to the base through such resources as the giant voice, telephone and e-mails. 

Academy forecasters use detection tools from the simple to the sophisticated, including ground reports, satellite reports and statistics, radar, dialogue with other weather professionals, Doppler radar from the National Weather Service station in northeast Pueblo County, and no fewer than three computer modeling software programs. The station also has access to computer data on lightning. In addition, the forecasters receive data from 12 monitoring stations scattered on the Academy. 

"We use everything we can get our hands on," Mr. Evans said. 

STAYING SAFE DURING TORNADO SEASON 

During a tornado watch, tornadoes are possible. Remain alert for approaching storms. Watch the sky and stay tuned to local radio or television stations for information.

A tornado warning indicates that a tornado has been spotted visually or by weather radar. Take shelter immediately. A shelter should be a safe room, storm cellar or lowest building level. If the building you occupy does not have a basement, go to the center of an interior room on the lowest level, away from doors, windows and outside walls. Do not open windows. If you are in a vehicle, trailer or mobile home, get outside immediately and go to the lowest floor of a nearby structure. If you are outside with no shelter, lie flat in a ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands. Do not get under an overpass or bridge. Never try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle.