Severe thunderstorms can bring damaging winds, destructive hail

You can help the National Weather Service by becoming a volunteer SKYWARN weather spotter
Updated: Mar. 17, 2021 at 5:31 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Every spring and summer, the sky turns dark and severe storms threaten Central Virginia.

“It’s just the ever changing dynamics of the battle between the warm air and the cold air and how things can change on a dime,” said Wayne Shepherd, a volunteer SKYWARN weather spotter for the National Weather Service office in Wakefield, Virginia.

Thunderstorms can produce damaging winds when cool, dry air rushes out of the base of a storm cloud. This is called a downburst or microburst. The wind gusts can sometimes be as strong as a tornado and can take down trees/powerlines.

“For those to bring the hurricane force type winds that they bring with them on a straight-line basis is amazing,” exclaimed Shepherd.

Thunderstorms can also cause destructive hail. Hail forms when rain droplets are carried high into a thunderstorm cloud by the storm’s updraft. There, the hail freezes. Hail grows larger until the updraft cannot keep the hail stone suspended in air any longer. It falls to the ground, where it can dent cars and damage rooves.

“In May of 2017 we had a really bad hailstorm with hailstones of 1-2 inches, which is very rare for Central Virginia,” said Shepherd.

When Doppler radar shows a thunderstorm is capable of wind gusts greater than 58 miles per hour or hail greater than 1 inch in diameter, the National Weather Service issues a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. If a warning is issued, go inside immediately and stay away from windows. It’s also a good idea to go to the lowest floor to stay safe in case trees and branches start to fall.

Severe thunderstorms can bring damaging winds and destructive hail.
Severe thunderstorms can bring damaging winds and destructive hail.(WWBT)

Lightning is not a part of the criteria for a warning, because all thunderstorms produce lightning.

In addition to radar, the National Weather Service relies on volunteer SKYWARN weather spotters to report what they are seeing on the ground.

“It’s kind of been a lifelong passion, loved weather ever since I was a kid,” explained Shepherd. “It just makes it exciting to learn and understand why it happens and take that and help report it to the National Weather Service so they can make decisions based on it.”

Shepherd has his own backyard weather station. Sometimes he flies a drone ahead of approaching storms to get a better view of what is headed his way.

“Occasionally I will see something interesting on the radar, I’ll send the drone up and take a look. It really is exciting just to see some of the storms that are forming, some of the shelf clouds that are forming and things that could be potentially severe as they roll across the area,” described Shepherd.

Shepherd has gone above and beyond, but you do not need a fancy weather station to become a SKYWARN spotter.

You just need your eyes and ears and to take an online course. You can see a list of upcoming online courses and register at this link.

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