DES MOINES — The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the National Weather Service’s storm spotter sessions in Iowa this year. But with severe weather season still looming, the NWS needs people who are trained to report what they see.

The solution? Take training online.

Four virtual sessions are scheduled for April. The first, on April 2, is an afternoon session that will run from 1-2:30 p.m. Three more sessions, on April 7, April 9, and April 13, will each take place from 7-8:30 p.m. on those dates.

This isn’t the first time spotter training sessions have been conducted online, though this is a more extensive attempt than what has been done previously. Chad Hahn of the National Weather Service’s Des Moines office, said the virtual training sessions “kind of build on some of that.”

“We regretfully had to cancel all the in-person spotter training. In lieu of that we’re going to kick off these virtual training sessions,” he said. “To be honest, aside from not being in person it’s going to be very similar.”

The online sessions will use the same training examples and information that the in-person sessions do, and will allow for question-and-answer periods with people who are participating.

Hahn said the need for spotters is very real, even as technology improves forecasters’ ability to see what storms are doing and react to what they may be preparing to do.

“All the tools we have at our disposal, which are incredible, … none of them tell us exactly what is happening,” he said. Spotters can fill that gap.

Radar, perhaps the key tool in tracking storms, is a good example of the gap. Its beam is line-of-sight only. That means it can’t see through the horizon. The further a storm is from the radar, the higher the radar’s beam hits. And a large storm can sometimes obscure what is forming on the other side of it.

Since developments like tornadoes happen low in the cloud base, a spotter will see things radar simply cannot spot. And forecasters know people react differently when a warning says a tornado is radar-indicated versus spotter-confirmed.

“Spotters play a very integral role in the warning process,” Hahn said.

The schedule and signup for the sessions can be reached through the NWS Des Moines office’s website at

— Matt Milner can be reached at and followed on Twitter @mwmilner


Managing Editor

Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.

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