May 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Storm spotters

By Ashley Hay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It's not every day you get to call Zeus, but that's what it felt like as I dialled the number for Andrew Haigh at the Bureau of Meteorology in Sydney. It's probably not precisely what's on his business card, but I was looking for someone to talk to about big weather - winds, storms, lightning - and the BoM's head office suggested him: "he's the severe-weather manager in Sydney." Which sounded rather Zeus-like. Haigh is an extreme-weather forecaster, busy in the summer months monitoring weather situations - particularly bushfire weather - and issuing warnings; winter, by comparison, is his "off-season", his live forecasting replaced by other projects.

For most of us the weather is something to check in terms of jumpers or umbrellas, something to grumble about on wet weekends - even, ungraciously, during droughts - or a last-resort conversation starter. But like almost everything, it has its buffs. And today's incarnation of the early-nineteenth-century observers who looked at clouds carefully enough to delineate their first taxonomy are perhaps to be found browsing the BoM's website, its loops of brightly coloured radar images showing where storms are and how they're moving, or on Weatherzone, which offers everything from temperatures and surf conditions to windsock sales. "A lot of our members spend time chatting on sites like Weatherzone," says Haigh. These members are storm spotters, the volunteers who learn to observe and report on severe weather around the country. Of the 4000-5000 registered spotters in Australia, Haigh estimates around 1500 are on New South Wales' books.

I'd come to storm-spotter-spotting through a mighty electrical storm that hit Sydney one early autumn night. It had been rumbling up the coast through the evening, its growls growing louder as the air sagged with imminent rain. Finally, around midnight, it came on: the sweet smell of the first water, the hard crack of nearby thunder, the firecracker brilliance of electricity. Sheet lightning washed the sky's width while sharp forks traced lines like elaborate river systems: west towards the city, east over the sea. Sydney has high standards when it comes to bright skies, as the New Year's Eve fireworks attest. But this storm outdid all that. It was magnificent, so close, and the clouds seemed bursting with brilliance. Along my street, people's heads tilted up to the sky; it was as if we were witnessing the rapture. For a place usually lacking in anything communal, this was exhilarating.

The next morning, on the BoM's website, I found the storm spotters, a secret population of people who pay scrupulous attention to the sky and its activity. I imagined them like us the night before, scattered along their own streets, gazing with oohs and aahs at the electric sky - though taking down the storm's particulars. I imagined their logbooks decorated with frivolous lightning zig-zags.

But the spotters are far more serious than that: they perform a vital role in the BoM's weather watching. Because, despite a public perception that its meteorologists have up-to-date information on everything happening everywhere, the bureau can't always know what's going on. "We have different sets of observations; we have satellite images of where clouds are and what type," says Andrew Haigh, "but sometimes they come in less than every hour. We have radars that show where it's raining and how intensely - but we don't have full coverage for the state."

The spotters report live from severe events ("we might have a thunderstorm on a radar, and they ring in and report hail stones or overflowing gutters; we can calibrate that information with the state of the atmosphere around their area"). Their reports can prompt new severe-weather alerts or confirm earlier decisions to issue those warnings. And their data is particularly valuable for post-analysis ("when we work out what took place, what caused it, what phenomena resulted; that way we can correlate environmental evidence and what we saw on the radar with the effects on the ground"). They look for hailstones bigger than $2 coins, for winds travelling at more than 90 kilometres an hour, for tornadoes and heavy rainfall - particularly if it causes flash flooding.

And in the wake of a big storm: is there a spike in spotting applications? "For some people that might spark an interest, but it's pretty hard to verify," says Haigh. My storm hadn't even been worth spotting, in terms of severity. Checking his "loop of archived radar data", Haigh explains that while a severe-thunderstorm warning had been issued that night, there was no indication "that anything severe actually occurred". "Of course, it may have happened," he says, "and just not been observed or reported." One report did mention "pea-sized hail at Lithgow when the storm went over that area".

But the spotters he sent me to - Melanie Hancock, a recruit of nine months' standing, and Robyn Stutchbury, who'd signed up back in 1991 - had room for some awe. Hancock, a team leader with the Dubbo SES, is an "all-round weather enthusiast, always fascinated by how storms work". We talk about a huge storm that hit Dubbo back in 2000, about floods on the Todd River when she was growing up in Alice Springs, about her end-of-the-day check of the BoM website if she thinks there might be a warning. As for excitement: "you put on your orange [SES] overalls and you go into clinical mode," she says. "But then again, if you're standing in a shed with thunder and lightning and rain crashing on the tin, it is exhilarating to see nature at its best - or worst."

When Stutchbury talks about the weather event that led to both the inception of an Australian spotters' network and her own involvement, she still sounds overwhelmed. Back in January 1991, she was working on the eighth or ninth floor of a building at the University of New South Wales and saw "an incredible ink-blue cloud hurtling towards us - I could see there was going to be a very spectacular storm." There was, although it passed her by to cut a kilometre-wide swathe across Sydney's north shore. The damage it caused looked like that of a tornado - a meteorological event previously thought unlikely to happen in the city.

Later, at a talk about that evening, the BoM called for volunteers for a new network of spotters. With a background in science and an interest in weather, Stutchbury joined immediately; she's still waiting, more than 15 years later, to be the first person to report something extreme or unusual. "I used to ring and say, ‘I think you've got some rotational winds [they can be precursors to tornadic winds] to the north-west,' and they'd say, ‘Thank you - we've already got that,'" she says. "The only time I was really frustrated, I was on a ferry and I could see a hell of a storm coming in from the south-east and another coming in from the north-east. I said, ‘If these two meet, there'll be merry hell.'" A spotter's dream moment, perhaps - except that "in those days no one had a mobile."

As Andrew Haigh explains it, the bureau's attitude towards spotting is that while "some people might be keen to go out to where storms are happening and get more data for us, we recommend that they just go about their daily lives and send in information about whatever they encounter." But there's a sneaky seduction in big storms, even for these more scientific spectators. Melanie Hancock's dream holiday, she says, would be "to go to the US and go down Tornado Alley; it would be awesome to see all that raw power." Failing that, she'd settle for a cyclone in Australia; she had her eye on one off the west coast on the day we spoke. Stutchbury, too, confesses that she'd like to see a tornado, although she can't imagine chasing it: "I do get very excited by the weather - I watch for hail clouds, that blue-green inky colour, and then I say with great authority, ‘It's going to hail.'"

I tried to concentrate on the clouds for days afterwards, and on the next promisingly stormy morning I took my rudimentary spotting skills down to the beach. Against heavy grey sky and sea, the thunder was tremendous and silver stripes of lightning jabbed at the horizon, three, four at a time - but I was so distracted by their light that I failed to notice the rain driving across the ocean, and only just got under cover in time. There was a group of us huddled there, heads tilted for the next rapture, and someone even shouted encouragement - "Come on, come on!" - to the clouds as they swept towards us and the rain bucketed down. Then wind came, and hail, but it was hard to tell if it was like $2 coins or peas - I was too busy wondering if my windows were open. Running home, I left my potential spotting career behind.

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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