For a profession that relies on technology, Jeff Johnson admits forecasters haven't quite kept pace with changes.
It used to take hours or days for word to spread of weather events. Accurate descriptions of events were comparatively rare. Getting a photo of a tornado or flash flood depended on professional storm chasers being in the right place or pure luck if someone happened to have a camera.
Now, virtually everyone has a camera capable of getting pictures and video clips on their cell phones. The amount of information available has increased exponentially. And the National Weather Service is moving to take advantage.
Johnson, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said storm spotters trained last year were encouraged to submit photos or reports using text messages and Twitter.
"We weren't really sure how it would be received," Johnson said.
The response was stronger than anyone expected. The next step seemed obvious: Put a link so people can submit storm photos directly to the Des Moines office through its website.
The National Weather Service still depends on storm spotters. A good spotter can give detailed, accurate information quickly. But there's no substitute for a meteorologist being able to see the scene for himself.
Photos allow that to happen and, if they're sent from a smartphone, can be in almost real time. And it allows the meteorologist to examine small details, things that may be missed in the adrenaline of a chase.
"It adds confidence from what we receive from the spotter," said Johnson. And the metadata, details like where and when a photo is taken by a digital camera, can be just as valuable. "Basically, with storms, as long as a photo has a location and time, a picture can be worth a thousand words."
Digital uploads as part of the response to emerging severe weather is still, as Johnson says, "in its infancy." But the initial results are encouraging. And benefits go beyond the immediate need for weather warnings, since the photos and video clips can be used in training sessions to show new spotters what to look for in the field.
While most people are more concerned with snow right now, the National Weather Service is starting to gear up for severe weather season. Last year was an abnormally quiet season, but that means little for 2013. Training for storm spotters begins next month.
And this year they'll have a new tool for keeping forecasters informed.