John Tomky has no formal training. He simply scans the skies, sniffs the air and taps into his instincts as a lifelong farmer and rancher in Olney Springs, 40 miles east of Pueblo.

He’s on the lookout for churning clouds, sun dogs, temperature dips, moon phases, fog and other clues of what the weather in his neck of the woods might do.

Then, as a weather spotter, Tomky shares his insight with a longtime buddy he’s never met in person, chief meteorologist Matt Meister of Fox 21News.

“I’m a little bit of a weather nerd,” Tomky says.

He won a Science Fair trophy in the fifth grade on simple weather forecasting, and his passion has never waned.

“Being on the farm, weather is such a big part of your life,” Tomky says. “Everything revolves around it.”

John Tomky looks out over his pastures while strolling in his Ford pickup in Olney Springs of Crowley County on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Tomky is a fourth generation farmer and started when he was 15 years-old. He is also a weather spotter because farming and weather go hand in hand. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)
John Tomky looks out over his pastures while strolling in his Ford pickup in Olney Springs of Crowley County on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Tomky is a fourth generation farmer and started when he was 15 years-old. He is also a weather spotter because farming and weather go hand in hand. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

On the eastern plains, fluctuations are not just about whether an umbrella or snow boots are in order for the day, but whether the alfalfa needs to be cut and baled, or the corn fields could use extra irrigation or the cattle should be moved.

“We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature constantly, all the time,” Tomky says. “My whole livelihood depends on it, and I can’t do a darn thing about it, good or bad.”

But he can prepare for rain, lightning, flooding, hail, snow, windstorms, tornadoes and other events by noticing the weather patterns. And he can alert others by being a regular weather spotter for television news.

“Colorado Springs might be getting a blizzard, and out here we might have sunshine,” Tomky said. “The weather’s so different in different areas, which is part of the reason I do this. It can help with trip planning.”

Unlike politics or religion, weather is a unifying subject that interests everyone, meteorologists say.

“It’s the only thing in a television broadcast or a newspaper that impacts every single person watching or reading, said Meister. “Everybody has to get to work or school or the store, and people want to be prepared for it and plan and maybe make different plans.”

Brian Bledsoe, chief meteorologist at KKTV 11 News, The Gazette’s news partner, agrees:

“It’s a conversation piece. Everybody talks about the weather.”

Weather spotters are an important meteorological tool, along with technology such as dual polarization radar and remote weather cameras, Meister said.

“Radar still has its limitations — it can’t see into every nook and cranny in the mountains,” he said. “Having ground crews is always helpful to us when we’re verifying forecasts we’ve made and be in real-time situations with rain, snow, damage from wind.”

With social media, anyone now can act as a weather spotter, Bledsoe said.

“You don’t have to be an official spotter to send in a report,” he said. “Everyone can give us information or measurements about what’s happening right now where they are, so we’re now-casting, not forecasting.”

For anyone who wants to learn exactly how to measure snowfall and rainfall, scout for signs of incoming changes and prepare for weather phenomena, the National Weather Service office in Pueblo provides free training every spring.

Last year across southern Colorado, the service provided 25 free sessions for 700 attendees, who then are certified to report conditions to the agency, from home, at work or on the road.

Some 2,500 volunteer spotters throughout southern Colorado are doing that any time there’s an atmospheric episode, said Greg Heavener, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pueblo.

The office has 16 meteorologists who cover 21 counties spanning east to Kansas, south to New Mexico and Oklahoma, west to Mineral County and north to Douglas County.

Relying on trained weather spotters is “a way for them to be our eyes and ears across the region and get real-time information back to us,” Heavener said.

Official moisture totals are collected by employees at three regional airports, in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Alamosa. All other sites, from Monument to Burlington to the San Juan Mountains to Antonito and everywhere in between, are monitored by residents who have become weather spotters.

It’s a popular pastime, Heavener said, as southern Colorado has a lot of weather enthusiasts.

“We deal with weather every day,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, it’s always part of our lives.”

The dates and locations of the free weather spotter trainings will be posted in January on the National Weather Service site, https://www.weather.gov/pub/spotters.

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