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Whenever storm systems build over Arkansas skies and threats of inclement weather rise, activity increases on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites about what residents are seeing outside.
The National Weather Service is now taking advantage of that to enhance agencies' forecasts and warnings, officials say. Several weather bureaus have created positions in which meteorologists monitor social media during storms so they can confirm dangerous weather, pinpoint warning locations and corroborate the images seen on radar with what actually is happening.
"It's a great way to know what a storm is doing," said National Weather Service meteorologist Julie Lesko of North Little Rock. "The response is quick [on social media]. If we know what is occurring at that exact moment, we can get a better idea of what it will do at the next town and we can issue better warnings.
"We can follow the life cycle of a storm in real time," Lesko said.
The Wichita, Kan., weather service station was able to issue a detailed warning last week after seeing a picture of a tornado that a storm chaser posted on his Twitter feed. The service's Doppler radar had picked up the twister's rotation, but meteorologists were able to confirm that the tornado touched down by viewing the photograph.
Meteorologists in North Little Rock also tracked a violent storm system as it passed through Lawrence County earlier this month through the pictures of hailstones that residents posted on their Facebook pages. Pea-sized hail fell in Lynn, but increased to baseball-sized hail as the storm crossed the Black River and intensified over Portia.
"Social media makes everyone a citizen scientist," said Tim Brice, a senior meteorologist at the El Paso, Texas, National Weather Service bureau. "Everyone talks about the weather. Now they can post pictures and information about it."
Brice is a member of the National Weather Service's Southern Regional social media team, which teaches weather bureaus how to use Facebook, Twitter, Meerkat and other media sites. The Southern Region includes 10 states from New Mexico to Florida.
"It's where the people are," Brice said. "We can get information from them, and it's a good way to get our own information out."
Since creating its own Facebook pages, the weather service has seen rapid growth in the number of "followers" of the pages. The Norman, Okla., service's page has the most followers in the Southern Region with 137,000, Brice said.
"It's because Norman is the center for weather with the University of Oklahoma, and it has a lot of active weather," he said.
With nearly 60,000 followers, the North Little Rock service's Facebook page is the fourth-most popular in the region, he said.
The weather service in Tulsa began using a meteorologist to monitor social media sites a year ago, meteorologist Dave Jankowski said.
"We check to see what's going on," he said. "We're watching headlines, television sites, any social media site. We're looking for any information that can help us."
Jankowski said meteorologists once saw reports of a hazardous chemical spill near Tulsa and were able to provide weather forecasts, along with wind speeds and directions, to emergency workers who were cleaning the spill.
The Arkansas Storm Report Facebook page uses social media to post warnings to its followers during inclement weather and weather-related information during calm days. The page, created by Luke Matheson of White Hall, has almost 47,000 followers.
In addition to presenting safety tips, information about storm formations and other weather tidbits, the Arkansas Storm Report administrators also filter through photographs sent in by followers -- some of which are fake.
After the weather service issued a tornado warning for Desha and Arkansas counties on April 2, Matheson said he received a picture of a tornado from a woman claiming her son photographed it near Pendleton.
Others in the area said they didn't see the tornado, and Matheson realized the picture was not real.
"I did a little research and found the image was one of a tornado in Tulsa in 2012," he said. "I ended up sending a message to the lady, who said her son did it to 'freak' people out."
Matheson said his Facebook page receives scores of "funnel-like" pictures and videos when storms rear up. However, Matheson, who is a trained weather spotter, can determine if they are real upon examination.
"It's getting to the point where everyone with a cellphone camera wants to shoot tornadoes," he said. "You can't always trust it anymore.
"Some people do it just to get a rise out of people. They want to stir it up and see if their pictures go viral. We have to be very careful, especially this time of year."
Brice said he trains meteorologists to check pictures submitted to weather services for their authenticity. If a picture is altered with Photoshop, a digital imaging program designed to modify or enhance photographs, the electronically sent image will contain a code revealing the software's use.
He also instructs meteorologists to use Google image searches to find photographs that are often reused as fakes.
One of the most popular fictitious pictures, he said, is of a rotating supercell taken over the Plains. The photo was altered during superstorm Sandy in October 2o12 to show the cell over the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Another picture, taken in Orchard, Iowa, in 2008, shows a large wall cloud behind a metal farm building and train crossing. The wall cloud, which looks like an ominous tornado, has since appeared in other fake photographs.
Yet another fake shot that makes the rounds, Brice said, is of a lightning-illuminated tornado near an oil rig. The actual tornado picture was taken by a weather service meteorologist in 1991. The oil rig was later added to the photograph.
"These are circulated every weather season," Lesko said. "We start to recognize the ones that are used over and over. Credibility is a big thing with us."
Brice said he checks each photograph he sees to ensure it is real.
"We can use social media for that," he said. "If we get 20 photos on Twitter or Facebook of nickel-sized hail in some area and one baseball-sized hail shot, we'd know something was up.
"We can use the same tools to dispel the [fake] photographs that the people are using to show them," he said.
Brice said the weather service is considering integrating Meerkat, an application that puts live-streaming video onto social media, into its webpages. Meteorologists can watch the formation of storms live online and tailor their forecasts based on their observations.
The service is also using meteorologists at different stations to monitor social media sites in areas that are experiencing storms.
Recently, Brice in El Paso and another meteorologist in Fort Worth checked Facebook posts from people near Memphis when heavy storms raked the area.
"It was a sunny, quiet day here," Brice said. "But we could watch the storms and see the posts from Memphis and help them."
Forecasters no longer just gaze at radars, he said.
"People have always talked about the weather," Brice said. "We started noticing people posting things like, 'It's raining here,' on their Facebook pages. Weather affects everybody. It's a commonality that we all discuss.
"Social media has helped us do a better job of discussing the weather ourselves."
State Desk on 04/27/2015