It’s May in the Great Plains, a time when meteorologists “feast on the smorgasbord of atmospheric violence,” as a forecaster at the national Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., described it.
The most important weapon in your arsenal for keeping out of harm’s way during tornado season is a good old-fashioned battery-powered weather radio that works even if electricity or cellphone towers get knocked out. Camping stores even sell hand-crank versions that don’t require batteries.
So get one of those and then check out these severe weather smartphone apps. They provide hyper-localized and visual information about developing dangerous conditions.
These three are my favorites:
Storm / Weather Underground (free, iOS and Android)
This basic app has the clearest overview and is the easiest to use.
The main screen is a high-resolution sweeping radar that shows near real-time data, as well as past and future images.
If your selected area or tracking location is under a tornado watch or warning, a twister icon appears, as opposed to an “alerts” tab that you have to tap to open and read. When I’m out on the open range and see that orange twister pop onto the phone screen, I know it’s time to get back to town, close to a shelter.
Storm provides National Weather Service alerts, and you can also choose to get a text when precipitation or lightning is detected within 10 miles of your location. You can customize the full-screen map, adding data including road conditions and wind speed, good for travelers.
The app uses location tracking or stored locations.
Storm Shield ($4.99 iOS and Android)
The best reason to buy this app is the voice alerts that can wake you up in the middle of the night or “talk” to you while you are driving and can’t look at your phone.
Storm Shield functions like a mobile extension of the NOAA Weather Radio network. A recently added feature lets you share weather alerts with friends or family.
You can use live tracking or save up to five locations. I especially like the “push pin” feature that lets you adjust your base location from the center of your ZIP code area to your precise address by moving the pin on a detailed map with your finger.
RadarScope ($9.99, iOS and Android)
This ridiculously feature-packed app was designed for meteorologists, storm chasers and weather enthusiasts alike. It’s way over my head but after my storm-chaser pal Stephen Locke recommended it, I bought it anyway because it’s really fun to play with.
And if you can fake the weather-watcher talk a little bit, you’ll be a hit when you flash your screen at parties: “Wow, check out these enhanced echo tops.”
RadarScope loads NEXRAD Level 3 data from radar stations across the U.S., Puerto Rico and Guam. You can find useful lay information such as storm total surface rainfall as well as highly technical details about reflectivity, velocity, correlation coefficient and vertically integrated liquid.