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what weather models do i look at when forecasting thunderstorms? 300 mb 500 mb 700 mb 850 mb?


You want to look at all levels of the atmosphere, from the surface all the way up through 250mb.  




When looking at surface plots you want to look and see how much moisture is present...i.e what are the dewpoints.  You also want to check to see what dewpoints are like downstream b/c if you have a warm front that may be lifting through, those higher dews may work in.  Temperatures and potential temperature is also important...will there be plenty of solar heating?  Can be key when worrying about degree of instability.  




At these levels you want to check dewpoints as well...not only do you want the surface to be moist, but you want the lower levels of the atmosphere to be moist as well...this can enhance the degree of instability and storms need moisture to grow and develop.  You also want to look at winds...wind shear is important b/c it can enhance updraft strength.  




At these levels you also want to look at temperatures along with wind speed and as Eskimo Joe stated, at 500mb this is where you want to look for any energy that may slide though and enhance the degree of lift.  For temperatures you don't want warm temperatures at these levels (there is an exception to this...it's with elevated mixed-layers but that's a while different post)...what to want to see happening is a fairly rapid change in temperature with height from about 850-500mb...this leads to steeper mid-level lapse rates which enhances upward motion and stronger instability.  Again, you want to look at winds to determine the degree of shear...the stronger the winds, the higher likelihood of storm organization.  




Eskimo Joe summed that up 


What you also want to look for is timing of the cold front...we knows fronts occur at the surface but in reality there are fronts throughout the atmospheric column as well...if say the mid level front moves through before the surface front...that's going to reduce risk of storms.  


Anyways this is just a very basic guidance and obviously there is much, much more than this that you need to take into account.  Once you learn and understand the basics you can start to "play around" with what you know and practice and learn much more.  

As ohleary stated definitely read the SPC outlooks...especially when there is the potential for a significant event somewhere...they often generate some great discussions and you can learn a ton!


Also, there are numerous resources on the web, I'd recommend looking into Jeff Haby's page theweatherprediction.com  


That page is incredible and has basically everything you need to know and more.  

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