Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Causes of the Birmingham Snow and Ice Shutdown on 1/28/14

There has been much debate among Alabamians as to who or what was to blame for the chaos of thousands of motorists being stranded on Birmingham area roads Tuesday January 28, 2014 for, in some cases, over 12 hours.  It seems like most of the blame has been placed on meteorologists "blowing" the forecast.  Well known ABC 33/40 Chief Meteorologist James Spann took responsibility in a blog post this morning saying, "There was clear human suffering as a result of my bad forecast."  James has been a fixture in Alabama meteorology for over 35 years and has played as large a role in saving lives and reducing human suffering due to weather during that time as anyone.  I have known and respected James for almost 20 years as an ABC 33/40 Skywatcher and storm chaser and almost always agree with his viewpoints.  I agree with many of his points here, but I do not believe that he, or other meteorologist should bear sole blame for this terrible event.  I would like to point out why.  I would like to submit that the forecast was only a small, small part of what led to the problem.  I would submit, instead, that it was a combination of numerous unfortunate factors. 

Before I get into that, let's look closely at the official statements put out to the public by the NWS Birmingham in the days and hours leading up to the event.

5:00 AM 1/26/14: NWS Multimedia briefing describes uncertainty in the forecast due to conflicting models.  It also reminds viewers to check with the State Department of Transportation web page.

2:53 PM 1/27/14: In addition to the snowfall there will be a period for freezing rain accumulations south of I-85. Ice amounts will be around a tenth of an inch in these locations. Expect the wintry mixture of precipitation will begin around 10 am and last until around 6 pm before switching to all snow.

FYI...We have added Bibb, Shelby & Talladega Counties to the Winter Weather Advisory for tomorrow (Tuesday). Potential snow accumulations remain about the same...generally up to 1/2 inch.

5:15 AM 1/28/14: In addition to the snowfall there will be a period for freezing rain accumulations south of I-85. Total ice amounts will range from a tenth of an inch to around a quarter inch for the highlighted locations above. Expect the freezing rain to begin around 10 am and last through about 9 pm before switching to all snow. Travel may become quite hazardous where ice accumulates. 

5:35 AM: Wintry precipitation is expected to begin across Central and Southern Alabama this morning and persist into the overnight hours tonight. The highest snow and sleet totals will be across areas along Interstate-85 where 2-3 inches of snow/sleet accumulations are expected. There will be a sharp cut off in snow/sleet accumulations to the north. Locations north of a line from Livingston to West Blocton to Talladega to Heflin can expect to see a dusting to one quarter of an inch. Across locations south of Interstate 85, including the cities of Troy, Eufaula, and Hurtsboro, an extended period of freezing rain is expected before a transition to snow after 6pm.

9:37 AM: A large area of wintry precipitation is currently overspreading Central Alabama. While the heaviest amounts are expected to be along and south of the US 80 and I-85 corridor, hazardous conditions and slick roads are expect nearly area wide. 

2:41 PM: A large area of wintry precipitation continues to overspread Central Alabama and slowly make its way southeastward. While the heaviest amounts are expected to be along and south of the Interstate 20-59 corridor... hazardous conditions and slick roads are expect nearly area wide. Travel is discouraged.
As illustrated here, forecasters pointed out the uncertainty in snowfall forecasts, especially in the South.  Forecasts for the Birmingham area ranged generally from a dusting to 1/4 of an inch.  2-3 inches were forecast to the southeast, along the I-85 corridor.  What actually occurred in the Birmingham area was 1-2" of snow.  The forecast was off by an inch or so, with the caveat given, as always, that there was margin for error.  Was the forecast perfect?  No.  Was it a major bust leading to human suffering?  I also say "no" to that!  There were certainly other factors at play:

  • Just plain bad luck.  1-2" of snow would rarely cause this much havoc, even in the South.  It was the perfect storm of weather events and social interaction. If two inches of snow was forecast, many, if not most people would have still been vulnerable.
  • The forecast was not that bad.  If 11 inches are forecast and 12 inches fall, people would be amazed at the accuracy of the forecast!
  • In the days of schools closing for cold dry weather, why was the decision not made to close schools?
  • Road conditions were worse than usual due to the fact the weather has been colder than usual  The temperatures were colder than forecasts.  Road conditions were not expected to be that bad.  Weather forecasters are not road condition forecasters.
  • Mass panic.  I submit that in these days of social media and sensitivity to the weather, many people made the same decision at the same time to leave their places of safety, causing unusual gridlock.
  • Governor Bentley issued a State of Emergency the day before for the entire state.  However, roads were not prepared by salting them down in advance.  Alabama may not have the resources for that, but nevertheless, it would have mitigated this disaster.
  • Coordination among public agencies maybe could have been better.  The Department of Transportation, EMA, NWS, media outlooks, and local governments can always be improved.
  • I am reluctant to say this, because it is only a part of the problem and it goes against the grain of many in our society, but personal responsibility is a factor.  Ultimately, we all are responsible for our own safety and weather-awareness. 
  • The need for integration of social science and the science of meteorology.  Public and private meteorologists need to continue to look for better ways to communicate forecast uncertainty, potential outcomes, and how to mitigate these situations.
  • Limitations of the science of meteorology!  If the same scenario arose next week, we just plain do not have the ability with current technology to pinpoint things like this and the same forecast would probably been made given the same data.  
I think there were probably many other factors that I haven't even pointed out.  But as a guy who loves weather (not a professional meteorologist) and respects the scientists who dedicate their life to it, I felt compelled to point out a few other factors that we may need to consider.  My hope is that we can all learn from this event and prevent it in the future.  Thanks for reading!

Mike Wilhelm

Monday, May 20, 2013

Storm Chasing - The Best and Worst

Severe weather brings out the best and worst of storm spotters and storm chasers. If you are doing it for notoriety or money, you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons. If your primary motivation is to provide a public service, “ground truth” reports to the media or National Weather Service, advance scientific research, or to explore your fascination and knowledge of weather, you are in it for the right reasons.

During the recent outbreak of tornadoes on the Plains, many photos, videos, forecasts, and comments flooded social media. Most of them were fascinating and useful. However, having chased storms for over 25 years and having been close to some heartbreaking and traumatic experiences, I have lost patience for “chasers” who seem oblivious or callous to how severe weather affects people. It rubs me the wrong way when people seem to get excited and even seem to like the fact a tornado is moving toward a highly populated area. And as bad as that may be, I really don’t understand why they cannot at least keep such feelings to themselves, rather than projecting it publicly through social media.

Personal experiences have made it impossible for me to be oblivious to how severe weather changes people’s lives. One of my best friends’ wife was permanently injured in the F-4 tornado that hit Airport Road in Huntsville November 15, 1989. On May 18, 1995, while chasing, I drove up on damage from the F-4 Anderson Hills tornado at the Oakdale Mobile Home Park near Athens. Every mobile home was destroyed. There were people wandering around and some yelling and screaming for help. I, along with another man, found a man lying on his back. He was bleeding badly from his face down to his abdomen. We carried him out, using someone’s front door as a makeshift stretcher. This was such a traumatic experience. On April 27, 2011, I witnessed the EF-4 tornado that destroyed much of Tuscaloosa, a town I lived in for 8 years. I have been around several tornado-damaged areas over the years. These events were not only heartbreaking, they have cemented in my heart and mind the fact that there is nothing exciting, fun, or gleeful about a tornado that damages property or injures or kills people. On the contrary, I see my number one role as a spotter is to provide information that will help prevent people from being hurt or losing their lives. I am committed to maintaining that as my primary reason for chasing.

Some may ask, what is wrong with making money storm chasing? In and of itself there is nothing wrong with it. We live in a free enterprise system. But the fact of the matter is that there are probably only a handful of people, at the most, who make a living by chasing storms. If you are thinking about getting into it in order to make money, you might as well not even begin. Most chasers make no money at all. Those who do are fortunate if they make enough to cover the expenses of chasing. When you consider the cost of equipment, communications, time off work, and transportation costs, chasing can be an expensive hobby. A few chasers have been able to make back some of those expenses working with media, giving paying passengers chase “tours”, and selling outstanding video to media outlets. I have been fortunate enough to work with media and numerous media outlets have purchased my video. However I was also chasing in the 1980’s when practically no one knew I was out and I did it because I was fascinated with weather, never dreaming I might make a few dollars.

I don’t like to be quick to judge the motives of other people, because it is nearly impossible to know what is in the heart of another person. Sometimes it’s hard enough to judge our own motives. But, I see signs that make it appear that a lot of folks are way too concerned about notoriety. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to be recognized and appreciated. Whether it is someone I know in another walk of life, a member of the local media or National Weather Service, or people I meet, it is gratifying when people express appreciation or respect for what I do. It just seems that some people go overboard blowing their own horns. I also understand that it is important to get your name out there if you want to reach more people. I am not pointing fingers at anyone specifically, but there can be overkill with the fancy flashing lights, stickers, magnets, signs, tee shirts, and constant bragging on social media. Generally, I think the best approach is to work hard, study, learn, meet others, put the basic information out there, start out with a servant’s heart, build credibility over time (years), and then let your work speak for itself. One way to monitor your motives is if you at least occasionally enjoy chasing “stealth”, meaning going out without telling many people. When I began chasing in the 1980’s, virtually no one knew I was doing it. I still go out some these days without telling anyone so that I can photograph lightning or storm structure or to get a time lapse of clouds. Even if I happen not to have equipment with me, I will be looking out the window to watch the weather.

I do think the life-saving and scientific information provided by storm chasers far outweighs the negatives. So much information has been gained from chasers over the years and it has helped advanced the science of meteorology. The information provided by storm spotters and chasers has also contributed to a warning process that has saved many lives. When a meteorologist with the National Weather Service is told what a trusted, well-trained storm spotter is seeing at a particular time and location, it can have an effect on whether a warning is issued, what kind of warning is issued, whether a warning will continue, or even the wording in a warning. If a trained spotter with a good track record reports a definite tornado, it is powerful and useful information. It is also useful when the same spotter reports there is no tornado at a particular time and location. Even with the advances in RADAR over the years with the advent of NEXRAD velocity products and Dual Polarimetric technology, radars are limited. In addition to reports, photographs and video that spotters and chasers can transmit in real-time can be extremely beneficial. When television stations actually broadcast video of a tornado live, people are more prone to take shelter. These are some of the reasons why trained, experienced, and credible storm chasers are an integral part of the warning process.

I have noticed that there are numerous young people that have shown an interest in storm chasing in recent years, especially since the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak. This is a great thing! I would like to submit a few “do’s” and “don’ts” for you to consider as you move forward with the hobby. I don’t claim to have always abided by every one of these items perfectly, but it definitely needs to be our goal.


• Drive dangerously, block traffic, or violate traffic laws

• Forget about the dangers of hydroplaning

• Park on the road to shoot video

• Try to get too close to a tornado (err on the side of caution)

• Core punch or drive into areas of large hail

• Drive into tornado damage areas

• Be insensitive to storm victims

• Plan on making a living by storm chasing

• Send in erroneous or exaggerated reports to the NWS or media

• Let your emotions get out of control

• Consider it a failure if you don’t see a tornado

• Expect a constant adrenaline rush. Chasing is mostly a hurry up and wait proposition

• Forget lightning, hail, and flood safety rules

• Chase at night, unless you are particularly experienced and have a plan

• Drive while staring at your phone or laptop

• Chase in metropolitan areas if at all possible

• Drive on mud roads

• Drive under or near a wall cloud

• Get tunnel vision. Keep looking around.

• Park under overpasses.


• Get all of the storm spotter training you can

• Continue to get training on a regular basis, as long as you chase

• Make sure you are prepared with the best equipment possible

• Spend adequate time looking at data and coming up with a plan of the day

• Be willing to adjust your plan based on radar trends, etc.

• Listen to weather simulcasts, NOAA weather radio, and scanner traffic, as possible.

• Have a reliable chase partner with whom you have good rapport

• Obey traffic laws, including speed

• Respect private property

• Come prepared. Maintain plenty of fuel, drinks, and snacks.

• Allow enough time and get as much rest ahead of time as possible

• Maintain communication with other chasers

• Have someone “on-call” for back-up support

• Remember that traffic accidents and lightning are the main dangers

• Have an escape route. Know the roads.

• Know the geography of your target area well.

• Post chase consider what was done well and what can be learned

• Remember that most of the time chasing is down time

• Remember to report what you see, and where and when you saw it

• Keep your safety and the safety of those around you as your number one priority

Monday, March 11, 2013

20th Anniversary of Blizzard of 1993

Updated to include videos of coverage by James Spann, Kevin Collins, and Dan Satterfield on WBRC 6 in Birmingham. Scroll down to the bottom of the post.

None of us who are old enough to remember the blizzard of March 12-15, 1993 will soon forget it. This storm shattered snow records and caused amazing weather events from Canada to Central America.

I will focus mainly on the extreme weather Alabamians witnessed. According to the NWS Birmingham, all time Birmingham snow records include:
MAXIMUM in 24 hours 13.0 inches March 1993
MAXIMUM in a single storm 13.0 inches March 1993
MAXIMUM in a single month 13.0 inches March 1993
MAXIMUM in a single season 13.0 inches 1992-93

Below is a clip of the home video I made of the snow that fell in Huntsville, Alabama March 12 & 13, 1993. Huntsville "only" received seven inches from the storm. However snowfall amounts of greater than one foot were common, especially from Birmingham to the east and northeast. The town of Walnut Grove, Alabama, actually received 20" of snow!

All of Alabama was covered in snow. Mobile received 3". The highest total reported in Alabama was at Walnut Grove near the Blount-Etowah county line. Red Mountain in Birmingham recorded hurricane force winds according to meteorologist James Spann. Thundersnow was reported all across the state, from Huntsville to Mobile.
Here is a list of Alabama snow totals posted originally by J.B. Elliott:

20 inches at Walnut Grove
17 inches in Valley Head
16 inches in Oneonta and Bessemer
13 inches at Anniston, Talladega, Pinson and Birmingham Airport
12 inches at Thomasville, Childersburg and Scottsboro
11 inches at Sylacauga
10 inches at Cullman, Clanton and Heflin
9 inches at Thorsby
8 inches at Ashland, Centreville, Moulton and Guntersville
7 inches at Alexander City, Huntsville and Whatley
6 inches at Camden, Evergreen, Jasper, Livingston, Andalusia, Haleyville and Highland Home
5 inches at Auburn, Winfield, Muscle Shoals and Chatham
4 inches at Montgomery, Union Springs, Vernon, Tuscaloosa, Demopolis, Frisco City, Greenville, Troy
3 inches at Brewton, Hamilton, Bay Minette and Mobile Airport
2 inches at Atmore and Robertsdale
Trace at Coden and Fairhope

Here are some great links:  A Storm to Always Remember J.B. Elliott 2008

Pictures from the 1993 Blizzard James Spann 2008

Anyone Remember the Blizzard of 1993 James Spann 2008

15th Anniversary of the "Blizzard of '93" Thread on 

Meteorologist James Spann's account of the storm.

James Spann posted some really cool viewer photos and stories from the storm.

Remembering the "Blizzard of 1993" NWS Birmingham

The Blizzard of 1993 WBHM FM 90.3 Birmingham

Photos WBHM FM 90.3 Birmingham

Listen to the feature story commemorating the Blizzard of 1993 WBHM FM 90.3 Birmingham

Steve Chiotakis remembers forecast and broadcast challenges WBHM FM 90.3 Birmingham

Superstorm 1993 - A Case Study

Wikipedia Storm of the Century (1993)

The Historic American Engineering Record was surveying Birmingham historic sites when the storm occurred. They took the following pictures in downtown Birmingham and in Southside. Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3


The video below is part one of the historic "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama. These clips are in chronological order.

This clip begins on Friday morning March 12, 1993 with meteorologist Dan Satterfield as the precipitation was entering Alabama.

This clip ends just after 10 p.m. when Kevin Collins says that several inches have accumulated on secondary roads.

It includes updates that were provided throughout the evening by meteorologist James Spann, Kevin Collins, and news updates at the end of the clip by Brenda Ladun.

Below is part two of the historic "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama.

During this clip, which was recorded between 10:15 p.m. and midnight, wind gusts were 37 and increased to 41 just before midnight as the storm officially became a blizzard. Thundersnow was reported for the first time around 11 p.m. Thundersnow was also reported in Huntsville and Mobile at the same time. Kevin Collins reported 4-6" of snow just before midnight.

Meteorologist James Spann and Kevin Collins of WBRC 6 report on this historic storm along with news anchors Scott Richards and Brenda Ladun.

The next video, below, is part three of the historic "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama.

These clips are in chronological order. This one begins at 12 a.m. on March 13, 1993 and ends just before 1 a.m. Notice how the power is flickering at the station during the past few minutes of the clip.

The blizzard was really cranking up in Birmingham by this time. Spann reported 6-8" on the ground and winds gusted to 51 mph on Red Mountain at approximately 12:50.

Meteorologist James Spann and Kevin Collins of WBRC 6 report on this historic storm.

This is part four of the historic coverage of the "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama.

These clips are in chronological order. This one begins at approximately 1:50 a.m. on March 13, 1993 and ends at 3:15 a.m. By this time snow accumulations across Central Alabama were over 8" and wind gusts atop Red Mountain at Channel 6 were recorded at 58 miles per hour. Many, if not most of the people tuned in at the time were listening on portable radios as the power was out in many areas.

Snow was accumulating as far south as the beach at Gulf Shores in Baldwin County, Alabama.

The most fascinating part of this video was during the final five minutes as photographer Jeff Thorn describes the video he made, which includes thunder and lightning.

Meteorologist James Spann and Kevin Collins of WBRC 6 report on this historic storm.

This is the fifth and final part of James Spann's and Kevin Collins' historic live coverage of the "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama.

This clip begins at approximately 3:15 a.m. on March 13, 1993 and ends at 8:44 a.m. By this time snow accumulations across Central Alabama were over one foot and wind gusts atop Red Mountain at Channel 6 were continued to exceed 40 miles per hour. Many, if not most of the people tuned in at the time were listening on portable radios as the power was out in many areas.

In addition to James and Kevin, WBRC 6 anchors Scott Richards, Janet Hall, photographer Jeff Thorn, and reporter Art Franklin contributed to this coverage.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Radar Training

I was invited, along with several ABC 33/40 Skywatchers, to attend a radar seminar at the National Weather Service in Birmingham on Saturday June 23, 2012.  Meteorologist Kevin Laws, Science Operations Officer for the NWS Birmingham, conducted the training. 

Below are my notes from the seminar.


Radar is a very complex machine from a mechanical and engineering standpoint. Radar is an “active sensor” of energy. By “active sensor” we mean that it sends out a signal and waits for a return.

There are categories of weather radars. There is no such thing as a “best” radar, they all just have different applications.

1. S-Band (10 cm) radar. Example: (NWS Nexrad Doppler Radar)

2. C-Band (5 cm) radar. Example: (Terminal doppler radars)

3. X-Band (3 cm) radar. Example: (DOW, mobile Doppler radars).

NWS Doppler (WSR) radar objective is to survey and cover broad areas up to 250 nautical miles. WSR stands for “Weather Surveillance Radar”.

C-Band has better resolution that S-Band radars but the surveillance range is much less.

X-Band has the highest resolution but range is the lowest. These 10 mm radars can “see” targets that are 1 mm in size. Some radiation returns from the target, some scatters, some is absorbed, and some goes through the target. S-bands have less attenuation than X and C bands.

Radar equation:

is received power, is transmitted power, is the gain of the transmitting antenna, is radar wavelength, is the radar cross section of the target and is the distance from transmitter to target.

Power of the return is measured in decibels (dBZ).

Doppler radar was introduced in 1942. Wind speed is measured by comparing the angles on the wavelength that the returns are coming back from on consecutive pulses. For example, if the first pulse came back at 0 degrees and the second pulse came back at 90 degrees, the radar “sees” that the target has moved from 0 to 90. Radars can only measure angles between 0 and 180 degrees, limiting the maximum “measureable” wind speed to 58 knots at 180 degree differences. Once wind speed exceeds 58 knots, the angle measurement starts going down from 180. This maximum velocity that can be correctly displayed by a Doppler radar is known as the Nyquist velocity.

By sending out more frequent pulses, the ability to measure higher velocities is possible. However, due to the decreased “listening” time between the more frequent pulses, the effective range is reduced significantly. This is known as the “Doppler Dilemma”.

In order to suit the needs of the meteorologist during different weather conditions, NWS WSR-88 Doppler radars have nine available Volume Coverage Patterns (VCP). Each VCP has a predefined set of instructions given to the antenna that control the rotation speed, pulse and listening time, and elevation angles. The longer listening time is better for reflectivity, but worse for accuracy. Some of these VCP’s enhance the measurement of velocity (VCP 212). Clear air mode VCPs of 31 and 32 are used when velocity is not a concern.

Dual Pol. Single pol radar cannot distinguish between the size of objects within the target area. For example, a target area may contain 700 1 mm raindrops (drizzle) or one 300 mm raindrop. Since those reflectivities are equal, they appear the same on the radar display. Dual pol radar can help distinguish between these targets. Single pol radar looks horizontally only. As a result it doesn’t distinguish well between the size of the objects causing reflectivity. Dual pol, looks at a vertical cross section in addition to the horizontal. This additional data can be compared. As a result, meteorologists can obtain a good idea of the size of the objects being reflected. This, in turn, enhances the ability to distinguish between precipitation types.

One of the dual pol products is ZDR, or differential reflectivity. Hail has a differential reflectivity of around zero. This is measured by subtracting the horizontal dBZ value from the vertical dBZ. When looking at radar products, if you see an area of high dBZ (i.e. 61)on reflectivity and a corresponding low (0) ZDR, the precipitation is hail.

Correlation coefficient (CC) indicates how similarly sized the objects in the target are. This helps indicate where there are areas of mixed precipitation or hail.

“Three body scattered spike” or 3BSS. This refers to an “artifact” that can occur on radar that is caused by large hail. When the wave intersects hail, it is reflected back and also reflected down to the ground. If the ground is wet it is sometimes reflected back to the hail and back again to the radar. This is displayed as a weak echo region that resembles a “spike” protruding from the part of the thunderstorm producing large hail. While many “artifacts” or anomalies on radar are problematic, some, such as the 3BSS can actually be beneficial to the meteorologist.

Future of radar will be phased array radar. The phased array radar is able to scan a variety of pre determined targets which will provide a real time “movie” of a storm system.

GR data: Level 2 vs. Level 3 – Level 2 data is raw data (reflectivity, velocity, spectrum width).

Level 3 data includes processed data from the NWS. In addition to the raw data, it includes SRV, VIL, Mesos, and TVS. Level two radar software from weather vendors may include processed data, it is not the same processed data as the Level 3 NWS data.

Velocity aliasing and folding can be a problem in data provided by level two images provided by vendors. Since the max velocity is 58, the doppler display sometimes shows “couplets” that are nor “real” It also may mask real couplets. Kevin Laws showed examples of various broadcast meteorologists using bad images from their vendor data and compared it to the valid NWS data.

Changes to Gibson Ridge GR3 version 2…

There is a button to pres too “de-alias” velocity data but the three main changes were the Google Earth map background option, Dual pol data (ZDR, CC, HCA, and KDP), and changes to the color scale.

An excellent site to get additional training online is the Warning Decision Training Branch website…

The NCDC archives level 2 data from previous weather events.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Responsible Storm Chasing

To some, that title is an oxymoron. But it doesn’t have to be that way. News reports from the Plains since Saturday’s tornado outbreak indicate that in some areas at least, storm chasing has gotten out of hand. In an article in the Salina, KS Journal, Dickenson County, Kansas EMA Director Chancy Smith said that chasers were clogging roads, failing to yield to emergency vehicles, and driving over downed power lines. Over the past twenty years or so, storm chasing has evolved from a relatively small tight-knit group of scientists and spotters to a virtual free-for-all which includes thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies, publicity hounds, and people wanting to make a quick buck. A “perfect-storm” of events has contributed to this phenomenon. I think the movie “Twister” started the ball rolling. Then, with the proliferation of home video cameras, smart phones, and social media, over time the face of “storm chasing” has changed. Sadly, the change has been for the worse in many ways.

This is not to question the motives of all storm chasers by any means. I have friends in the chaser community who seem to be in it for the right reasons, such as to serve the interests of public safety and science. There is certainly nothing wrong with chasing for the opportunity to learn about and witness nature or to shoot amazing photos or videos to document storms. Few will ever make money by chasing. The expenses outweigh the earning potential. I don’t even have a problem with someone trying to make a few dollars to help defray costs. I think the problems arise when the motive of 15 minutes of “fame” outweighs the interest of serving the public and doing so in a safe way.

There is an inherent risk involved in storm “chasing”. There is no way around that fact. Driving carries its own risks, even under ideal conditions. Throw in wet roads and high wind and it becomes more dangerous. Obviously the safest scenario is to be as far away from tornadoes, thunderstorms, and flooding as possible. Frankly, I am more concerned about the possibility of being struck by lightning than by a tornado.

These risks can certainly be minimized by following some basic rules. Chuck Doswell has authored the best paper I have read on chaser safety, courtesy, and responsibility. He outlines three primary risks to chasers: driving, lightning, and the actual storm itself. I have read this at least once a year for the past few years and I wish everyone who considers chasing in any way would do likewise. He talks about the importance of driving safely, having a partner, looking out for standing water in the road, pulling far enough off the road, avoiding cities, and many other factors related to driving. He also talks about lightning safety which is the second greatest threat. Finally he talks about the storm itself; tornadoes, high winds, hail, and flooding. For those who are trained storm spotters, the storm should be the least dangerous aspect of chasing.

Safe chasing means you are well prepared, you have an escape route, you do not take unnecessary chances, and you drive carefully. Pull off main roads or at least off the shoulder if the terrain allows or in a parking lot. Learn all you can about storms before you begin chasing. Avoid core-punching! It is better not to chase alone.

If you are new to storm spotting and chasing I highly recommend that you start with storm spotter training with the National Weather Service. I also recommend that you find an experienced chaser to ride along with before you consider going out on your own. Remember, even those of us who have done this for many years can, and have made mistakes. Even though I have attended NWS storm spotter training and numerous other weather conferences, along with a great deal of reading, I still am not above going back to basic training every year. This February I attended NWS storm spotter training provided by the NWS Huntsville. There is always more to learn and be reminded about every time I attend.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Oklahoma Twisters

Today, I am going to talk a little about the weather this weekend out on the Plains of Oklahoma. Six people were killed in Woodward, Oklahoma Saturday night during a tornado. This was one of 135 tornado reports in the Plains Saturday. I witnessed a few of those tornadoes myself.

My long-time storm chase partner and friend, John Brown and I left Alabama Friday night and drove to Oklahoma. We actually stopped just past Little Rock and caught an hour or two of sleep in John’s truck. Our plan was to target northern Oklahoma or southern Kansas. Both of those areas were included in a “High Risk” of severe weather by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC). This was only the second time a “High Risk” was issued for an event in the “Day 2” outlook by the SPC. While tornadoes were being reported to our north in Kansas, John and I were hanging back in northwestern Oklahoma. Storms were firing along the dryline in western Oklahoma and moving north-northeast into Kansas. Although we witnessed a wall cloud and a funnel cloud north of Woodward (a town which was later had six fatalities in an overnight tornado), the afternoon storms in our location were not producing tornadoes until they moved into Kansas. This was really testing our patience. But we kept reminding each other of two very important things. One was that the primary window for tornadoes in this area, according to model data, wasn’t until around 7 p.m. and later. The other factor was that often the southern supercell (“tail-end Charlie”) becomes the dominant cell. We were counting on this, because as the afternoon wore on, we were running out of daylight and no more new cells were forming to our southwest.

Around 5:30 or 6:00 there were a pair of cells near Woodward, one of which was tornado-warned. After a short time of debate, John and I agreed to drive north on Highway 34 and then east on US 64, toward Alva, Oklahoma. My thought was that we would be ahead of these storms, giving us plenty of time to adjust our position and watch them pass from a safe position. It also gave the storms a little time to mature. This proved to be a good decision. For quite some time the northern storm was dominant. As time wore on, the relatively cool outflow winds from the southern storm were ingested by the northern storm, choking off much of the warm, moist air that it needed to maintain its strength. As the storms evolved, we waited near Ingersoll, Oklahoma, north of Cherokee. There we saw some very impressive mammatus clouds.

As we saw the southern storm become dominant and show signs of rotation we headed south toward Carmen, Oklahoma. Another storm chaser, Greg Nordstrom, an Instructor of Meteorology at Mississippi State University, called us and said he was already doing the same thing for the same reason. We never saw Greg, but evidently he was only a few miles ahead of us. It is always good to know that someone as experienced and knowledgeable as Greg is making the same decision. By the time we approached the Carmen community, the southern storm was rotating and tornado-warned. We drove west through Carmen and pulled over. Here we were able to see a funnel cloud, and then a tornado. We decided to follow it toward Cherokee, to the north. While John drove us north, I called a storm spotter friend, Jennifer New, who relayed our tornado report to the National Weather Service in Norman.

We stopped just south of Cherokee. There we witnessed not one, but two tornadoes on the ground simultaneously.

Since there were no hills or trees to obstruct our view, we were able to watch these “twin” tornadoes for eight minutes. It was an amazing display of nature, and even better, the tornadoes were not impacting people, since this is a very rural area.

After shooting an 8 minute video of the tornadoes, John and I followed he storms north of Cherokee. By this time, traffic was heavy with storm chasers and it was getting dark. We were tired. We pulled off the road and watched the tornado in the distance as it was being back-lit by lightning. This tornado later affected southeast portions of Wichita, Kansas. It was a successful chase. We were able to witness a few very photogenic tornadoes at sunset that were moving over the open Plains. After midnight, back at the hotel, we watched coverage of the killer tornado in Woodward. It hit especially close to home because John and I spent much of the day in and around the town of Woodward. The National Weather Service in Norman has rated the Woodward tornado an EF3.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Morgan County Lightning

Video from the storms that rolled through southern Morgan County, Thursday March 15, 2012. This video includes still shots of the lightning that I took as well as actual audio video clips.