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.

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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.
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