Monday, August 8, 2011

Storm Chasing Part 2

Here is the next part I promised you........Before I get started I thought I would say: If any of you are ever in Oklahoma...I strongly urge you to go see the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, I took a tour of it and enjoyed it very much. My tour lasted about 90 min. However, a typical tour takes around 45 min you will get to see such things as:  the School of Meteorology, the National Weather observation deck, classroom and laboratory facilities, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center , the Norman National Weather Service Forecast Office, and the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Normally, you can't just pop in. Tours of the facility take place by appointment; pre-registration for all individuals and groups is required.

In part 2, I will go over some of the equipment I feel is necessary to chase successfully and a little about what a typical chase day is like. Chasing is a hobby that just about anyone can do. However, I strongly urge you to learn to fully understand storm structure, types, and behavior of storms as well as a little on severe weather forecasting  I would start, asking questions and reading college level books and papers on meteorology. Then when you're ready go on a few chases with someone who's been doing it for a while and knows what they're doing....I've seen people get overwhelmed by extremely severe weather viewed close up...even  meteorologist....chasing is not for won't know how you will react until you're exposed to it for the first time. Storm chasing can be extremely dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. So learning as much as you can before you start is impotent.  Your life in the field very well could depend on it.  I'm writing this storm chasing series to give you a taste of what it's like to chase storms.... it is not intended to give you license to go out and try it on your own.

This is the equipment I recommend you carry for a chase.

The equipment needed to chase can be as simple as you and your car. However, that is too  bare boned, at least for me .

GPS is very nice to have (not the car navigation units) get a GPS puck. These are easy to connect and can be  used for most applications. Please ensure the version you select can output NMEA 0183. I always buy last year's Microsoft Streets and trips with GPS locator. They use the pharos line of GPS pucks.

One more thing about GPS....Some chasers use GPS Splitter software  which  allows you to split your GPS signal to be used by multiple software applications at the same time.

A ham need a license to use it.

A GMRS radio These have a 2-3+ mile range and are useful to talk to other chasers...these require a license as well.

Some chasers also carry a CB radio. These don't require a license. But, you still have to follow the FCC rules.

A cell phone.

NOAA weather radio or some other way to get NWS warnings, watches, and forecasts. What I use is a scanner. That way, I can get the NWS Warnings along with police, fire, and EMS updates.

A digital Camcorder and a few digital still cameras.

A laptop along with a mobile laptop stand.

Of course you will have to use a cellular data card or satellite download to use internet base radar and weather data sites. Verizon has a 4G plan for unlimited data download that's not to bad...... Sprint, AT&T, and  others have similar plans.

Websites that give you free radar, satellite, and other weather data,,

Software for purchase - non-subscription these products give you highly detailed radar data and information from the NWS radar sites

 Storm alert makes Storm Lab, GRLevelX makes three products:GRLevel2, GRLevel3, and GR2Analyst

Subscription services

WeatherTap,  WxWorx, XM Mobile Threat Net

Other nice things to carry:


 A power inverter to run all the fancy electronics.

Rain-X....  this stuff is put on the windsheld and acts like a wax.  When the rain is coming down so hard you can't see... you will be glad you did.

First-Aid Kit.... I carry quite a bit of first aid equipment, you never know what will happen.


A Tow Rope.
A small gas can  if you run out and have to walk to a gas station it's nice to have.

Clear plastic film and duct tape....hail can break windows.

One of those reflective traffic vest.

A full size spare tire.

You could carry a lot more or less...How much you spend on chase equipment is strictly up to you.  If you don't have a big chase can stop at libraries, rest stops or other places that have free internet access and hotspots.

What is a typical chase day like?

If you're the kind of person that gets nervous at the first sound of thunder, if the idea of trying to keep up with a storm through blinding lightning and torrential downpours and the sound of hail bouncing off your roof, most likely storm chasing is not for you. Storm chasing is not for the weak of heart. What kind of person does it take to be a storm chaser? IMO  it's someone who is smart, inquisitive, willing to take a risk, decisive, and adventurous  Now I'm not saying that all chases are like this, but it gives you a good idea what it's like. You always try to position yourself so that you don't have to punch a storms core.  However sometimes you have no choice, if you want to get ahead of the storm you have to drive through the bears cage; you just hope you don't meet the bear. The bear cage is chaser slang for the heavy precipitation that wraps around a mesocyclone. Therefore, that makes the tornado that could be hiding behind it the bear. large hail is normally the single most dangerous thing inside the core. needless to say it's extremely dangerous to get this close. Anyway I digress, Here is what a typical day is like storm chasing.

The day begins early around 6:00 AM. I get ready and have a wonderful breakfast, normally it's continental served by the motel.  Then by 7:00 AM, I and the two other people on the team go over weather data. We look at the current setup, see what the forecast models have to say,  look at the surface and upper air charts. Other things we look at are the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) daily outlook, satellite and radar data,  anything on watches or warnings, and the forecasted temperatures and dewpoints  (the internet is a wonderful thing). We compare our forecast with that of the SPC. If this sounds like it's a is.....but, we need to be accurate if we what to see something.  We discuss possible intercept points, normally there are three or four choices, Make a decision, do a quick check of the vehicle and chase equipment, and hit the road. We want to be on the road no later than 9:00 AM; Typically it's a four to six hour drive to get to where we want to be; prime storm development time is between 3 and 9 PM. Then we drive and drive, one thing we try to do is take turns driving. Let me tell you, just watching fields and houses go by can be rather boring, so always bring a good book, e-book, MP3's or video game. Before we get to the target area we take a lunch break. It's usually fast food at a small diner. However it can be food from a convenience store. There are days you have eat on the run.  Then after more boring driving we get to the target area.

I'm sure some of you are thinking now the fun begins....Oh how I wish this was reality we normally have to sit for 1-2 hours and wait for things to pop. Convection could begin right overhead, 70 miles away, or not at all. While we wait, normally we try to get updated weather information and radar data. You will notice I said try, there are many times that you lose your cellular data connection. That means all the fancy equipment I talked about above is all but useless. This is where knowing storm structure comes in. If you can read the sky and understand the language you can get all the information you need. Anyway back to our chase day. Then if everything goes right, we will see towering cumulus start to develop.  After watching the clouds we pick one that looks promising. On the drive to intercept the cell, I pay attention to its structure and how it is acting; sometimes this will give me clues as to if the storm will drop a tornado. As we get closer to the storm, I will watch for a wall cloud. If we see a lowering under the wall cloud we will decide on how to attack it.. I try to play it safe by viewing the storm from the right flank.  Where you sit to view the storm depends on what type of supercell you're involved with and which way it's moving. The southeast side of a classic supercell moving in the typical SW to NE direction would be the safest place. However many factors can make this near my best advice would be positioning yourself so you have storms going from left to right, from your vantage point. Contrarily to what you see in the movies, storm chasers don't  plan on ways that place them in danger, but our plans don’t always work out...if after waiting and not seeing any signs of development, we will pick a new target and do it all over again. If a tornado does develop, I have a rule, call it in before you reach for your camera. There are other rules that I will go into later, but calling it in is one of the most important ones. Like I've said before each storm is different.  there are times we picked a spot and the storms come to us. When this happens you have to be careful if you don't want to get rolled by a storm and be subject to big hail. On the other hand,  there are days spent trying to catch storms that are racing away from us. There are also days when you don't see a see a storm much less a tornado...these days are called bust, Others are action packed, with several cells to chase. At the start of a chase day you never know how it will turn out.

Most of the time when it's getting close to dusk we will call it a day.  Most of the time,  it's just too dangerous to chase storms at night. unless you know the area very well; even then it's very risky. Once we decide the chase day is over we head for a motel, sometimes this involves driving through storms you passed up earlier that are dropping heavy rain. Once we get checked in, we see if we can find a restaurant where we can have a nice dinner. If not it's fast food again. After dinner, we will get together and discuss what went right or wrong with the chase. Then once again go over weather data in order to get an idea how the next few days will unfold. Then if there's time I might watch a little TV to help unwind. I always try to be in bed by midnight  ...being tired leads to bad decision making. Well that about it.... Storm chasing is more about making the right decisions and patience than it is having an adenine rush.

Between the equipment, food and lodging, the price of gas. and unforeseen car repairs. Chasing storms can get very expensive. The equipment will cost you several thousands of dollars. As for being on the road, you can go through a few hundred dollars a's not unheard of to spend a few thousand on chases that last a week or more.

The Klingons:

In the last post I said I would mention Klingons and why chasers hate them. These aren't the type you see in the Star Trek movies. The Klingons I'm talking about are the uninvited guest who will get in their pickup trucks and follow chasers. They make us nervous, because they are placing themselves and us in danger....If they follow us into the core where we might think we have time to make it through....this might not be the same for people following us......Never attempt a chase be following a storm chaser. Besides, a big part of the enjoyment in storm chasing is forecasting....I can't describe how it feels when you get it right and know you cracked one of nature's secrets.

Well that's about the next post I will talk about storm spotting. and some basic rules that will make storm chasing safer.

Rebecca Ladd.

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