Thursday, August 11, 2011

Storm Chasing Part 3

I'm back with part 3 of this storm chasing series. Now while, I had planned on covering safety rules and ethics in part 3...a conversion I had the other day...changed my mind on how to cover it. This person thought it was wrong to write about what it was like to storm chase and how to do it safely in a blog format....They felt it was irresponsible and would promote people going out and chasing storms......Also, this person felt programs like "Storm Chasers" on the Discovery channel promoted the same thing. This is a valid's not the first time I've heard this argument. It may surprise you, but, the argument maybe more than partly right. I also feel storm chasing shows over dramatize the subject. Every year more and more thrill seekers are on the Plains chasing storms....I've seen traffic jams in the middle of nowhere (this is called a chaser convergence) where the roads are clogged with cars following a storm. Are chasing shows to blame for this?  Maybe,  a small percentage of the people chase because of TV shows. However, like I said in Part 1 of this series, many people chase on a whim....they see a storm, they have a camera, they decide to chase the storm, Why, so they can post it on YouTube  for bragging rights with their friends. How do I know this? I've seen and talked to many of these chasing newbie's and they do very stupid things. Is shunning the guy or gal the answer?  In short no,  I tell them what I think and show them how to do it right. I feel this will keep them from doing it ever again.  This brings me back to the argument, is it unwise to write a blog on this stuff?  The answer is no,  I think not talking about ways to chase safely is what's irresponsible. I feel people will do stupid things and make bad decisions. All I can do is try to educate people who are interested in chasing on how to do it safely.  If you look over the  11 post I've made, you will see safety and education are at the heart of every one of them. Awareness and education is the reason I'm writing this blog.

Before I start..........I will ask the question who was the first American storm chaser? I will answer this in part 4 of this series.

No, there are no official rules or code of ethics for storm chasers. However, there are what we call unwritten rules. These rules will help you  chase with common sense. 

Storm chasing safety rules.

Modern Storm chasing got its start in the 1950's. Names like David Hoadley, Roger Jensen, Neil B. ward, and Chuck Doswell are legendary. Even back in the 60's people were acting reckless, dangerous, and were inconsiderate when chasing storms. There was  enough of them that Chuck Doswell started using the term "yahoo" to describe storm chasers who engaged  in this sort of  behavior. So you can see this sort of stuff was going on long before shows like "Storm Chasers".

1) If you want to be a safe chaser it involves planning and paying attention to what's going on around you. I don't mean just paying attention to the storm.  I'm talking about things that will keep you and those with or around you safe.  So when you see a wall cloud... don't stop dead in the road and jump out of your car, instead park it as far off the road as you can. Driving safely is a must; driving rules and laws apply to you as well as everyone else.  Tornadoes are far down the list of the most dangerous things encountered while chasing. The first is unsafe roads and other traffic. When your chasing things like potholes, wet roadways, animals, wires, branches, and other debris in the road are things you find all the time. This is why having someone who's only job is driving and not navigating or taking pictures is so important.   

2)  Lightning is a big danger when you're around a supercell or any thunderstorm for that matter. Unfortunately lightning and storm chasing go hand in hand.  Capturing lightning with a camera is exciting. Just don't forget if you're out of the vehicle you can be struck.  I've had close calls with lightning on a few always use common sense around thunderstorms.

Here is a link to my blog on severe weather safety. It covers lighting safety as well as other severe weather dangers.

3) Try to avoid hail. Hail is a constant danger when your chasing. Half Dollar size hail can break windshields, when the hail becomes Baseball sized even your car is not a safe place be.

4)  In part 2,  I mentioned my rule about calling in a tornado before you reach for your camera. This rule fits here.......when chasing you're the eyes of the NWS.....never assume that someone else will call in a funnel cloud or tornado. This is why I said necessary equipment includes a ham radio. It's a very reliable way to get the word out. 

5) When you're on a storm don't have tunnel vision, keep your head on a swivel... know when you're in over your head....don't be afraid to back off a storm you're not prepared for.. I had one close call with a tornado. We were fixated on the wedge tornado in front of us. It wasn't until we decided to move back a bit that we saw the rope tornado behind us.

6) Be careful when you're in close proximity to a mesocyclone..If you don't know what you're doing stay out of the bear cage...don't drive under a rotating wall cloud.  But if you do  use extreme caution.  RFD can be very dangerous and if a tornado is going to form it usually happens only a few minutes after the RFD reaches the ground. Please read my blog series on severe weather and tornadoes for more information.

7) Never chase alone.....I like to chase with three people. This way you can have a driver, navigator, and a third set of eyes who can also help with the camera work.  If you chase alone it will lead to distracted driving - which we all know is a bad idea.

8) Always have an escape route when you approach a storm.....If you don't have one back off the storm until you do have one.

9) Safe chasing also include this education thing I keep harping on....Learn about storms before  you go out and try to encounter them. 
10) Try not to chase in heavily populated areas.

11) Always yield the right of way to emergency vehicles.

12)  Always choose your chase partners carefully...You will be spending a lot of time together. Decide as a group how decisions will be made.

13) Don't drive through deep water....find another way around.

14) Never chase if you're leads to very bad decisions.

And while it's not a rule for say.....try to learn a little about forecasting...In my opinion you're not a real storm chaser if you don't.

Storm Chasing ethics.

The lack of courtesy is an epidemic in modern society.  Road rage, people shouting at each other in parking lots, hearing rude language in public are just a few examples. A generation or two ago it was expected that gentlemen would hold doors open for ladies. I can tell you that's not the case now. The lack of courtesy is a big problem in chasing as well. The yahoo's Chuck Doswell first talked about are alive and well.  I've seen people driven off the road, I've been passed by people driving 100 mph on a wet road. This kind of behavior is not limited to just chaser wantabe's.  I've seen professional storm chasers passing several car's on a double solid line, TV news chase trucks drive across someone's field leaving trench marks with their tires, Pro's who set up equipment in the roadway. This Gladiator mentality will probably never go away; the need to get that picture or win that Emmy will drive some people to do anything; nothing I say here will change that. However, it's my hope that I can reach someone who has not sold their soul to the dark side.

1) Always stop to help a chaser who is stuck, has a flat tire, or their car has broken down....It could be you next time...that same person could be the one who helps you.

2) Always be courteous and respectful of law enforcement....They're not out there to ruin your chase day...If a roadblock is setup and you can't talk your way through...let the storm go...remember it's not personal they're only doing their job.

3) Always be respectful of property owners.... never trespass on a private roadway and don't use some farmer's field as a shortcut to a destroys the land and crops. Farmer's can be a great ascent if you get stuck on a muddy back road.

4) Always  tamper down your enthusiasm around locals about the storm. Remember you're the outsider, it's their home, land, or town that's being torn up.  This point was driven home to me in 2008.  A supercell was south of West Liberty, Iowa. Thinking we had time, we decided to top off the gas tank and grab a little food for the road. I was paying for drinks and snacks when the tornado sirens went off.  I said to the casher hopefully it stays out of town.  By the look on her face  you would have thought I had slapped her.......She said "Maybe so...but, my family and I live out there". My comment had upset her and caused anguish.

5) Always act  responsibly and safely...Always put the safety of yourself, the team, and local people ahead of your desire to get that close-up of the tornado. When you're chasing a storm you represent the chasing community.  Don't be one of the yahoos or a thrill-seeker. All you will do is give all chasers a black eye.

6) Always respect nature....don't leave your trash on the ground....pack it back to the motel and put it in a dumpster.

7) Always respect the storm.....when you're chasing severe weather things can change in a heartbeat.  keep your eyes open whenever you're near a severe storm.....The best way to be respectful is to learn all you can before you start the car to go on a chase.

8)  Always show respect for storm victims. don't stand around taking pictures of someone's destroyed home. I've seen chasers who started an unofficial damage survey....don't do this... unless you're invited to join a damage survey or cleanup crew.

Chuck Doswell and Alan Moller have written codes of ethics for storm chasers. You can read what they have to say at these two links.

Now, I will go a little into storm spotting.

Storm Spotting

A storm spotter is a trained individual who monitors all kinds of hazardous weather situations....But primarily they deploy and watch severe thunderstorms for tornadoes. In order to become a spotter you need to take Skywarn classes. Skywarn is what the storm spotting program is called in the USA. In Canada it is called Canwarn.
 The classes are free and cover such things as
Basics of thunderstorm development

Fundamentals of storm structure

Identifying potential severe weather features

Information to report

How to report information

Basic severe weather safety

In my severe weather awareness series. I covered a little about radar. Also, in the post on tornadoes, I talked about the limitations of modern weather radar.  As a storm spotter you're the eyes and ears of the NWS. It's your job to bridge those limitations by reporting what is going on.
Contact your local NWS office for details on spotter training in your area. The last I knew, Steve DiRienzo and Ray Okeefe were the Skywarn contacts for the NWS Albany, NY. If anyone is interested, send me an email and I will give you their contact information. Or you can contact Andy at WTEN, I'm sure he can give you the information as well.  

The difference between a chaser and a spotter.

The main difference is that in order to be a spotter you must have formal training. Whereas, for a chaser training is only highly recommended. A storm spotter normally stays in their local area, where he or she reports on severe weather that they see. The storm chaser normally drives all over the place and observes and films severe weather. However, this difference has blurred over the recent many spotters also documents what they see. As for chasers, they are reporting on the severe weather they see.

Here are a few sites that will give you more info on storm spotting.

I hope you found this an enjoyable read; more importantly I hope you come away with a better understanding of the rules and ethics of storm chasing.


Rebecca Ladd


  1. Rebecca, I've always wanted to chase tornadoes. If I ever get up the nerve; I will keep this in mind.

  2. This was very interesting. I've enjoyed and learned so much from all your post. You make complicated subjects so easy to understand.


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