How do I chase storms?

One of the most common questions I get regarding storm chasing is How I actually chase them. People may ask if I go to a specific place, if I plan my flights from Sweden according to the weather or if I just drive around and look. Neither is correct but the confusion is quite understandable so let me explain.

I never chase alone since I don’t have the skill for it (yet). Chasing alone would be dangerous and boring, since I likely would have a hard time finding any storms. Thus, I have often gone with storm chasing tour companies before and lately with my chase partner David.

I always plan my storm chasing trip way ahead. Like more than six months ahead. I do this mostly because I want to make sure I can go on a certain tour on some specific dates and I don’t want to risk those seats getting taken. Lately I have been going in late May/early June since April, May and June are high season for severe weather in Tornado Alley. Also, David is a school teacher and that is the time of year when he gets on summer holiday. Obviously, I have no idea in November what kind of weather it is going to be on May 27th so it’s just a matter of hoping for the best and playing the odds.

I usually fly in to Oklahoma City or Tulsa but it depends on the tour operator. When the tour starts the tour guide makes a forecast to try to understand in which general area the potential for tornadic supercells are the greatest that day (and the upcoming days). That could be within a range of “north central Kansas around Fredericksburg” or “Oklahoma panhandle”.

These forecasts are always updated and the area redefined continuously but in the morning we start driving towards that target area. The goal is to get into the general area in the early afternoon, before the storms start “popping up”. All storms start as convection in the atmosphere and a single, fluffy, white cloud will hopefully grow into a monster storm. When a cloud has grown into a certain size we can see it on the radar. If it looks promising in terms of size and growth we drive towards it.

After that is is “merely” a matter of prioritizing and positioning. There could be more promising storms popping up in the vicinity that will look better and in that case we re-group and go for that one – if there is a good chance of catching it. Otherwise, we try to stay in the vicinity of the base of the targeted storm in the beginning and when the storm matures we stay a bit further away – away from damaging winds, rain, hail and tornadoes.

As the storm moves we drive along, re-group and observe. Sometimes the storms are slow (like in Canadian, TX, last year) which accounts for a very comfortable chase where you hardly need to re-group at all. Sometimes the storms are really fast (40-50 mph) and you may only just get one or two shots to stop and observe before it passes and you will never catch up again.

There is always an issue with road network and visibility when you chase the storms. The storms often go in a SE or NE direction and the roads often go North/South or East/West so you have drive zig-zag to catch up (which is why you will not catch up on a 40 mph NE moving storm). Sometimes the only road options are gravel roads or long detours which can slow you down to the point you have to give up on the storm.

Certain areas are notorious for having horrible chase conditions in terms of many hills or trees (making it difficult and thus, dangerous to see tornadoes) or just bad road network. Kansas is very popular among chasers because the road network is usually great and there are hardly any hills or trees in most of the state.

If you are lucky enough to see a tornado, there is a tradition to have a steak dinner in the evening. The Great Texan in Amarillo, TX, is a popular place for that if you chase in the Texas panhandle (which is quite common).

Let me know if you have any questions!

Beginner’s guide to storm chasing with organized tours

Everyone can experience the amazing feeling of seeing a tornado or a supercell, without being a professional meteorologist or an experienced storm chaser. In this blog post I will explain what your options are and how you can make it happen.

Why should you listen to me?

I have personally chased storms with four different tour companies (five this summer). I have talked with most of the active tour companies while on the roads and follow the storm chasing community closely. I dare to say that there are very few, if any, who have the same experience about different storm chasing tour companies as I do. I am not an experienced storm chaser myself, but I am a very experienced storm chasing tour guest.

Go with someone who knows

First of all, as a complete amateur you should never chase storms by yourself. This is not what this blog post is about. It is just as possible to chase storms by yourself as it is to go to Florida and wrestle crocodiles Steve Irwin-style, but equally stupid. Supercells and tornadoes are dangerous. Do not think you can chase them by yourself without proper knowledge. Please.

So, in order to experience severe weather safely you should go with someone who knows how to chase storms. For this you have two options: find a chase partner and convince him/her to take you along or go on an organized storm chasing tour.

Finding a chase partner is quite difficult if you don’t have a good friend that you can tag along with. Typically, chasers tend to chase with other chasers in order to exchange expertise. However, many storm chasers chase by themselves which can be boring (during the transportation part) and expensive. If you pay your share for gas and do a fair share of driving you may be lucky someone will bring you along. Your best shot to find a chase partner is the annual storm chase partner forum thread at StormTrack.org.

Chasing storms with an organized tour company

tempest tours chase van

Chasing with an organized tour company allows you to experience storms without having to know anything, you can just “come along”. There are about 15 different tour companies operating. Each year, between April and July, they bring a few hundred tourists in total to the storms – which is, in fact, very few.

So, going with a storm chasing tour company is most likely your best option. I am not saying that because I run a website about storm chasing tour companies but because this is your only real option, and a good one as well. Going with an organized means, above all, you will be chasing with an experienced tour guide.

The three reasons you want to go with an experience tour guide are:

  1. He (almost all tour guides are male) will find the storms and position you so you can actually see them. This is nowhere near an easy task. An inexperienced chaser may get lucky but an experienced tour guide will bring you to the best storms on a regular basis. If you take one week vacation to chase storms, make sure you actually see them.
  2. The tour guide will keep you safe. An experienced tour guide knows what a storm can, and likely will, do. He knows where to position you in order to observe the storm safe from tornadoes, damaging winds, hail and lightning. He will keep track of escape routes and make difficult decisions for you.
  3. The tour guide will explain what happens. Even though storms and tornadoes are visually striking it is a lot more fun if you understand the mechanics of what is happening. If you know what is going on during each part of the event, the tour will be more exciting as well. In addition, understanding the mechanics of the storms allow you to appreciate days that may not have tornadoes (and you will have those days for sure).

Another benefit of going on an organized tour is that you will also not have to bother with finding hotel rooms every night, which can be a hassle when you are in Nowhere, KS, at 10 a.m. while being tired from an entire day of chasing.

The experience of chasing storms with organized tours

Most, if not all, storm chasing tour companies started from a passion of chasing storms rather as a business plan. Chasing storms is expensive and bringing people along can make you turn a bit of a profit instead, as well as meet new people. The result is that many tour companies are often “family styled”: small, friendly and you are likely to be chasing with the owner himself. The experience is often more of driving with a (new) friend rather than with a company.

Chasing “family style” or “organized business”

There is of course a range on how “family style” the tour companies are. All companies try keep it nice and friendly but some companies have grown into more of an organized business. There are advantages and disadvantages with each style.

The benefit of small family style tour companies is that they are usually a bit cheaper, they bring less people and are more personal. They have no fixed rules or guidelines so the one tour could be different compared to the next depending on the tour owner.

The benefit of the tour companies that fit more into the organized business category is that you are more likely to get more of a professional and reliable experience. Organized business tour companies have guidelines in how to perform each tour, like having morning meetings every day with an extensive debriefing, feedback forms etc. The organized business style of tour companies often chase with more than one van on each tour, i.e. have more guests.

Of the tour companies I have tried myself PDS Storm tours and Extreme Chase Tours fall more into the “family style” category. Tempest tours fall into the Organized Business category and Cloud 9 tours I would say is somewhere in the middle.

Choosing tour company

So, which tour company should you choose? I can, personally, only vouch for the ones I have chased with myself. They are all good, solid tour companies with highly skilled tour guides. I can recommend each of them, for different reasons.

extreme chase tours vanOn StormChasingUSA.com I have put every tour company that is currently operating. Most of them have reviews and ratings that will help you with your decision. The tour companies themselves also explain why you should choose them and for what reasons. On StormChasingUSA.com you can search for tours according to price, date etc. as well.

If you want the “organized business” tour experience your options are likely to be Tempest Tours, Silver Lining Tours or Extreme Tornado Tours. Most other would fall more or less into the “family style” category.

Is it not dangerous to chase storms and tornadoes?

Lastly, a question I get all of the time: is it dangerous to chase storms? Tornadoes are dangerous and several unfortunate people die and get their homes devastated by them every year. One major difference between living in Tornado Alley and chase storms is that when you chase storms you are informed and mobile.

When you chase storms with a professional you have access to weather models, radar and the experienced eyes of the tour guide. You literally chase the storms yourself – they don’t chase you. The tour guide knows where to be, how to get there and how to get out of there.

tornado aftermathWhen you live in Tornado Alley, on the other hand, you are living your every day life when the storms appear. You are probably informed by the news reports if storms are likely or if there is a risk for tornadoes that particular day but you still need to go on with your daily life and rely on caution and tornado sirens. If a tornado approaches your town you may not know for sure until you hear the tornado sirens and then you have very little time to get into shelter – if you have any shelter at all. Thus, you are not as well informed or as mobile as a storm chaser.

Still, there is a certain danger to chase storms. The dangers are, however, not likely to be the tornadoes but rather the vast amount of driving you will do. When it comes to the storms, the lightning is the most dangerous part because it is the least predictable weather phenomenon you will encounter around these storms.

Ask questions

Please read up on more articles like this one on StormChasingUSA.com. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comment section below.

Let me know if you have decided to go chasing!

 

Learning the basics about (tornadic) storm forecasting

In my last blog post I discussed learning the basics about storm analysis and the basics about storm chasing. I promised to continue with some basic forecasting understanding after I picked a thing or two about it. I am nowhere near done learning but I thought I’d share what I learned so far. These instructions are not meant to teach you storm forecasting but rather show you which resources to use, and in what order.

My three most difficult challenges while trying to understand storm forecasting were:

  • Maps: Which maps should I use? What map should I use to find e.g. moisture, troughs etc?
  • Parameters: What should be my key parameters to look for in terms of moisture, wind shear, instability and lift?
  • Values: What values should I be looking for? E.g. “So, I see the CAPE value is 1000 in NE Oklahoma. Is that good?”

 

Before you start to try to forecast storms you really need to understand the basics about storms. How they are created, the necessary ingredients etc. The more knowledge you have beforehand the easier it will be to understand the forecasting concepts.

 

Most commonly referred to learning resources

Using the wealth of knowledge and helpfulness of other storm chasers on the forum StormTrack.org I was often referred to the following resources: MetEd.Car.Edu, SPC forecast discussions, TheWeatherPrediction.com (especially its “Haby hints”) as well as StormTrack forecast discussions.

I stumbled upon the same problem here as in trying to learn storm analysis. Many of these websites provided a ton of useful information but it was too often samples and “point discussions” about specific topics. It was often one article about Skew-T diagrams, another about moisture but I couldn’t really tie it all together to a “recipe” or a guide on how to address storm forecasting.

  • SPC forecast discussion – Although you may pick up a thing or two from here, it is not a place you will learn forecasting from scratch. It is not meant to be either. It will be a really great tool to use as a reference once you have learned the basics, but I don’t see it as a place to start if you want to learn storm forecasting.
  • TheWeatherPrediction.com – This is an excellent learning resource and should be bookmarked. It is, however, not a guide that will take you by the hand and teach you forecasting from scratch. I consider it more like a storm forecasting dictionary. It will become your Go To-website for questions like: “Hmmm, I wonder what ‘dewpoint depression’ means and why it is important.”. Google “site:theweatherprediction dewpoint depression” and you will have that question answered promptly and thoroughly.
  • Storm Track forecasting discussion – Most days when there is a chance of severe storm there is a forecasting discussion going on here. Typically, one storm chasers writes a post on his or her look at a certain area’s weather conditions; what are the chances of severe weather and why. This is typically followed by replies and follow-ups of other storm chasers who provide their look on the setup. These discussions are really helpful but takes some basic forecasting understanding.
  • MetEd UCAR – This is a free online learning resource to learn certain basic fundaments of storms and the tools you can use. You need to create an account (free) in order to enjoy the courses on the site. The courses themselves are highly educational with animated illustrations and voice overs. It is an excellent tool to learn certain concepts, but not really a “complete forecasting guide”.

 

My chronological approach to learn basic storm forecasting

So, these are all excellent learning resources but to use a storm analogy. This information was a bit above my understanding level and I needed the “lift” to bring my knowledge (in a structured manner) up to these levels to really enable some severe learning!

Once again I will try to guide you in what I believe is the best chronological order to use these, and other, resources.

  1. Bring out your notebook again. Draw, write, take notes and draw some more. Trying to re-create the illustrations and concepts you learn in your own notebook will really pin-point what you understand, and don’t understand.
  2. Make sure you have understood the four basic ingredients in a severe thunderstorm, and why they are important. If not, have another go using TheWeatherPrediction.com:
  3. If you haven’t fully understood how to read a Skew-T diagram and understood each portion of it – make sure you do! Skew-T mastery MetEd is an excellent way of learning the concepts. Skew-T is crucial in order to really get a knowledge link between a storm cloud and the parameters that goes with it, which you will find on a map.
  4. Understand that the SPC website really holds the answer to most map-related questions you might be asking yourself. You may not understand exactly where a specific weather map is – but it is there! Basically, almost anything you may be looking for can be found on these two maps/pages:
    • Mesoscale analysis – Your go to-map to look at certain parameters such as wind shear in a specific area.
    • GFS / NAM – Larger scale weather analysis and several day forecasts. This is the map to look at large scale weather systems and see how they may develop in the upcoming days.
  5. At this point you may find yourself in a position where you may think: “Alright, I know all of these pieces of the puzzle but how do I put it all together?”. For me, my breakthrough was finding this Powerpoint Presentation about Supercell tornado environments by Craig Setzer and Al Pietrycha. What this presentation did for me was to translate the concepts of severe storm ingredients into parameters and values. I finally knew what to look for and which values that could be sufficient. I had a recipe to follow!
  6. While going through this presentation you will most likely end up with questions about concepts and definitions and this is really where TheWeatherPrediction.com will be extremely handy. Certain concepts are also discussed at MetEd and it is usually a better place to start, but does not cover as many smaller concepts as theWeatherPrediction.com does.
  7. After doing this you should have some sort of basic understanding on What to look for, Why you are looking for it, Where to look for it and What values you need to have. You have a recipe, albeit full of holes and with plenty of exceptions, but you can now start to Nowcast each day and see if you can find the right ingredients.
  8. Have a look at Bart Comstock’s excellent Tumbler where he gives an excellent approach to certain days’ weather setups. His heavy usage of weather maps and illustrations is extremely helpful in following his thoughts on each forecast.
  9. This is also the time when the SPC discussions as well as StormTrack forecast discussions will start to be really useful. You should be able to follow the discussions and grasp what they are referring to. Try to find their observations on “your” weather map as well, and try to follow their line of thoughts.

 

This is by no means a complete guide to understanding storm forecasting but it should hopefully give you a “skeleton” of knowledge. A skeleton you can now patch up with bits and pieces of information found on all the excellent websites and blogs out there. I had tons of use from StormTrack and its members. My comments and discussions about basic forecasting were mainly in this thread.

Feel free to provide feedback in the comments below:

  • Is there any step missing that leaves you hanging?
  • Did I miss out on some great resource that should’ve been mentioned?
  • Which resources did you rely on to learn forecasting?

Learning the basics about storm chasing

This week I have done a LOT of studying to really make an effort of understanding “everything”. I have been studying storms and forecasting all throughout the web. As I mentioned earlier, I have gone through Mike Hollingshead’s excellent “Storm analysis 101” videos from which I learned a lot.

Most of the online resources for learning storm forecasting are too difficult for my skill level. Most difficult is that there are few examples and it is often assumed that you understand definitions like RFD, downbursts, skew-t etc. Well, in the beginning of my learning frenzy I had heard about all of them but really didn’t understand them.

So, if you are in the same situation as I (chased some, learned a bit) these are my suggestions after nearly one week of online classes. The suggestions are how to proceed in chronological order:

  1. Bring out an empty notebook to take notes in. Taking notes and making your own drawings of things are a key to learn.
  2. Start with the SpotterNetwork.org training. It is an extensive training program that really take things from scratch and assumes you know very little, and by so leaves very few questions. It has a lot of examples and tons of really great graphical models that helps a lot. It ends with a quiz that will give you a hint whether you have learned anything. If you do this course you don’t really have to take the Spotterguides.us training (which is often referenced), which isn’t as good or extensive as the SpotterNetwork,  in my opinion.
  3. Go through the “Storm analysis 101” instruction videos. You will benefit more from these videos if you have done the SpotterNetwork training before. You will get some good understanding of forecasting and to analyse a storm (answering questions like “What am I really looking at here”).
  4. Check out the extensive sub-forum on StormTrack.org called “Introductory weather & chasing”. At the time of writing there are 38 pages with hundreds of threads with many newbie questions. It would take forever to go through them all but on the other hand, the non-storm chasing season lasts forever so you have plenty of time 🙂 This sub-forum is also great if you need to ask any questions about storms.
  5. Read the “Storm Chasing Handbook” by Tim Vasquez. Some chapters in the book are very basic and some (like the forecasting part) may be a bit too difficult at this point. It gives you, however, a good overall understanding about storm chasing, weather as well as some good-to-know stuff.
  6. Start reading the SPC (Storm Prediction Center) outlook texts. Many suggest that you start your learning by checking out the SPC text. I don’t agree. It contains far too many definitions that, for a beginner, don’t really make any sense at all. After going through the above it will start making way more sense. What you will learn from this is why a certain area is under threat of severe storms (as can be seen on their categorical outlook). It will guide you to what weather variables to look further into.

This is as far as I have reached during the last week. I feel like I have a decent understanding of storms on the mesoscale level (small scale level, such as one particular storm) and the definitions that goes with it. I could go back to my old photos and understand way more of what I  actually had photographed.

After this I also have a good understanding of the basics of severe storm setup: instability, moisture, lift, wind shear but I am very far from really finding this on a weather map unless someone points it out to me, like SPC. At this point I can understand to some extent what I see when I look at a e.g. North Platte-sounding – but I don’t really know how to figure out North Platte was the sounding to look at in the first place!

Forecasting?

My next phase of learning will be to try to learn how to forecast storms or at least have a good estimate of where storms may appear on a particular day. Many refer to WeatherPrediction.com and particularly its Haby Hints as a good place for beginners. I will look into it and get back with more tips on how to learn how to forecast.

 

Storm analysis 101 video review

The storm chasing season feels really far away, especially here in Sweden. While visiting a friend in Dubai we took a road trip during which I read Tim Vasquez excellent “Storm Chasing Handbook” on my iPad (to be reviewed later). The heat and the humidity really gave me the same physical sensation as in my chase tours. That plus reading about storm chasing really got me in to strong longing for this years season!

Although my only way of chasing is through organized tours at the moment I really want to learn the fundamentals of storm chasing. My past guides have been bombarded with questions from me during my past three tours and I have learned a lot from them, but I have merely scratched the surface. Reading the “Storm Chasing Handbook” was a good first step and I learned quite a bit from it but it is after all a “Storm Chasing Handbook” and not “Storm forecasting for dummies”.

 

Storm analysis 101-videos

So, I decided to take the next step in my learning and started off at StormTrack.org where there is a ton of non-organized (it’s a forum after all) information. Many adviced me to read the forecast discussion under the convective outlook at NOAA. It still felt quite a bit too complicated for my nearly zero experience in understanding weather forecasts. After some more forum threads and googling I found ExtremeInstability’s Storm Analysis 101.

This is a set of three instructional videos aiming to teach the basics of storm analysis. It starts off in the first video set with an introduction to things you should know about storms ($10). This video is followed by two practical videos ($10 and $5) where you “chase along” with Mike Hollingshead (I think it’s him at least!). There are 2-3 chases per video and they are all discussed in terms of setup (approximately 20 minutes per chase) and the actual chase (about 40 minutes).

The video set starts with an introduction to storm analysis. Courtesy of Mike Hollingshead, with permission.
The video set starts with an introduction to storm analysis. Courtesy of Mike Hollingshead, with permission.

The chase videos are narrated and explained with an often present mouse pointer that shows you what part of the cloud, or radar image,  he is referring to. This helps a lot, and so does the constant flipping between radar images, satellite images and the video shot during the actual chase.

Watching these videos is like chasing next to someone who is really eager to teach you storm analysis. It has shown to be the best tool I have found so far in learning some forecasting but also understanding how to look at a storm cloud. I think I finally understood what a mesocyclone and an RFD notch is (not 100% sure though).

Mike shows whats going on in the storm.
Mike shows whats going on in the storm. Courtesy of Mike Hollingshead, with permission.

The videos however, aren’t the “Storm forecasting for dummies” that I am looking for. It’s a great piece in that puzzle but it doesn’t cover all that I hoped it would cover. Many things remain difficult to understand and I think I would need even more, and better, graphical tools to truly understand everything from winds on a synoptic scale to the mesoscale. The scope of these instructional videos is not to teach you everything however and is not advertised as such.

So, if you are a complete beginner (perhaps never been on a chase before) it may prove to be a bit too difficult to understand but it is still a great introduction to storm chasing and will make your first trip more interesting. If you have been on one or a few tours you will probably learn more from it.

Altogether, I can truly recommend this video set for storm chasing amateurs (like me). It is the best educational resource I have seen, so far, when it comes to understanding storms from a chaser’s perspective. At $10+$10+$5 it is truly a bargain as well! If you, like me, live overseas it could be noted that you can download them from the web as well.