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!