Storm Chasing Lessons

imageI was out in Iowa for a storm chasing trip on October 4th, 2013. When all was said and done, there were numerous tornado reports across Nebraska and Iowa. There was even a 1.5 mile-wide EF-4 tornado.

While I can’t say that I witnessed any of these storms, I did gain a lot of experience and learned a lot from the journey. It’s only going to better prepare me for future trips out west, hopefully as soon as April 2014. It was also my first trip west of the Mississippi and there were a lot of great sights and experiences along the way.
Here’s a look at the Top 12 lessons that I learned from my first storm chase trip out west…

Lesson #1:
It’s not the smartest idea to drive 1200 miles non-stop, especially on short rest and with no sleep along the way. In the future it would be more ideal to split the drive with someone, stop at a hotel along the way or to maybe leave early in the morning and use one day just for travel.

  • I left New Haven right after work on the night of Thursday, October 3rd and this was targeting me into the Chicago area by 7 a.m. and then Iowa by midday. I merged onto I-80 in New Jersey and essentially stayed on that freeway for most of the way out there. It was a grueling drive with virtually no sleep and only a few quick breaks along the way.

Lesson #2:
Ideally, if going out to the Midwest, capitalize on any severe weather threats. In a perfect world, I would have gotten there by Thursday morning (October 3rd). That way, I could have tracked some storms Thursday evening and had plenty of time to get ready for Friday.

Lesson #3:
One of the biggest challenges storm chases experience is traffic. This can be traffic from other chasers, normal traffic patterns or mass traffic as a result of impending severe weather. It’s very important to come up with a driving strategy ahead of time. My goal was to avoid the biggest cities, if possible, and I had printed maps to use in case I lost a data signal and/or had to change course at a moment’s notice.

Lesson #4:
Know your basic severe weather information. Identifying the location of the cold front and warm front is very important, as fronts are often the focus for thunderstorm development. In some cases, drylines, troughs and occluded fronts may also come into play.

Lesson #5:
Positioning yourself when storm chasing is extremely important. As storms fire, you ideally want to be just ahead of where the storms are. As was the case on October 4th, the storm motion was very fast, on the order of 60+ MPH in some cases. You don’t want to have to catch up to a storm, as often rain and other driving conditions could make such travel unsafe. (Here’s an article on how I just missed an EF-2 tornado in New York since I was stuck behind the storm) If you can line yourself up ahead of a storm, it gives you time to pick an interception point and/or to wait and see how storms develop.

Lesson #6:
Radar is one of a chaser’s best friends. Model data can only be used to a point. Eventually, you need to mainly focus on radar trends, to see where the storms are and where are are moving to. By mid-afternoon on October 4th, I knew that the best location for me to be was either 3-4 hours northwest or 3-4 hours southwest. Obviously this wasn’t realistic, given that the sun would have set by then and in retrospect, it would not have been physically possible for me to get into Nebraska before the storms had already moved east and northeast of the state.

Lesson #7:
When predicting tornado development, the triple point is often where you want to focus. That’s not always the case, but in the case of October 4th, very little convection was firing along the warm front and everything along the cold front was well to the south of the tornado cluster. In this particular setup, the only tornadoes that were confirmed were all closely clustered near the triple point.

Lesson #8:
Storm chasing is laced with nearly continuous decision-making. If you’re missing out on the storms, you have to be willing to change course and make decisions on the fly. This is when real-time weather data, such as radar imagery, your own observations and the SPC mesoanalysis will all be very important to review.

Lesson #9:
Don’t let a bust get you down. There are always positives to take out of such an experience. You can go back and analyze the situation to see what mistakes you made. Maybe it was something that was simply overlooked, or perhaps it was just one detail that you missed.

Lesson #10:
Chasing tornadoes at night can be very dangerous. I wasn’t close enough to get to any of the October 4th, 2013 tornadoes, but time of day is definitely something to consider. During the day, especially in the Plains, you can often see 10 to 20+ miles into the distance. That gives you at least some time to get out of the way if a storm is coming after you. At night, visibility can be very close to zero and besides radar data, you may have no way of knowing exactly where a tornado is.

Lesson #11:
If you are lucky enough to be a midst a multi-day severe weather outbreak, it’s important to be up and ready to go the next morning. I woke up in Iowa on October 5th and had to drive non-stop for about 5 hours just to get into the next severe weather setup. Ideally, I could have woken up early Saturday to get east. In this case, it didn’t matter a whole lot, but having time to spare to evaluate the weather situation always helps.

Lesson #12:
If you’re going storm chasing, be ready to drive hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of miles. Even in my storm chase adventures in the Northeast it’s common for me to drive 500+ miles in a given day. If you get the rare opportunity to chase in your immediate area, great, but here in Connecticut, storm chasing is very challenging. It’s perhaps more appropriate to call it storm “intercepting,” since windy roads, hills and trees can make chasing a storm close to impossible. ¬†From October 3rd through October 6th, I ended up driving 2,981.3 miles.

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Quincy

Quincy is a meteorologist and storm chaser who travels around the country documenting and researching severe weather. He has on-air experience with stations such as WTNH-TV in New Haven, CT and WREX-TV in Rockford, IL. He was most recently a digital meteorologist for weather.com.

After achieving his B.S. degree in Meteorology at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) in 2009, he returned as a University Assistant to help produce weather broadcasts. He also gave guest lectures and worked on website design.

He has over nine years of professional weather forecasting experience and his forecasts have been featured in newspapers and on radio stations in multiple states.

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