Storm Chasing: When Is It Time to Bail Out?

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A radar image from Friday; my position in blue.

I recently had a storm chase in Oklahoma that lead me to purposely bail away from a tornado-warned storm. Why? In my mind there comes a time when you need to bail out of a messy chase situation, for a variety of reasons. This past Friday, an embedded supercell near Lawton, OK was beginning to show signs of significant rotation. A Tornado Warning was issued and chasers flocked toward the storm from every direction. I, on the other hand, purposely turned the other direction and drove southeast. Since when does a storm chaser drive away from a Tornado Warning?

I am not a fan of high precipitation supercells. Contrast is low, so if there even is a tornado, there is a strong possibility that you will not be able to see it. That also creates a dangerous situation in which visibility is limited and a damaging tornado could be wrapped up behind a rain shaft. On top of that issue, large to very large hail was falling and I generally do my best to avoiding smashing a windshield or getting my car totaled.

During this particular chase, it was clear that the storm mode very quickly transitioning from discrete supercells to a messy line segment, which is rarely fun to chase. For me, chasing is about being able to get great photos of structure and watch a storm develop. In order to chase this particular event, one would have to battle heavy rain, strong winds, chaser convergence, hail and traffic. On top of being dangerous, this is not a fun situation to deal with. Chasing has its challenges, but sometimes one has to weigh the pros and cons.

My other reasoning for bailing on this storm included the potential for discrete supercells in the warm sector, and shifting east to get into a better position for chasing the next day. Although I more or less ended up empty handed on Friday, this was the case for many chasers. A few had a short glimpse of a tornado, but in the end, I did not think the risk was worth it.

This thinking paid off, as I got a hotel at a reasonable hour and ended up having a storm chase that exceeded expectations the next day in Arkansas. Arkansas Mini-Supercell Time-Lapse

To play devil’s advocate, I understand why some chasers would feel compelled to chase the messy tornado warning:

  • Some chasers depend on making money from gathering compelling footage, so this storm gave them the opportunity to film destructive hail, extreme winds and possibly a tornado.
  • Other chasers want to see as many tornadoes as possible, so bailing out on what was a tornado-producing storm would seem counter-intuitive.
  • Chasing for the extreme thrill of a dangerous situation drives a certain type of storm chaser, one who will stick with even the most challenging chase setups.
  • For those that live locally and weren’t planning on heading east the next day to chase again, there was little to lose from sticking with the storm.

Each chaser can make their own decision and defend their reasoning. For just about all chasers, there is a point in which you simply bail out from a chase, tornado or not, and I reached that point on Friday in Oklahoma.

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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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