Storm Chasing for Dummies

or how not to get killed…

Yeah, storm chasing is fun, it’s thrilling, it’s exhilerating but make no mistake it’s a very dangerous thing to do. Thunderstorms, especially violent supercell thunderstorms, are loaded with an arsenal of nasty things that’ll ruin your day for sure. Torrential downpours that’ll blind you while driving, hailstones the size of grapefruits, lightning, wind and of course you could find yourself in the path of a dreaded EF5 tornado from Hell. Are you sure you really want to do this?

Storm Chasing for Dummies

This is the stuff of nightmares. If you get caught out in the open when these things are falling from the sky you’re dead. These are small stones compared to the ones I measured in a cornfield in Big Spring MO near Hermann. Some of those were 5 plus inches in diameter.

Are you really sure you want to do this?

If the answer is yes then I’m going to give you a crash course on how to do it without getting yourself in a heap of trouble. Of course if you go looking for trouble I can guarantee you’ll find it. I’ve been chasing for the National Weather Service for decades as a trained spotter. I know what not to do but sometimes I get carried away. All of my vehicles have hail damage. I’ve been hit in the head with large hailstones, nearly hit by lightning several times and managed to get myself right in the middle of two tornadoes. Good thing they were weak or I might not be writing this….

Still want to go storm chasing?

I guess so or you wouldn’t be reading this. The first thing you need is a good storm to chase. From a photographer’s standpoint the absolute best storms to go after are isolated supercell thunderstorms that are moving slowly. If you’re on the hunt for a tornado you want one that’s a strong mesocyclone or is tagged by the NWS as one with a Tornadic Vortex Signature. A mesocyclone is a storm that has rotation in it. That’s one of the characteristics that defines this class of storms. One that’s tagged as having a TVS is a storm that shows the telltale signature of a tornado as indicated by radar. Be extremely careful around a storm with a TVS. Getting caught in a tornado is no fun at all…

Storm Chasing for Dummies

It’s sixty miles away and 12 miles high. This is the kind of storm you want to chase if you’re after good photographic opportunities involving violent weather. It’s out there all by itself and is nearly stationary. It’s easy to get in the right position to photograph lightning, the storm and it’s structure and if you’re lucky a tornado. And you can do it safely and without getting soaked….

So now we’re on the road and on the tail of a good storm. I’m going to use radar images from a storm chase dated April 22, 2011 to help explain how you approach a storm without getting creamed. It was this storm that produced the tornado that ripped up Lambert Airport in St. Louis. It’s also the one that dumped the hail pictured above.

In the next two images “North” is up and this nasty storm is traveling East.

Storm Chasing for Dummies

I use Weathertap, PYKL3 and a live feed when I chase. As you can see this service gives you a little bit more information than say an Iphone connection to the weather channel. I have storm reports, track information, VILs and so on. I can switch between something like 20 different radar views including wind fields which is very handy for locating a tornado. Just above the left blue box is where I was at the time of this radar shot. As you can see I was approaching this storm from behind. This is the smart way to do things.

Core punching, don’t ever do this! You are not Reed Timmer and you don’t have a TIV! Got it?

You might have heard about something called core punching. More or less that means you drive right into the nastiest part of the storm to get into position. Where’s the best position to catch all the action? Typically you’d want to be at the rear of the storm off to the right side relative to the storm’s direction of travel. For snicks let’s say I was driving South on 19 to intercept this storm 10 or 15 minutes earlier. Do you see that nice red and purple area in the radar image? That’s the core of the storm and that’s what I would have had to drive through to get into position. If I tried that on this storm I would have driven into that purple colored stuff in the pic. That purple colored stuff is the hail core and this storm produced 5+ inch hail. If you don’t like your car anymore then be my guest and punch a core that’s dumping hail like this. I guarantee it will be the only time you do it voluntarily. I did run into part of the passing hail core while chasing this storm. I pulled over and turned around when baseball sized hail bounced off my hood. Yeah, I’ve done this a few times and sometimes going the other way is the thing to do. The hail is only half the story though….

Since this storm is showing a TVS guess what you’d drive into right after you get annihilated by the hail? There’s a good chance you would be going for one helluva ride courtesy of a tornado. Look at the image. See those goofy looking icons that look grey on top and green on the bottom? That’s a local storm report from another spotter. They reported a wall cloud right over Hermann MO. Look at the image again and the dreaded hook echo is easy to see. You really don’t want to be in this part of the storm. Ever hear of the Lion’s Den or Bear’s Cage? If you want to know what it’s like being in a tornado go down to Joplin and ask around. If that doesn’t convince you to steer clear of core punching nothing will.

Storm Chasing for Dummies

Hail, wall clouds and funnel reports galore. This storm left a long path of carnage starting near Fulton and ending in St. Louis. The local storm report box is covering the area where a tornado would most likely be lurking. The hook is plainly visible under the box.

The absolute best way to approach a storm is from behind it. Going this route pretty much keeps you out of any of the really nasty stuff. Another way, if you have time, is you can set yourself up in front of the approaching storm off to the right side relative to the storm’s direction of travel. This is the best area to be in for photographing storms in general. Just remember to keep some distance between you and the storm if you cut in front of it as it advances. Getting sideswiped by a violent storm isn’t fun and you just might find yourself core punching just to get out of it. You can also setup and get good shots on the left flank of a storm as well. Once you find a good spot to film or take pics track the storm on radar ( you don’t need what I use, a cellphone connection to intellicast is good enough for tracking). If it doesn’t look like the storm will overrun you go ahead and setup your equipment to film or photograph it. Just remember to keep an eye on the storm and stay vigilant. They do change their track and you need to keep an eye out for that. If all goes well you’ll get some great shots while maintaining a safe distance from the storm. The best part is you’ll be out of the nasty stuff and will most likely be under a clear sky.

Storm Chasing for Dummies

A low rotating wall cloud over Hermann Missouri. The white stuff on the ground is baseball sized hail. I was in Big Spring looking towards the South. I let the hail core go by and watched the storm from the rear along the left flank.

If you’re serious about photographing storms or just chasing them then I highly encourage you to go with someone who’s experienced and trained. If you really want to get into it then get trained as a spotter for the NWS, hop rides with some of us old timers and then go at it yourself. As you can see there’s a lot to this whole storm chasing business….

Storm Chasing for Dummies

It’s a rare gust front tornado and it’s less than a half mile away moving to the right. This is what all of us chasers are after. Just keep in mind you do not want to be in the way of one of these. Always remember, no matter what, a tornado is a killer and destroyer of life and limb.

Repost of my article from DYSong Photography’s website dated 06.28.2012

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This entry was posted in Photography Tips, Storm Chasing.

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