Mar 3, 2012

Chasing storms is not like planning a vacation. When looking at long-range forecasts it is often difficult just to determine whether or not it will rain. Predicting the likelihood of severe weather and the potential for tornadic storms is even more difficult. Having said that, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma has become fairly adept at doing so at least up until the day after tomorrow. So if it is Thursday and you want to know whether or not you should plan on chasing on Saturday you can take a look at the SPC Day2 or Day3 Convective Outlook. Between the graphics and the text you should be able to get a good idea of where your target will be.

On chase day one of the first places to look for information is the SPC Day1 which comes out at 1300z (7:00am Central time). Another popular source of forecasting information are the forums at StormTrack.org, although they typically allow no new registrations during the height of spring storm activity in May and June. As your own skills increase at forecasting you may want to check the raw data and forecast model runs yourself. Eric Nguyen’s site has a very organized and concise listing of forecasting tools.

If you are very organized you either already have your chase gear in your car or in a handy ‘go bag’ of some sort. Once you decide on a target it’s best to just get going, otherwise you will keep looking at more and more data and possibly miss the best storm of the day due to a late departure. Depending on where you live your destination can easily be three or more hours away.

Once you are in the general vicinity of your target you can check data again to see if the parameters have shifted and then you can adjust and head in that direction. A laptop with a wireless data plan can be very crucial at this stage. Once you have arrived at ‘the’ target you can use the laptop to watch radar. Some times the weather and visibility allow you to see your target storms in the distance but often some sort of radar access is critical.

Once you are on your way checking radar on the go in your car can be difficult and possibly dangerous. Having a weather radio comes in very handy as they will alert you to any storms that have severe or tornado warnings out on them. And, of course, once you get within shouting distance of a good storm you just follow along and watch and take pictures or video. It’s not unusual to give up on one storm and move on to the next, depending on what is happening. Hopefully you will eventually get to see a tornado drop out of a wall cloud and capture the moment on film (woah, did I just say film? Uh, I mean, on your sensor!). Try to avoid large hail stones and keep your ‘escape’ route road options open just in case the storm changes directions and begins pursuing you!

After dark you can attempt some lightning photography or just head to the nearest hotel. Or, if you’ve been very fortunate and chase storms toward where you live, just drive back to your house.

While this represents a fairly typical storm chase it by no means covers all of the possibilities. Some days you sit and stare at blue skies. Having a passion for photography can help you avoid the day being a complete waste of time (and gas) as you will often travel to places you would never see otherwise. Take advantage of it. And some days you chase all day and then spend a good part of the evening trying to avoid being run over by yet another tornado. But I think this ‘typical’ day as I’ve described it should definitely give you a good idea of what to expect.

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