The 2015 Storm Chase season is winding down. Today, the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) has a 2% Tornado Threat Ring over Lake Erie instead of over the Texas Panhandle. Perhaps summer is here. (I accidentally wrote “supper,” which would be much better!)
Looking back on this storm chase season, and its extreme ups and downs, I think back to my first Great Plains storm chase with the Virginia Tech crew in 2003.
In 2003, I left for my storm chase with a duffel bag with a few changes of clothing, an 8mm digital video camera, a 1.3 MP digital camera, a 2 meter mobile rig for talking to repeaters, and a 2 meter rig with packet capabilities for running Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS) for displaying our position on a map. I also had an atlas and a GPS for running APRS.
That was it. No cell phone, no laptop, no data plans. The vehicle had a laptop with a wireless internet card, and sometimes we would search for open wireless networks at hotels when we needed data. On the road, we rarely used it. The instructor, Dave Carroll, had a cell phone which we (provided we had signal), would call back east to someone who had internet access and could “nowcast” for us, telling us what they saw on the radar.
Early morning meetings often required a trip to the local library, where we signed up for library cards so that we could access data and develop a forecast. Somewhere, I still have a library card for Woodward, OK.
On the road, we listened to the weather radio over and over again, and would sketch details in our atlases. I have several atlases with pencil lines denoting warm fronts, cold fronts, and drylines, as well as the occasional surface observation, or amateur radio repeater scratched into the margins.
Flash forward to 2015. One of the scenes that stays in my mind was a brief stay at Plainview, NE. All four vehicles, one of which was outfitted with mesonet instrumentation, were parked under an overhang trying to find the best way to proceed on storms. Of the 17 total chasers, every single one of them was accessing data on a cell phone, miles from any major city. Most of them were running Radar Scope, which shows a number of radar parameters, complete with our GPS location, as well as the location of many other Skywarn spotters and storm chasers who are part of the Spotter Network.
At one point, we decided to take advantage of an opportunity to get southeast. Before charging, one storm chaser was watching the base reflectivity, looking for an opening. Another looked at the Vertically Integrated Liquid (VIL), a dual polarization Doppler radar product that can be (loosely) used to find hail. While they established that the path was clear, another student brought up a Google satellite image of the road to determine whether it was paved. It was. Nebraska Department of Transportation showed no construction on this road, and there were no railroad crossings (to potentially stop us from escaping). I noticed a slight hook on the reflectivity of one of the cells. I looked at several tilts, and found that it was only present on one. It was gone on the next radar update.
If I’d really felt like it, I could have brought up the Twitter feed for the closest storm chaser, who had likely posted a photo of the storm a few minutes earlier. That is, if he wasn’t running streaming video of his whole chase.
The face of storm chasing is totally different today. There are so many sources of data, and so little time to process it. When I started chasing, there was no data, and I spent the whole time second-guessing the data that I had collected hours earlier.
In some ways, storm chasing is much safer today. I have more tools to collect data and make a sound forecast. I can find escape routes faster.
However, the technology does yield a false sense of security. Could we have charged out there, based on an acceptable VIL image, only to run into a developing hail core? Sure. Could we have torn off down that road, only to find that the showers that passed ahead of us had flooded the road? Absolutely.
The biggest thing is to know the limitations of your tools. Nobody would expect to construct a house using only a hammer, and likewise, nobody should expect to be a storm chaser just because they downloaded an app.
Having said that, ANYONE can be a storm chaser, if they are willing to learn the science, and are willing to use the tools with their strengths and limitations in mind.
Thank you for reading my post. Stay tuned, as I will make a summary page for the 2014 Storm Chase and the 2015 Storm Chase over the next few days.