Sunday, February 12, 2006

Column 7: What storm chasing is really all about (originally posted October 11, 2005)

When I tell people that one of my hobbies is chasing storms, the response is inevitable:

"Oh, so you're like those crazy people in Twister, eh? How many tornadoes did you see last time you went out? Four? Five?"


I'm penning (okay, pixelling) this column to set the record straight as to what is involved with storm chasing.

First off, before you can even think about going out on the road, you have to understand meteorology, how to forecast and nowcast severe thunderstorms. Just going out there and getting in the way of a storm and trying to get pictures and video is a good way to get yourself in danger. In fact, even the more seasoned storm chasers (that would be myself) can get into trouble when bad decisions and bad luck combine. More on that soon.

Knowing meteorology, like I said, is of utmost importance, for two reasons. First off, you need to be able to forecast (and nowcast) where and when storms are going to develop. Second, once the storms do develop, you need to know what type they're likely to be and how they're going to move.

That's the meteorology part of it. And believe me, it's no minor part!

Then you have to have dedication. Resilience to boredom. A love (ot at least tolerance) of seeing mile upon mile of endless open prairie. And lots of sunscreen.

See, in Twister, the intrepid chasers caught something like 5 tornadoes in a 24-hour period. That's just not realistic.

At least, from a Canadian perspective, it isn't. Sometimes my American friends have a bonanza day and see 5 in a day. But I digress.

I went chasing this summer for a total of about 20 days, each averaging 8 hours of driving--including endless roads, occasional pit stops, mostly fast junk food, and the same CDs over and over. What did I get for my valiant efforts? 4 tornadoes totalling 45 tornado-minutes and a driver's sunburn. Calculating that out, it translates into one half of one percent of the time I was gone dedicated to viewing tornadoes. Obviously, then, it's not all about the tornadoes. If it were, I'd have given up long ago.

It's about communing with nature. It's about viewing the sky in awe, no matter what's there. (And although I only spent a tiny amount of time viewing tornadoes, I spent lots of that time viewing beautiful storms.) It's about seeing parts of the continent you would otherwise not see. It's time away.

Back to the mechanics of it. What would I recommend you do, if you've never been out chasing and want to go?

Rule number one: GO WITH SOMEONE EXPERIENCED! There's nothing better at teaching you the ins and outs of chasing than going with someone who knows what he or she is doing. Everything I've laid out here is more easily picked up if you go with an experienced person. You'll learn what to look for, what to discount, how to read the sky, how to fine tune your target area, what places are good to eat at, how not to act (like parking on the road, even a seemingly deserted road--a HUGE no-no!), and you'll likely get to meet other chasers.

Rule number two: always prepare to change your plans. Split-second decisions can make or break your trip or even prehaps save your life.

[Here's where Dave goes into a sidebar anecdote.]

I was out chasing in southwest Saskatchewan on June 17, 2005, south of Swift Current. Storms were initiating to my south, moving northward, and I was in good position. One storm, in particular, seemed to be the main one at the time. I got into place near the town of Cadillac and watched the main updraft to my west. It spun up a brief tornado and then continued northward. I decided to try getting closer to the storm, as it was running away from me. But I got into rain, and then hail. All of a sudden, the hail got to be about the size of dimes and the wind made a sudden direction change--from southeasterly to northerly. My meteorological training and knowledge of the storm movement that day told me that I was suddenly in a bad region. I turned the car around and got out of there. As I was doing so my phone rang, with one of my colleagues asking if I was all right. I confusedly said I was, although I was having trouble seeing, because it was raining so hard. When I got out of the rain, I saw why she called. A tornado was on the ground, churning up debris in the area I was trying to get to. Had I kept on going, I very well might have been directly in its path.

An American colleague of mine got into similar trouble about a year and a half ago; the only difference was that, instead of dimes, the hail hitting his car was about the size of baseballs. Even scarier than what I had experienced.

So you see, going with someone experienced is a tremendous advantage--it can usually save you from doing something silly and it can point you to the good storms.

Storm chasing isn't as glamourous as the movies would tell you. There are hours of driving and sunburns and bad road food and people sometimes not watching how they're driving. But once in a while, your hours of tedium pay off, and you see something magnificent.

And if your aunt Meg happens to live somewhere near where you're chasing and she's willing to make you a steak dinner, all the better!


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