This Election Cycle: What Jesus and John Have to Say to Christians

The temptation for Christians to polarize against each other over politics has never been greater than this election cycle, and it's only going to grow stronger. Here's what it's coming to for many:
  • If you vote for Clinton/Trump (pick one), you're not a Christian and you're not my brother or sister. You're my enemy.
  • Not voting is actually a vote for the other candidate.* Therefore you're my enemy.
  • Voting for a third party or a write-in is a wasted vote. It's pretty much the same thing as option two, so once again, you're my enemy.
Lots of enemies out there, according to the above logic. I'm afraid a lot of us who call ourselves Christians are going to be become tremendously embittered against other Christians—except, of course, those "other Christians" aren't really Christians. If they were, they'd see things our way. The right way. God's way.
Where does Jesus actually enter into this mess? Consider these words:
 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:43-48 NIV)
That is a tall, tall order. Thankfully, most of those whom we consider enemies because their politics and priorities differ from ours are nothing like the Romans of Jesus's day, or the Nazis of yesterday, or ISIS today. If you were drowning, your "enemy" would throw you a lifeline, and you'd do the same for that person. The truth is, many of those "enemies" are in fact brothers and sisters in Christ. Granted, an awful lot of people who call themselves Christians are not Christians, and some truly do behave in hateful ways. But that still leaves countless followers of Jesus who simply see things differently from us, and our vilifying them may say more about the condition of our own heart than theirs. What if the one who acts most like an enemy is us?
The apostle John minces no words about what our attitude should be—and should never be:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. (1 John 2:9-11)
The Scripture quotes above are the words of two men whose motives were utterly trustworthy and untainted by any political self-interest. Their statements don't require fact checking; you either believe them or you don't. The question is, do you believe them—and in this political season and following, will you do your best to adhere to them? That doesn't mean you can't feel strongly and even indignantly. But will you guard your heart? Because in this world, intense sentiments all too easily step across the line and become self-justifying hatred.
Remember: The real battle isn't about who will sit in the Oval Office. It's about whom you will allow to control your heart.
* Actually, it's a vote of no confidence in either candidate. But let's briefly consider this thinking of "Not voting is a vote for the other candidate." Some of my friends like Trump and others support Hillary. So which "other candidate" would I be voting for by not voting? Both, apparently. Since it's a self-cancelling exercise, the impact on either side is precisely zero.

Remember When . . . ?

Remember when tornado photos were all black-and-white, and you only saw them in the newspapers? Remember how rare it was  to see them? Remember newspapers? Remember watching The Wizard of Oz every time it played on TV, and never missing a showing, just so you could watch the tornado scene? ("It's a twister! It's a twister!") Remember how fascinated and delighted you were when they showed those grainy old movies of tornadoes in school, or sometimes on TV, and how you wished they'd replay them and then replay them again so you could watch them over and over and over? Remember when you first saw that incredible photo of twin funnels south of Elkhart, Indiana, taken by photographer Paul Huffman during the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak? And that dramatic image of the Xenia, Ohio, tornado shot at just a quarter-mile away from Greene Memorial Hospital during the 1974 Super Outbreak? Remember your first successful chase? (As if you could ever forget.) I remember mine. It was in August 1996 across central Michigan, roughly along the M-21 corridor. North of Saint Johns, Michigan, I watched as a beautiful tube dropped from a classic supercell that was as sweetly structured as anything I've seen on the Plains. Both the tornado and its parent storm were gorgeous--and I was elated. Remember when there were no laptops, no Android phones, no mobile data, no GR3--just your car, your weather radio, maybe a tiny portable TV, and a ton of hopefulness and excitement as you drove happily down the highway toward a sky full of rising towers? Remember when seeing a tornado was rare and busting was something you simply expected and took in stride as part of paying your dues? Remember before the movie Twister came out? Remember before the Stormchasers series? Remember when storm chasing wasn't "extreme"? Remember when storm chasing barely was at all? Remember when Storm Track was a print newsletter published by pioneer chaser David Hoadley? I regret that I never subscribed, because I could have learned much from it. Remember when the online version was a resource everyone welcomed and loved, not a point of contention among some chasers? I'm so glad the worst of that scuffle is a few years behind us now. Remember when there was no live stream to fuss with, no competing with a league of other chasers all getting similar footage of the same storm, and no rush to process your video and get it to the networks first? (Not that I would know about that last point personally. I've never gotten the hang of it and don't particularly care.) Remember when there was nothing to prove, no reputation to make or uphold, and no stripes to earn? Remember when it was just about the storms, period? Don't you wish it still could be? Why can't it? Remember how excited you were when you first got hooked up with a laptop, GR3, and mobile data? Remember how, before then, you used to stop at airports and small-town libraries just to get a glimpse of the radar? Remember when there was no TwisterData, no HRRR, no SPC mesoanalysis graphics, no easy way to obtain forecast soundings, no abundance of forecasting resources available at just the click of a mouse button? Remember when you weren't even aware that there were forecasting resources available to you? Remember your first exposure to the SPC forecast discussions, reading through all that arcane gobbledegook and thinking, "These people speak Martian"? And then thinking, "Maybe if I just head for the center of where it says 'Moderate Risk' . . ."? Remember discovering COD and looking over their forecast maps and not having a clue what they meant or how to use them? You pulled up the 500 mb heights/wind map and admired the pretty colors and thought, "This looks like it could mean something." Remember not knowing the difference between GFS and ETA and RUC? Remember ETA and RUC? Remember knowing absolutely nothing about forecasting, and how you struggled to learn, and how thrilled you felt when you finally pieced things together and successfully picked a target, or at least had your forecast verify? Remember all that? Never forget. Many of you are too young to have experienced some of the things I've mentioned. You missed out on something good. It doesn't all sound good, I'll grant you--no in-car radar, no access to a bazillion free online weather resources--but it had its virtues. Not that I'd care to go back to caveman days, but I'd love to reclaim their spirit. The beat goes on, and those of you who boarded the bus farther down the road are building your own list of remember-whens. But we who are in our mid-forties and older can recall simpler times. They were far less technically advanced, but they were also infinitely less frantic and driven overall. I guess you have to reach at least fifty years of age before you get to say stuff like that. It's the province and privilege of duffers. I qualify, and I'm okay with that. I wish I could claim something akin to the number and quality of tornadic encounters, and the knowledge gained thereby, and the photos to show and the stories to tell, possessed by some of the luminaries who are my age or not all that terribly much older. Those guys have got a lot to remember! But what's mine is mine, and it's enough to reminisce upon. If you got your start when storm chasing was of a different character than it is today, you know that you were privileged to come up in a special time, a time that can never be reclaimed. And memories of those days are well worth treasuring and reflecting on and feeling grateful for the experiences that created them.      

Missing Out on Moore

I haven't posted in this blog for several weeks. Behind my lack of motivation lies a depression over how this storm season has turned out for me, which reflects a broader sense of personal failure as a storm chaser. A melancholy lead-in such as this will probably lose some of you, and I understand. It's not exactly sunshine and a bowl of Cheerios. But others may identify with this post and perhaps even find it helpful, and in any case, it's my blog, and I'll write what I please. The May 20 Moore tornado exacerbated what has been a brooding issue for me since 2011. During that intensely active and historic year, I was sidelined from chasing due to family and financial constraints, and my final shot at a decent chase on June 20 in Nebraska failed by an hour due to a series of delays along the way. With last year's notable exceptions of the March 2 Henryville, Indiana, tornado, and April 24 in Kansas, the trend has continued. And given how this year's slow start finally exploded in the second half of May with storms that ranged from photogenic to disastrous, coming home empty-handed from my two brief excursions to the Great Plains during another historic year has been hard to take. This post, then, is a continuation of my processing a deadly storm season that has robbed the storm chasing community of some of its best and brightest, exacted a steep toll on the residents of Oklahoma City, afforded a flood of spectacular videos, and caused me to search my soul as a storm chaser and wonder whether I even qualify as one. The rest of what follows is a post I wrote earlier today in Stormtrack. It belongs in this blog too, even moreso than in the chaser forum. ------------------------------------ Missing the Moore tornado in particular touched something off in me. I've never felt more frustrated about missing an event I would never have wanted to witness. El Reno didn't have that same effect on me. I watched the whole scenario unfold on the radar and on KFOR live stream with horror, not with regret that I was missing out on anything, and my sense of it is that OKC got off very lightly. I'm probably better off for not having been there. It was too dangerous a storm. But missing Moore was a bitter pill to swallow, and I think a lot of the reason has to do with my limited ability to chase. I just can't afford to do it nearly as often or extensively as I'd like, so having to head back to Michigan empty-handed one day too soon after driving all those miles, knowing that the next day would be big in Oklahoma, was hard on me. I could have afforded the extra day and I badly wanted to stay, but one of the guys had to work the following morning, and there was no getting out of it. He had a responsibility to his employer and his family, and as the driver, I had a responsibility to him. Such responsibilities are honorable and will always come first with me. But that didn't make things any easier. Watching the debris ball roll across Moore on GR3 while I was driving east through Missouri created an ugly mix of feelings for me. My first thought was, Oh my God! When you see something like that, you just know something horrible is happening. My second thought was, I'm missing it. After driving all those miles and busting (got just a fleeting glimpse of a rope tornado, not anything to even talk about), that radar image seemed like a slap in the face. I felt angry, like I'd been robbed, betrayed. Which is crazy, of course, but feelings are feelings, no more and no less, and I'm just being honest here about mine at the time. My third thought, which is the one I've had to wrestle with since, was, Why? Why was I feeling so torn about missing something so terrible, an event that would have have broken my heart and caused me to lose sleep if I had been there? I don't think there's a simple answer; I think there are many components which add up. But the bottom line is, there's an obsessive aspect to chasing for me that can either make or ruin my day and even my week. I don't see that as healthy, and it didn't use to be that way. I use to take my limitations in stride, and busts were just busts: not personal failures, just part of paying my dues as a chaser. But chasing today is a whole different ballgame than it was when I first got started seventeen years ago. The mindset is more competitive, many more people are doing it and spending gobs of cash and time in the process, and overall I just can't keep pace with it. So I've had to--and still have to--do some soul-searching. Who I am as a person goes far deeper than chasing storms. And more important to me than being in the mainstream of chasing is having peace of mind, and that requires accepting my limitations, working within them to simply enjoy something I love to do without letting it own me. I find that much easier to say than it is to do, but for me it is a necessity. If I can afford to chase a setup, I will; if I can't, I'll wish those of you who can success--and safety. I hope it will be many, many more years before anything like another Moore or El Reno occurs.

Why I Chase Storms: A Storm Chaser’s Manifesto

I posted the following message on Facebook, but it really belongs here. It is one of what I think will be a number of very personal, reflective posts on storm chasing as I process the impact of a difficult, disappointing, terrible, and tragic season. ------------------------------ This storm season has left me feeling very torn. As I sift through its impact on me, I am grateful for my friends who are NOT chasers. People whose perspective on life is different from mine. My men's group, for instance, is a small circle of wonderful, godly brothers in Christ who have seen plenty of life. It felt cathartic to share with them last night about my passion for chasing storms, my sense of failure as a chaser, and the recent, tragic losses of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young. In talking with the guys about chasing, I spoke frankly about a common misconception about storm chasers: that we are out there saving lives by what we do. That may sometimes be the case, but it is not the motivating force for me or any of the chasers I know. That image, fostered by the media, simply isn't what drives chasers. I chase, and most other chasers chase, primarily because we are enamored with the storms. There is nothing intrinsically heroic in what we do. Depending on where we're chasing, our presence in the field can be valuable as part--and only a part--of warning the public. A few chasers--a very few, including the late Tim Samaras--collect data for scientific research, some of which could conceivably help to improve an already excellent warning system. Occasionally, some chasers find themselves in a position to make a life-saving difference as first responders. And Storm Assist is providing a fabulous means for chasers to contribute their videos to a charitable cause whose proceeds go directly to aiding the victims of tornadoes and severe weather. All of these things are true and good. But they're different from the myths that have arisen around storm chasing. One of those myths is that chasers are sickos who enjoy watching homes and communities get trashed; the other is that we're more noble than we really are. Between these two extremes lies the reality of why storm chasers actually chase. And the truth is, no single reason fully describes every chaser. Chasers are individuals, and today as never before, that individual component interacts with the influence of technology and the media to create a complex and varied mix of motives. Yet I believe all chasers possess one common denominator: a love for, a passion for, the storms. Personally, storm chasing engages me on many levels--intellectual, emotional, spiritual, aesthetic, creative, and adventurous--in a way that nothing else does. When I can chase the way I want to, I feel alive; when I cannot, which is far too often, I feel intensely frustrated, moreso than I think is healthy. Lately, my limitations have left me feeling depressed. That is something I have to work through, talk to God about, and discuss with those close to me who know me well. But one thing is certain: I chase, as best I am able, because it is what I love to do, period. There is nothing else like storm chasing. I love the sky, the storms, their drama and beauty, their intensity, their mind-boggling motion, the awe they inspire, the landscapes they traverse, and the lessons they have to teach. I am a pupil of the atmosphere. Because I live in a part of the country where both tornadoes and experienced chasers are far fewer than in the Great Plains, I can perhaps play a more significant role locally in helping to warn the public than in Tornado Alley, where droves of chasers line the roads. Chasing for WOOD TV8 here in West Michigan creates that possibility for me. But I would chase regardless. It's what I do, just as playing the saxophone is what I do and just as golfing, or car racing, or writing, or painting, or fishing, or crocheting, or hiking, or hunting, or what have you, is what you do. We're all wired to do something, and we desire to do it excellently. There's nothing innately noble about it, and there doesn't need to be. Your pursuit may, in the right circumstances, put you in a position to contribute to the well-being of others. But it needs no justification in order to be worthwhile. That is how I view storm chasing, and I think many of my fellow chasers would agree. So please do not thank me for what it is I do, for the only thing I am doing is following my heart. In the same breath, please do not condemn me for it, for you may benefit from it someday--again, as just one facet of an excellent warning system in which I play only a part.

Once There Was Night

You cannot find silence anymore, nor can you find the night. Once there was such a thing as quiet in the countryside, and midnight skies, dusted with silver chips, that stretched from horizon to horizon. But no more. Drive where you will, mile after mile, you cannot escape the taint of man-made light or the sounds of an obtrusive and increasingly uncivilized civilization. The world is noisy, and there is no respite from the noise, nor is the night any longer truly night. No more can you look up and gaze into infinity; the street lights, the farm lights, the headlights, and the glow of distant towns will not let you. We are so well-lit that we can no longer see. The reality of what we have lost came crashing in on me tonight as I drove out in search of a place to watch the Perseids meteor shower, which as I write is at its peak. I could not find a suitable location. I am not saying I couldn't find a place where I could see meteors. Several spots afforded me a decent view of the sky. What I could not find was a place where I felt truly by myself, a place where I could wrap myself in the mystery of a heavens not shrouded with light pollution and contemplate the beauty of the night in silence. On a gravel road that dropped south from 108th Street, I thought for a moment that I had found a good place to view the Perseids. Parking on the side next to the tall August corn, I got out of my car to watch for shooting stars. The only lights were single farm lights half a mile down the road in either direction. Overhead, the luminous ribbon of the Milky Way wove through a crowd of stars. This location would do. Then I heard it. Someone was blaring rock music down the road from me. But where? It sounded like it was coming from only a couple hundred feet away, but the source had to be a long way off. Ah, what did it matter? This was crazy. I had driven out into the farmlands in search of darkness and silence, but the noise had found me anyway. A short while later, I stood by my car at another spot near my town's athletic fields. I was pleasantly surprised at just how dark--relatively dark, that is--my new location was. A meteor trickled across the east. A dimmer one scratched the sky for half a second, now there, now gone. But what the heck ... where was that music coming from? Oh, for crying out loud. Once again I was parked at a place far from houses, and yet it sounded like a bloody band was standing out in the field nearby playing a concert. And now a jet came roaring in toward the airport ... and my ears opened up to the sounds of traffic on the nearby roads ... nuts. Forget it. I had seen a few meteors and that was enough. I hopped back in my car and headed home. Now here I am, finishing this post. My wall clock reads 1:17 a.m. A while ago, I could hear voices outside my apartment, but those are gone, and I am left with only the faint susurration of traffic on M-37 and the flesh-colored glow of the parking lot lights. I could do without them shining through my window. Besides ruining my lightning photos from the balcony when storms pass over, they steal the night. From a security standpoint, I understand the wisdom of having the lights, but I don't like them. I wish I could get the night back. Today, fewer people people know what I mean. But I haven't forgotten. Once there was night. There still is in some places. You have to drive far north to find it in Michigan, but it's there to be found. I just wish it was here.

“We Had No Warning”

Welcome to tornado season 2012. It's a reception that anyone but a storm chaser would no doubt prefer to decline, but there's no getting around it. This abnormally warm March has already produced one prolific and deadly outbreak as well as several lesser tornado events. The Gulf conveyor is open for business, shuttling rich moisture into large sections of the continental United States, and with one system after another moving across the heartland, we appear to be moving into another active spring. So let's talk about what it will take to survive. If you're a storm chaser, a National Weather Service or media meteorologist, or someone involved in emergency management, you can skip this post as it'll be preaching to the choir. But if you're the average John or Jane Doe, listen in: On days when severe weather is imminent, YOU are responsible for remaining alert as if the lives of you and your family members depend on it--because that could very well be the case. After virtually every tornado disaster, some survivor invariably repeats the age-old mantra, "We had no warning." Journalists love it. Someone--the National Weather Service, emergency management, or somebody somewhere entrusted with safeguarding the public--failed to warn an unsuspecting community of looming danger. Once again, those charged with protecting lives and property failed miserably. It makes great press, but it's rarely true today. There are exceptions--the outrageous warning dereliction on the part of Saint Louis International Airport officials on Good Friday of last year comes to mind. Most of the time, though, the real problem is one of two things, or both:
  1. * people didn't receive a warning in the manner they believed it should have come to them; or
  2. * they failed to take seriously the warnings that were issued.
Let's consider each of these concerns.

People's expectations of how they will be warned don't match the reality of how warnings are disseminated.

. I'll preface the following discussion by saying that I am no operational forecasting expert. My knowledge is that of a layman, albeit an informed one, a storm chaser of over fifteen years' experience, including, for the past year, serving as a media chaser for WOOD TV8. With that caveat dispensed with, let me begin by saying that virtually no significant severe weather event escapes the notice of the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) or National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists. I'm not referring to rogue episodes that confound even the experts. Unforecastable events such as last week's three tornadoes in eastern Michigan may have a devastating local impact, but they're not in the same league as classic tornado outbreaks, which are preceded by conditions that meteorologists are able to monitor long before they ever mature. Potential severe weather events are normally scrutinized days in advance, and broadcast media such as The Weather Channel begin talking about them well ahead of time. Big weather is invariably well-forecasted weather; the question is whether people pay attention to the forecasts. As a severe event moves toward day one, warning meteorologists do their utmost to heighten public awareness. With the advance of social media, weather watches and warnings go out through a wider variety of means than ever--TV, local radio, NOAA weather radio, civil defense sirens, Twitter, Facebook, media websites, and more. All that can be done is being done to disseminate timely, life-saving information to as many people as possible. Moreover, in a day when funds continue to be cut from its budget, the NWS continually strives to improve its warnings. The people there take their role as weather guardians very seriously. The rest is up to the public. That's you. It's a matter of personal responsibility. On days when severe weather is forecast--particularly when your area lies in or near a moderate or a high risk, and above all when a PDS (Particularly Dangerous Situation) has been issued--it is critically important that you maintain situational awareness. If a credible source repeatedly warned you that your house was being targeted for a robbery one or two days hence, would you go about your life as usual when the day arrived? Of course not. You would be in a state of heightened alert and ready to take immediate action. That should be your stance on severe weather days. A tornado can take more from you in seconds than a whole busload of thieves can in an entire afternoon. Don't count on the tornado siren to sound. It may not if the power grid has been knocked out. Or you may not hear it if you're too far away from it, or if it's 3:00 a.m and you are sound asleep. Even if you hear the siren, you may not respond to it appropriately if you live in an area that gets warned frequently, to the point where residents have grown jaded from warning burnout. In any case, a civil defense siren is only one means of receiving warnings, and--take note--you should not depend on it as your primary source. Watch your local TV station, or check out their website, their Facebook updates, or their Twitter feeds. Or tune in to local radio. You have more warning options available to you today than ever before. Make use of them.



It's 2:00 a.m., and you and your family are sound asleep. Throughout the day, TV meteorologists had been forecasting impending severe weather after dark, and later in the evening, a steady stream of severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings began to interrupt the programming. With your town lying on the eastern side of a tornado watch, you were concerned enough that you thought you'd remain awake for a while after everyone else went to bed, just in case. But by midnight, the warnings were still off to your west by several counties. It was late, and you needed to be at work at 8:00 a.m. "Besides," you told yourself, "nothing ever happens around here." As you headed to bed, you noticed lightning flickering in the distance through the window, but it was still a long way off. Now, two hours later, you and your family are all sleeping soundly as a violent, half-mile-wide tornado grinds across your neighborhood toward your house. You won't be going to work in the morning after all. Don't let it happen. Outfit yourself with a weather radio. It's one of your best weather-warning assets any time of day, and at night it's your only line of defense. It can make a life-or-death difference for you and your loved ones.

Many people don't take warnings seriously.

. When the siren sounds, take cover. When the broadcast meteorologist or the weather radio tells you to seek shelter, do so. Unless you're knowledgeable about how storms behave and have an informed grasp of exactly what the weather is doing relative to your location, head immediately for safety. Don't go outside and gawk at the sky. Far too many tornado victims become statistics because they want to take a look before they take action. But tornadoes can materialize in seconds, and ones that are in progress can descend on you as swiftly as a hawk on a rabbit. While some may move at a turtle's pace, others, particularly those in the early spring, may be racing along at 60 or 70 miles an hour or even faster. By the time your untrained eyes have informed you that you need to seek shelter, it may be too late. So don't waste time--go to the basement or whatever safe place you've earmarked for severe weather. You do have such a place in mind, right? If not, take some time to plan where you'll go. Do not ignore warnings. Maybe you live in a place where you've gotten a lot of warnings that never materialized. The siren sounded time and again, but nothing happened. The warnings on TV and radio were all Doppler-based, containing language like, "A storm capable of producing a tornado is moving toward ..." No matter. Take every warning seriously. Otherwise, the warning you ignore will be the one you'll wish you had paid attention to. Warning meteorologists are caught in a double-bind when it comes to radar-based warnings. When mets issue warnings based on radar-indicated circulation, they get accused of crying wolf when nothing happens. But if they fail to issue warnings because they lack ground proof, that's when a tornado will drop out of the sky and wipe out a neighborhood, and the residents will complain that they had no warning. Damned if they do and damned if they don't: that's the no-win scenario that warning meteorologists have to deal with. Since they are more concerned with protecting you and your family than they are with upholding their image, and since they are very good at interpreting radar data in the light of environmental conditions, they will rather play it safe than sorry. But the NWS and SPC, which continue to explore technological and sociological ways to improve the warning system, can only do so much; and your local broadcast meteorologists can only do so much. The rest is up to you.

Your safety is in your own hands.

. It's up to you to take warnings seriously and respond to them promptly. On days when severe weather has been forecast, it's up to you to maintain a level of alertness that will enable you to take life-saving action even if you never hear a siren, see a warning on TV, or receive a tweet on your smartphone. This year, more people are going to die in tornadoes. Some of the deaths may be unavoidable. When a large, violent tornado moves through a heavily populated area, as happened last year in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, fatalities will sometimes occur even when people do everything right. But most deaths will be ones that could have been avoided had people taken proper precautionary actions. Pay attention to the weather that is shaping up for your area days in advance. Equip yourself with a dependable means of receiving weather updates, including a weather radio for your home that can sound an alert 24/7. Take every warning seriously, respond to it immediately, and remain in your place of safety for as long as necessary.


Book Review: Weather Analysis and Forecasting Handbook by Tim Vasquez

I initially became acquainted with Tim Vasquez's books a good ten or so years ago at my very first severe weather conference at the College of DuPage. Tim was sitting at a table selling, among other things, his Weather Forecasting Handbook. I bought a copy and began chewing on it, and I have continued to do so ever since over the years. There's a lot of essential information packed into the 204 pages of the old "Purple Book." (Tim's books are known colloquially by the color of their covers.) That book took me deeper into a world of meteorological concepts that I was only beginning to become aware of, ones that storm chasers need to know. My brain not being the kind that readily absorbs such stuff by reading alone, it took me a long time and many read-throughs to grasp some of the arcane principles, language, and tools that are integral to making one's own forecasts and selecting target areas. I still have a few things to learn--okay, plenty of things--but much of the material Tim covered is now familiar to me, and I apply it regularly. Ragged and torn from long use, my old copy of Tim's book sits beside me now as I write. Next to it is a brand-new copy of its heir-apparent, the Weather Analysis and Forecasting Handbook. While anyone familiar with the old book will recognize much of the material, the new Purple Book is far more than just a makeover. At 260 pages, it provides considerably more information, all of it reflecting current research and technology. This is weather forecasting as it is today, not as it was a decade ago. Indeed, so much new material has been introduced; so much of the pre-existing text has been revised and expanded; the illustrations have been updated and extended to such a degree; and the content has been so thoroughly reorganized overall, with an eye on taking the reader beyond concepts to analysis and forecasting, that the Weather Analysis and Forecasting Handbook is for all intents and purposes a new book, not just an updated edition. And, I might add--and I say this rather grudgingly, having cut my teeth on the old handbook--this new volume is a more comprehensive and helpful resource than its venerable predecessor. There is just a lot more to this book, and it's all presented in a well-thought-out fashion.

Main Content

One significant change in the Weather Analysis and Forecasting Handbook is the organization of its content. As does the previous book, this one begins by introducing foundational physical concepts such as mass, force, pressure, temperature, the Coriolis force, geostrophic wind, vorticity, and so forth. The second chapter on observation also appears largely familiar, though it keeps abreast of current practices. However, the previous treatment of clouds is only lightly addressed because the subject is given an entire section of its own in the book's appendices. Beginning with chapter three, the changes become pronounced. Here is a very abbreviated overview of the book's structure from this point: Chapter three: Thermodynamics--Deals with instability and familiarizes the reader with atmospheric soundings. Here is where you'll learn how to read and interpret that essential forecasting tool, the skew-T/log-P diagram. Chapter four: Upper Air Analysis--Taking a top-down approach to forecasting, this chapter introduces constant pressure charts, long waves and short waves, divergence and convergence, jets and jet streaks, and other atmospheric processes and influences from 100 mb down to 925 mb. Notably missing is a structured introduction to charts for specific pressure levels, such as the 500 mb height map. That discussion has been shifted to the appendices. Instead, chapter three focuses on the various factors that the maps depict, and the book makes such liberal use of the different maps by way of illustration that the reader gains familiarity with them through osmosis. My guess is, Tim believes that by helping readers understand upper-air dynamics and processes, the significance and use of the various maps will become apparent through real-world examples. Chapter five: Surface Analysis--Learn how to read a surface chart, get a basic grasp of air masses, and discover the importance of various boundaries, from cold and warm fronts to drylines and outflow boundaries. Chapter six: Weather Systems--This chapter groups together concepts from several chapters in the old forecasting handbook. The presentation is logical and fresh. Subjects covered include all-important baroclinic lows and highs, barotropic systems, arctic air outbreaks, and winter weather systems. Chapters seven and eight deal, respectively, with satellite and radar. Suffice it to say that they are required reading. Since both remote-sensing tools are visual in nature, plenty of pictures are provided to illustrate patterns, systems, outflow boundaries, velocity aliasing, severe weather signatures, and so on. I'm a bit surprised to see not a single screen grab of a velocity couplet, either in the radar chapter or in the ensuing chapter nine on convective weather. However, velocity products rely highly on a full-color format and don't lend themselves easily to this book's black-and-white images. Tim points this out later in figure 9-6, where he writes, "Typical NEXRAD color schemes do not reproduce well in monochrome books." Importantly, the chapter on radar discusses the new dual-polarization technology that is being implemented nationwide at the time of this review. Dual-pole is a huge development in the NEXRAD system, probably the biggest stride forward since the deployment of NEXRAD itself. Chapter nine: Convective Weather--For aspiring storm chasers, this chapter will likely be the Holy Grail of the book. Besides dealing with the ins and outs of thunderstorms, from single-cells to supercells to mesoscale convective systems, this chapter discusses storm-relative winds and introduces another indispensable forecasting tool, the hodograph. Chapter nine moves on to talk about tropical systems including hurricanes. Chapter ten: Prognosis--This last chapter in the main body of the book deals with the actual process of forecasting. Readers will at this point have recognized that Tim is a strong advocate for understanding not merely how the atmosphere is likely to behave, and where, and when, but also why. Here he discusses the four-part forecasting process. He emphasizes the importance of a hands-on approach to analysis while at the same time recognizing the key role of numerical models, the application, strengths, and weaknesses of which he discusses at length. The chapter concludes with a brief overview of ENSO and teleconnection patterns. The entire book is amply illustrated. Barely a page exists that doesn't include some kind of black-and-white chart, map, or photograph. These visual supplements are clear and immensely helpful, to the extent of being integral to understanding much of the written content. To round things out, the book is peppered with sidebar commentary ranging from the informative, to the philosophical, to the historical, to the humorous. For instance, on page 31 I find a table of NATO color codes; page 57 furnishes a thumbnail discussion of long waves; a lengthy entry on page 120 describes five different empirical forecast techniques; and on page 166, there's a wry commentary on how to tell whether a tornado is forming using the "thumb tab" approach of the Field Guide to North American Weather.


This section is an informational gold mine. Strangely, it's not even mentioned in the table of contents, so I'm going to give you the breakdown here: Appendix one: Forecaster's Guide to Cloud Types--Photos and descriptions of major cloud types, including brief discussions of each one's significance from a forecasting standpoint. Appendix two: Surface Station Plots--What all those numbers and symbols mean. Appendix three: Surface Chart Analysis Procedures--Brief guidelines for doing surface analyses. Appendix four: Upper Air Station Plots--Similar to the second appendix, except applied to upper air plots. Appendix five: Upper Air Chart Analysis Procedures--This is about as close to an overview of specific pressure maps as this book provides, which it does from an analysis perspective. This appendix divides into three short sections on upper-, middle-, and lower-tropospheric charts. Between them, they provide insights on the significance, use, and analysis of upper-air maps from 100 millibars all the way down to 925 millibars. Appendix six: An Isoplething Tutorial--Veteran forecasters invariably are strong advocates of hand analysis, and Tim is a prime example This appendix shows you how to get started at creating your own hand-analyzed weather maps. Appendix seven: Conversions and Symbols. Appendix eight: Instability Index Summaries--Brief discussions of the more commonly used forecasting indices such as CAPE, CINH, lifted indices, the energy-helicity index, and the SWEAT index. A couple of these tools--BRN shear and storm-relative helicity--aren't in themselves related to instability; however they're so widely used in severe weather forecasting that they require discussion, particularly since they're factored into such true instability indices as the EHI, STP, and Bulk Richardson Number. Appendix nine: Types of Thermodynamic Diagrams--Brief discussions and graphic examples of the skew-T/log-P, emagram, Stuve, pastagram, aerogram, and tephigram. Appendix ten: Blank Diagrams--Reproducible blank skew-T and hodograph. Appendix eleven: Observation Format Overview--For the incredibly geekish, a quick reference guide to the most commonly used weather-reporting formats: METAR, SYNOP, and TEMP (radiosonde code). Additional appendix materials without assigned section numbers include the following: suggested reading, software, educational websites, government weather agency websites, and top-ten weather myths.

Three Recommendations

Let me preface my following few critiques by saying that this is a fantastic book. The author is both a veteran storm chaser and an educator, and that combination has inspired him to create a practical resource that is both accessible to lay-persons and helpful to operational forecasters. Storm chasers and anyone who wants to develop skill at weather forecasting would do well to put it in their library. This said, I have three comments that Tim may wish to consider at some point:

• I liked the old handbook's quick, specific introductions to the 200/250/300 mb, 500 mb, 700 mb, 850 mb, and surface charts. The overviews of those charts gave me--at a time when I was a complete novice and needed weather knowledge delivered to me in brick form--an instant, systematized reference to the constant-pressure maps that are such essential tools of the trade.

Granted, entire books have been written about weather maps, including Tim's own Green Book, the Weather Map Handbook. The new Weather Analysis and Forecasting Handbook is obviously not intended to fill such a role. But perhaps in the appendix section, the fifth appendix could be fleshed out a bit by providing a top-down sampling of CONUS maps for a single date/time. That way those unfamiliar with upper atmospheric maps could see how, say, March 13, 2011, at 1200 UTC mapped out at 300 mbs, 500 mbs, 700 mbs, 850 mbs, 925 mbs, and on the surface.

• Granted the limitations of trying to translate something as color-dependent as radar velocity products into a gray-scale format, there may nevertheless be a benefit to making the attempt. I say this because the ability to recognize storm-relative velocity couplets is so critical in storm chasing. While the illustrations on page 145 (figs. 8-2a–f) do a good job of conveying the general idea, there's nothing like real-life examples. Perhaps such examples could be included in the future, whether directly in the book or possibly as a link to a page featuring radar screen captures on Tim's Weather Graphics website.

• A quick, easy-reference glossary of essential terms would be a welcome addition.

With these three suggestions on the table for Tim to consider in his next edition, I unhesitatingly recommend this book. It's superb, a labor of love by one of the gurus of operational forecasting who clearly cares a great deal about helping others learn the ropes. Some months back, I reviewed Tim's other recent publication, Severe Storm Forecasting. It's another excellent resource for storm chasers in particular, covering some of the same ground as this book and expanding considerably on the subject covered in chapter nine, "Convective Weather." Good as that book is, though, Weather Analysis and Forecasting provides the more complete, well-rounded picture. Be forewarned: it's not a book you will read and absorb in one sitting. It is chewy material that will require you to approach it analytically and patiently. This is a resource you will pull off the shelf again and again, whether to re-engage with material you're still trying to grasp or to refresh yourself on concepts you're already familiar with.

Purchasing Information

  • Weather Forecasting and Analysis by Tim Vasquez, 260 pages.
  • $29.95 plus shipping, available from Weather Graphics.
NOTE: This is a non-paid review. I've written it as a service to my readers and to Tim because, having read the book, I'm convinced of its value for storm chasers and severe weather buffs.

A Blessed and Merry Christmas from Stormhorn

In a world that has become bewilderingly complex, may the simplicity of faith in the person of Jesus be yours today and every day. I don't think it's any secret that Christmas is almost certainly not the actual calendar date of Jesus's birth. What's important about Christmas is, it reminds us that Jesus indeed was born at a specific point in time, at a certain hour on a certain day, really and truly. If eternal life were just a matter of sound moral teachings, he need not have bothered. But he came to provide something far more than one more model in the display case of spiritual teachers; he came to offer us himself as the object of our trust in matters far too vast for us to comprehend. Look around you. Look inside you. Is it really so hard so hard to believe that what we need is not merely answers, but a Savior? "For God loved the world with such unfathomable depth and passion that he gave the Son whom he himself sired--God, reproducing his very heart and character uniquely in human form, clothed with flesh, emotions, personality, a voice, appetites, and a name--so that whoever puts his or her trust in the Son may possess an entirely different quality of life: eternal life, today and forever."--John 3:16, my rendering A blessed and gracious Christmas to all my friends. Politically incorrectly yours, Bob

September 11: Ten Years Ago Today

Last year on this day, I wrote a post commemorating the horror and heroism that unfolded on September 11, 2001. I cannot improve on that article, and so I invite you to read it, and to remember what your own day was like 10 years ago. If you were old enough back then to grasp the magnitude of what happened, I am certain that you will never forget it. Like me, you will relive it every year until your power to remember is no more. My post written last year speaks for me again today with undiminished vigor, and will do so for years to come. There is, however, one aspect of September 11, 2001, which that article did not consider. It is something I've found myself musing on lately, a phenomenon that is inevitable as generation follows generation. It has to do with our capacity to remember--not to merely observe a date on the calendar, but to recall how that day unfolded for us; what we were doing at the time; how we felt as we watched the Twin Towers burn and collapse, and as news poured in of another plane crashing into the Pentagon, and yet another plunging into a field in Pennsylvania. While millions of us today can never forget those events, a growing number of Americans are incapable of remembering them with the same stark emotions. This seems incredible to those of us who were adults back then. Nevertheless, it is true: Ten years later, a generation is entering adulthood for whom the tragedy of that fiery morning is but a dim recollection from childhood; and a post-9/11 generation has been born, and is being born, which will contemplate this date from no more than a historic perspective, not with the grief, fear, and fury felt by those of us who witnessed militant Islam's attack on our country firsthand. It is that way for all of us. Each generation has its own indelible landmarks. Whatever lies outside those milestones necessarily produces a less visceral, secondhand frame of reference. Living memories belong to those who have lived them. Those who have not can only embrace--and must embrace--such defining events as part of our beloved country's spiritual DNA, which the sheer force of being Americans compels us all to honor. I am 55 years old. I was in second grade on November 22, 1963, when the mother superior at my Catholic school entered the room and informed us that President Kennedy had been assassinated. We children gasped--I remember that. But I don't remember much more. I was only seven years old, too young to feel the pathos of that defining time in our nation, or to process its significance from an adult perspective. My father fought in World War II. He was on the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge, killing men and watching his friends being killed. On August 6, 1945--his birthday--Dad was in a boat bound for Japan when the "Little Boy" bomb detonated over Hiroshima. That was, he said, the best birthday gift he had ever gotten. To those who maintain that the atomic bomb was an atrocity perpetrated by our country on thousands of innocent Japanese civilians, let me remind you that Japan was the one who first attacked us. And you weren't on that boat with my dad, headed for what you were certain would be your death. You weren't around back then. But neither was I. Nor was I there to feel the joy of V-E Day on May 7, 1945; or to celebrate the Japanese surrender to America on V-J Day, September 2, 1945. No, I was not there. My father was, not I. The closest I could come to even remotely sharing those times with him was nearly 20 years later in the early 60s, as a boy sitting with Dad in our living room in Niles, Michigan, watching the ABC series Combat on our Zenith black-and-white TV. Decades later, in 1998, I watched the intense motion picture Saving Private Ryan. I did so out of a desire to better understand my father and the war that had shaped him. The movie was powerful, wrenching, and helpful. But it was not the same thing as being there. My dad had been where I could never go. Nor will my father ever be where I have been. Each generation ultimately hands off this nation and its history to the generations that follow. Those generations cannot experience what we have experienced. We can only hope they will learn from events which for them are historic, but which for us older Americans have been all too real--learn in a way that wisely balances hope-filled idealism which makes life worth living with a realism that recognizes evil for what it is, and stands against it. Hitler is dead. Bin Laden is dead. But neo-Naziism lives on, and so does Al Qaeda. The enemy is always with us, on foreign shores and in our midst. Perhaps the worst damage he could inflict on us is that in fighting him, we should become like him. Let us therefore look to our own souls, and hold up a higher standard--an enduring nobility of character which only God can empower us to carry onward, torch-like, man by man and woman by woman, from one generation to the next. In Christ, Bob

The Smart Shopper’s Guide to Swan Meat, Revisited

Evidently a lot of you Stormhorn readers are swan meat junkies. I had no idea, but judging by the continuing traffic to an article I posted back in February, 2010, I don't know what else to conclude. I wrote The Smart Shopper's Guide to Swan Meat as a tongue-in-cheek means of processing my sticker shock after discovering that 1) you can purchase swan for consumption online, and 2) it'll cost you a heckuva lot--no, make that an unbelievable lot--of money. I don't know what first inspired me to investigate this question of swan meat availability and pricing. It's not like I've harbored a longstanding craving for the stuff, and after doing the pricing research, my impulse to purchase swan meat has, if anything, declined to the point of being impossible to detect by the most powerful microscope. So I'm fascinated by the fact that one-and-a-half years after I wrote it, my quirky post on swan meat continues to draw a small but steady stream of readers. The article has nothing whatever to do with either jazz saxophone or storm chasing, which are the foci of this blog. Yet it's one of the more popular pieces of writing I've ever done. Which is why I'm resubmitting it for your consumption--that is to say, your edification. How edified you'll actually be after reading it is questionable, but you'll at least be in a better position to determine whether that massive hankering you've been feeling for blackneck swan is feasible in the light of your food budget. In any event, here, in case you missed it three paragraphs back, is the link to the original article. I should mention that the pricing I had mentioned for 1-800-STEAKS remains accurate. However, while the link to the Exotic Meat Market still works, I no longer see swan meat among their impressive list of offerings. Given their pricing compared to the competition, swan was clearly a loss leader that outlived its usefulness. Now, if you've got a few extra bucks to spend and would like to treat yourself to something that's a step up from swannish pauper's fare, you might consider adding Kobe beef to this week's shopping cart. As for me, hamburger sounds fine.