How a Late-Season Storm Chase Nearly Ended in Tragedy

With this year's severe weather season ramping up--as I write, Missouri and Arkansas are primed for supercells and tornadoes later today--I want to share the following with my fellow storm chasers. Many of you are people I know and care about, and some of you are quite close to me. I know some of the risks you take because I take them myself; we all do, to varying degrees. To my thinking, tornadoes are usually at the lower end of the risk spectrum. At the top is what happens on the road. That's something over which we have considerable control, and with it, a responsibility for our own safety and the safety of others. In a heartbeat, an exciting chase can turn into a second or two of horrified disbelief followed instantly by noise, violence, injury, and perhaps death. I know because I've lived it, and I hope no one else I know ever has to. That's why I'm sharing the following account, written last December. Perhaps it'll inspire you to exercise greater care and awareness on the road. Please take it to heart. I'd like it to be a long time before the next set of initials gets outlined on the radar by Spotter Network icons—and when that day does arrive, I don't want those initials to be yours. ------------------------------- Saturday, December 7, 2013. A short while ago, I was lying on my side on the living room couch, giving Lisa's cat a full-body rubdown and listening to her purr. Siam is one of the sweetest, best-behaved little creatures you could hope for, affectionate and enormously tactile. Being held and petted are things she takes for granted as her natural due, and she gets plenty of such treatment. So there was nothing remarkable that I should be stroking her soft, cream-and-chocolate fur. And yet, there was everything remarkable about it. When you've nearly had your life suddenly snuffed out just before the holidays, the most commonplace act can strike you as extraordinary. The fact that I am still here to pet this vibrant, blissfully thrumming little motor . . . that I am here to see Lisa smile, and to hear her laugh, and to look into her sparkling eyes as I hold her in my arms . . . that I am here to tell my dear eighty-eight-year-old mother and my sister, Diane, that I love them, and to share more beers with my friends, and to turn the ignition switch in my "new" used Toyota Camry which, as of yesterday evening, has replaced the one I lost three weeks ago . . . these things are remarkable. Never fool yourself into thinking that the simple and the everyday are anything less than a gift and a miracle. Things could have turned out very differently. By now, my body could have been lowered into the cold earth, leaving my loved ones to face this Christmas with broken hearts instead of warmth and gladness. Instead, I am still here and blessed with,  surrounded by, reminders that the simple act of petting the cat, or lifting this mug of hot chocolate that Lisa whipped up for me a little while ago, or watching downy snowflakes dance in the air beyond my balcony slider, or even feeling the diminishing but still-present pain of a cracked sternum, is an extraordinary thing.

The Setup

On November 17, I was chasing storms in eastern Illinois and western Indiana with my friends Tom Oosterbaan, Rob Forry, and Shawn Kellogg. The occasion was an unusual late-season setup featuring a vigorous, negatively tilted trough digging into the Midwest. On its eastern side, a surface low was pulling in moisture-laden southerly winds from the Gulf of Mexico as it tracked northeast through the Great Lakes.
SPC Day 1 Convective Outlook, 13Z, November 17, 2013

SPC Day 1 Convective Outlook, 13Z, November 17, 2013

For a good week, I had been following the forecast models with both skepticism and growing excitement as they progressed from the meager CAPE one expects this time of year to unseasonably high instability, mid-60s dewpoints, and some truly rabid wind shear. On November 16, the Storm Prediction Center issued a moderate risk for its day 2 convective outlook, then upgraded it to a high risk on the morning of the 17th. The ingredients were falling into place for the kind of high-shear/low-CAPE tornado outbreak that is typical of the Great Lakes. It would culminate in the deadliest, most violent November outbreak on record. The setup bore some disturbing similarities to the notorious April 11, 1965, Palm Sunday Outbreak. And it wasn't happening in Oklahoma or Texas. For a change, it was all coming together in my backyard, so to speak. Chasers from all over the map had converged on Illinois and Indiana--hardly the heart of Tornado Alley, but the most chaseable terrain in the world when it does produce. Although Rob was willing to drive his Jeep, I volunteered my 2002 Camry. I had acquired it last February, and it was in great shape and was a comfortable ride. At last I had a roadworthy vehicle, and having benefited so often from other chasers driving their vehicles, I was pleased to be able to provide the transportation for a change. We left Grand Rapids around 8:00 a.m. and met briefly for breakfast with Bill Oosterbaan and Kim Howell down at Kim's house in Niles. Kim had prepared a generous spread for us (Kim, you're the swellest!), but we were in a rush and had to just wolf it down, then Rain-X our windshields and hit the road. We did, however, make time to do one last thing before we took off. Joining hands, all six of us prayed, asking the Lord's protection for us and for those in the areas that would be impacted by the storms. I believe that prayer was providential. None of us in my vehicle had an inkling of what lay in store for us a few hours later.

The Chase

November 17 6Z NAM hodograph for NW IN, forecast hour 18Z

November 17 6Z NAM hodograph for NW IN, forecast hour 18Z

Our target was northwest Indiana around Rensselaer, where the 500 mb jet max looked to nose in over substantial low-level instability. With storm motions forecast at 60 knots (see NAMM hodograph--click to enlarge), the storms would be rocketships, and it seemed that our best bet would be to set up east of them, watch the radar, and then jockey into position and hope for the best. I wish we had stuck with that plan. But the big, discrete supercell which proved to be the day's main player showed strong, persistent circulation, dropping a string of strong to violent tornadoes--including the deadly Washington, Illinois, EF-4-- on its journey northeast from Peoria toward Chicago. Bill and Kim decided to go for that one and wound up intercepting a rain-wrapped tornado. On our part, the storm looked mighty tempting, but we chose to let it go, not wanting to chase it in urban territory. That left us with the other storms which were approaching from the southwest, and we made the mistake of heading out to meet them rather than letting them come to us. It was a defensible decision: the storms were beginning to congeal into a line, and we wanted to catch them while they were still reasonably discrete. As it turned out, we'd have done fine had we simply exercised patience. But instead, we headed west into Illinois, then dropped south and ultimately wound up backpedaling east back across the border to intercept an HP supercell that was showing rotation on the radar. Rob was driving and I was sitting in the front passenger seat with my laptop on my lap, monitoring the radar and navigating. I've mentioned that Illinois and Indiana easily comprise some of the best chase territory anywhere. Their flat, wide-open stretches of agricultural land let you see for miles, and their regular grids of paved country roads make for easy driving. Even the wet gravel roads are generally far easier going than the slippery gumbo out west. You just can't ask for a better road network or better topography. Southwest of the town of Oxford, Indiana, our storm appeared to crap out on us on the radar. The echo weakened, and while the storm just to the southwest was tornado-warned, the base reflectivity suggested a comma-head on a small bow echo, not a supercell. That was the last radar scan we got before we lost Internet connection. And storms can reorganize rapidly, and--well, ours did. Shortly after, an inflow jet shot across the road in front of us from the south and then rapidly enveloped us. What the . . . ? Rob rolled down the window, and we could hear a roar to the north. What was causing it? An updraft region had to be over there. But it was wrapped in precipitation, and telltale storm features were utterly lacking. Yet logic told me that somewhere within that bland-looking sky, a mesocyclone was buried, possibly even a tornado. At the very least, some kind of high-wind event had to be taking place nearby. Not only so, but a dark shadow was moving along to our south, heading tangentially in front of us. Tornado? Just a darker cloud in that unremarkable sky? Impossible to tell. I shot some video, hoping that the camera would reveal features that my naked eye couldn't discern, but there was no such luck. All it gave me was my sole record of our chase that day. A look at the reflectivity on Rob's cell phone app a couple minutes later revealed that our storm, which had appeared weak and disorganized in the previous scan, had in fact morphed into an embedded supercell. We had been on the southern end of the hook. As we headed into Oxford, we began to see signs of significant wind damage--nothing tornadic, just straight-line, but still a handful for the residents of that town to have to clean up. We were losing our storm, and once we were on the other side of Oxford, Rob picked up the pace. By then, though, I think our chase was effectively over. The storms were beyond us and moving too fast for us to catch up.

The Crash

Not quite two miles east of Oxford, the road we were on, eastbound SR 352, intersects northbound US 52. We were traveling at a good clip--too fast for conditions, as I know Rob will agree. Ahead of us lay a hillock where a railroad track crossed the road. It was a blind rise that blocked our view of the other side. Rob slowed down for the tracks, but we were still probably doing 40 mph when we crested them and got our first glimpse of what lay beyond. To our horror, a stop sign and a divided highway were situated downslope no more than 200 feet away and probably closer. And to make matters worse, a vehicle was pulling out of a service road on the right into our lane. Rob swerved and braked instantly, but the pavement was wet, we were heading downhill, my nearly new all-weather tires failed to grab, and we skidded into and across the southbound lane on a collision course with a northbound van. I remember watching the grill of the other vehicle looming toward me. The next instant, there was a bang, and our vehicle careened across the rest of the lane and came to a stop on the far side of the highway. I don't remember the airbags deploying, but they did, and no doubt they saved Rob and me from serious injury. For a second, the four of us sat there, stunned. Then we piled out of the vehicle. As I stood up, I could tell that something was wrong with my chest. While I don't recall its happening, presumably the airbag had driven my laptop into my ribcage. At the moment, I was experiencing only discomfort, but I knew that I had been injured, and it was only a matter of time before the pain would set in. In that expectation, I was not disappointed.
My Camry after the Crash

My Camry after the Crash

The point of impact for the two vehicles had been headlight-to-headlight at right angles, my Camry's right headlight connecting with the van's left headlight. I won't go into all the details from here. I will just say that we and the people in the van were very, very blessed. God preserved us, sparing us any real harm, and Shawn pointed out that the prayer we had prayed before we left had been no mistake. What went wrong was obvious, but there was also much that went right, more than we had any reason to expect. It was amazing that we had made it unscathed across the southbound lane in the first place. And the angle of collision couldn't have been more merciful. Just a second faster or slower for either vehicle would have resulted in a T-bone and almost certainly in serious injuries or fatalities. It was a busy highway; had a semi been coming . . . I don't even want to think of it. Huge thanks to fellow chaser Eric Treece, who gave Shawn, Rob, and me a ride back up to I-94, where Rob's wife picked us up; to Bill Oosterbaan, who came to help and to retrieve his brother, Tom; and to Holly Forry for dropping what she was doing in order to make the long trip out and then drive her husband, Shawn, and me all back to my apartment. Above all, thank you, Father, for sparing us. Thank you for protecting the innocents in that other vehicle, and thank you for protecting us. Thank you that this Thanksgiving, we have all had much to be thankful for, and that this Christmas, we all will celebrate the birth of your Son, Jesus, once again with our families, as we have done for so many years and hopefully will do for many more.

Accident Corner

About the intersection where our accident occurred: If you go there, you will see that the setup is an accident waiting to happen, and many accidents have in fact occurred there. At least, that is what we were told by both the sheriff and one of the ambulance drivers. I don't recall seeing a "Stop Ahead" sign, and the other guys maintain there was no warning. Logic tells me that surely there had to have been one, but all I remember seeing was a yellow RR crossing sign as we approached the tracks. That was it. The tracks were at the top of a rise, and only upon crossing them do you see the stop sign, the side road, and the highway down below. The proximity of the intersection to the tracks comes as a shock (unless, of course, you live in the area), and you've got little room to respond. In other words, it's a horrible setup that is perfectly engineered to catch motorists off-guard. It's lethal in wet weather and has got to be a terror in the winter. According to one of the guys, the sheriff had mentioned that his department had been after the county to improve the intersection because of the danger it posed, but so far the county had done nothing about it. So I can't be too hard on us. But I can't be too easy, either. We were going too fast for conditions, and I wish I had told Rob to slow down; it was my car and my responsibility to say something. I'm so glad everyone came out of it okay. Banged up and hurting, definitely, but  no one in our vehicle or the other one sustained serious injuries or went away in an ambulance. I thank God, most sincerely, that all of us experienced the very best possible outcome of a very bad scenario.

A Word to the Wise (and the Not-So-Wise)

Now, here is what I want to say to all of my fellow chasers: It could have been worse, and it could have been you. Watch your driving. My main fear in storm chasing has never been the storms. It has been hydroplaning or otherwise losing control of the vehicle on wet pavement. It is the thing that happens to people who think it won't happen to them. I consider myself a cautious driver. Next to some of you, I come across as the little old guy wearing the brown suit and hat who putters along at 45 miles an hour down the Interstate. However, most of the time, I've been a passenger, not the one who has driven on chases, and over the years, I have witnessed driving habits that frankly have scared the crap out of me: Chasers rocketing along at 80 miles an hour down wet, curvy, hilly, unfamiliar backroads. Drivers multitasking with cell phones, laptops, and so forth. I can say something about these things to the guy behind the wheel, but that's the extent of it. I can't control another person's behavior. The only thing I can control is whom I  get into a vehicle with. And that decision is one I will be taking very seriously in the future, because the attitude that person has toward safety can have huge implications for me, those who love me, other passengers, and other motorists who share the same road. Sitting in the passenger seat three weeks ago, I took the main force of the collision, and never again do I want to go through the pain I've experienced these last few weeks as a result. And never again do I want to put Lisa through the shock and fear of that awful afternoon, let alone something far worse. Some of you take huge risks both with the storms and with your driving. And yes, I know: You're big boys and girls and it's your decision. It's a matter of personal choice. Rah, rah and a fist bump for rugged individualism. We've all heard it. It's like a mantra among today's chasers. But when something serious happens to you, trust me, you'll be singing another tune. Because you don't really know the the implications of your choices until one of them blasts past your bulletproof attitude and inserts itself into your life with jarring and possibly irrevocable immediacy. There goes the storm you were chasing, receding to the east. But what has just happened to you--that may never go away. Most of you are in your twenties and early thirties. Lots of life still ahead of you. Many chases still in store for you. Don't blow it. Because if you wind up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, the best of your chases will leave you with just a handful of memories and decades of wishing you'd been wiser in the way you went about doing things. Am I saying you shouldn't take risks? Of course not. Everything worth doing involves some kind of risk. You can't truly live without risking. But there is a difference between taking judicious and necessary risks versus taking irresponsible, selfish, and totally avoidable risks. Risks that could get you killed. Risks that could get your chase partner killed and leave you haunted with guilt the rest of your life. Risks that could leave you or someone else paralyzed. Risks that could devastate those you've left behind--your spouse or significant other, your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends. The people you say you love and care about. Other people and their families. It ain't all about you. When I arrived home at 11:30 that night, Lisa greeted me at the door. I'd never seen her act the way she did--one minute laughing, the next minute crying. Gently, she helped me remove my shirt, a painful operation. We stood in the bathroom in front of the mirror. I was pretty banged up. She kept touching me and kissing my shoulders. She laid her head on my shoulder, closed her eyes, and smiled, and I looked in the mirror and smiled back at her from the glass. My woman. "You're here with me now," she said. "That's all that matters. You're here with me now." I knew then just how much she really loves me, how much I mean to her. I can say, in all truthfulness, that it was worth the loss of my car to experience how much closer the accident has drawn us since that awful day. We almost lost each other. But we didn't. And during the course of my healing, she has taken care of me beautifully. We have laughed (Ouch! It hurts to laugh!), and had deep, heartfelt conversations, and walked with each other through yet one more stretch of deep water. God has brought us through, and as I emerge on the other side, it is with the certainty that he has given me a truly wonderful, beautiful woman who loves me with all her heart. I have much to be grateful for. To sum it up for you, my fellow chasers: Chase with passion. But also chase responsibly, with wisdom and an awareness of just how vulnerable you are. Because you are vulnerable. And I think that many of you don't understand what that means. You say that you do, but do you really? Your life truly is a vapor, as passing as those towers of convection which seem so indomitable in the moment but vanish within hours. Today's chase will be only a memory tomorrow. Chase in a way that does not become a lifetime of regret, whether for you or those who love you.      

An Interview with Wade Szilagyi, Director of the International Centre for Waterspout Research

It has been far too long since I've posted in this blog. Since my last post on my first-ever Lake Michigan waterspout intercept--and an amazing intercept it was, at that--waterspout season has come and gone, and Hurricane Sandy has wreaked damage of historical proportions on New York City and the New Jersey coastline. But, caught up in editing projects, I haven't had much energy for writing my own stuff. I have had a couple things up my sleeve, though, both musical and meteorological. This interview is one of them, and I think you will find it worth the wait. It features Wade Szilagyi, founder and director of the International Centre for Waterspout Research (ICWR) and developer of the Waterspout Nomogram and the Szilagyi Waterspout Index (SWI). Wade is not only at the cutting edge of waterspout research and forecasting, but he drives and defines much of it. I'm pleased and honored to have him as my guest. Born in 1963 in Toronto, Ontario, Wade moved to Whitby in 1973, where he currently resides. He graduated in 1987 from the University of Toronto with a degree in atmospheric physics and was hired by the Canadian federal government as a meteorologist that same year. He worked as an operational meteorologist until 2001, when he moved into the National Service Operations Division as a national coordinator for program development and standards. Wade has published several articles and research papers on the topic of waterspouts and forecasting. He has also appeared on various media outlets discussing the topic of waterspouts, including interviews on The Weather Channel and Interlochen Public Radio and a writeup in Newsnet5.com. Wade has two sons who are now in university. One is taking criminology and the other, mechanical engineering. Their father says, wryly, "I couldn’t convince them to go into weather!" Wade likes to stay active. "I am very big on health and fitness," he says. "I love to dance, bike, kayak, and power walk. I am a big believer in self-improvement and strive to be strong in mind, body, and soul." With that background on Wade the person, I now present to you Wade the waterspout researcher. I think you will find he has some fascinating things to say. Question: Let’s start with the question that I’m sure is burning in everyone’s curiosity: How do you pronounce your last name? Give us the phonetic spelling. Wade: Sa-la-gee Q: Please tell us how you first became interested in meteorology. W: It all started in grade eight science class. We were doing a unit on weather; however, the passion didn’t hit me until the end of the chapter. One of the chapter questions was to construct a weather observation table. My table consisted of weather parameters such as temperature, relative humidity, cloud cover, wind velocity, etc. I took weather readings and entered them in the table twice a day. I thought I would do this for a week; little did I know that it would last for five years! Much came from those tables: graphs were produced, trends analyzed, and a climatology for my home town was initiated. This finally culminated with the entry of my project in the science fair in grade 13, for which I won second prize. I still remember teachers bringing their students past the displays. One teacher didn’t believe that I was dedicated enough to take weather readings twice a day every day for five years. He accused me of making the readings up. In my defense, I told him to talk to my teacher, who had known me for several years. Q: You serve as director for the International Centre for Waterspout Research as well as with the Weather Office of Environment Canada. Please tell me a bit about your training and experience as a meteorologist. W: The training as a meteorologist begins at university. There are different routes one can take in order to satisfy the requirements to become a federal government meteorologist. One must have a BSC degree in meteorology, atmospheric physics, or a combination of math and physics. I chose the atmospheric physics route. After graduating, I was hired by the federal government and took a mandatory year-long operational forecast training program. This is where one learns how to forecast the weather. After graduating, I was sent to the Toronto Weather Centre, where I remained for ten years. At this office I produced various forecast products such as aviation, public, marine, fire weather, and specialized products. Eleven years ago, I left the Weather Centre and went to the National Services Division, where I am a program manager for weather standards. Q: One thing I immediately picked up on in talking with you is that you are utterly enamored with waterspouts! Clearly your knowledge of them has been fueled by genuine passion and fascination. When and how did waterspouts first capture your interest, and what has been your path as a foremost waterspout research scientist? Who has been influential along the way? W: As with many discoveries in life, my interest in waterspouts came about by accident. Originally, I was investigating the phenomenon known as “arctic sea smoke.” This forms over open bodies of water at very cold air temperatures. Arctic sea smoke was a problem at one of our airports on Georgian Bay; it would frequently reduce the visibility near the runway. I started looking into how to forecast arctic sea smoke. On days when arctic sea smoke occurred, I went down to Lake Ontario to gather data. By accident, I noticed several transient swirls forming in the sea smoke. These are called steam devils, and I quickly became interested in them. On one occasion I saw a huge steam devil. I called it a “winter waterspout.” It was at this point that my fascination with waterspouts began. At the time, little was done in the way of waterspout forecasting. Weather centers would issue a Special Marine Warning (U.S.) or a Waterspout Advisory (Canada) only after a waterspout was sighted. On one midnight shift, I said to myself, “We are forecasters. We should be able to predict waterspouts.” I began gathering meteorological data during waterspout events in order to develop a forecast technique. A couple of years later, the first version of the technique, the Szilagyi Waterspout Nomogram, was developed and used at the Weather Center in Toronto. Over the years, as more data was gathered, the Nomogram was improved. Recently, I developed the Szilagyi Waterspout Index (SWI), which is based on the Nomogram. From the SWI, and with the help of my colleague, my dream of developing the world’s first operational waterspout forecast model was achieved during the summer of 2012. Waterspouts can now be predicted with confidence up to two days in advance! The Nomogram and SWI are now used at weather centers around the Great Lakes and on both coasts of North America, and they are now being investigated in other parts of the world, especially Europe. During this period, I have written several articles and research papers and have given media interviews. I also formed the International Centre for Waterspout Research (ICWR) in 2008, which is a non-governmental organization comprised of research scientists, meteorologists, storm chasers, etc. from around the world who are interested in the field of waterspouts. Regarding who has been influential along my waterspout research path, I would have to say Dr. Joseph Golden. Dr. Golden is considered the “father of waterspouts.” He spent most of his career studying waterspouts and how they form. I was honored to have met Dr. Golden at the Great Lakes Operational Meteorology Workshop in Traverse City, Michigan, back in the 1990s. Frank Kieltyka, a meteorologist from the Cleveland Weather Office who conducted waterspout studies over Lake Erie, was also influential in the early days. Internationally, Dr. Alexander Keul, from the Vienna University of Technology, and Michalis Sioutas, from Meteorological Application Centre in Greece, inspired me to work on joint international research projects and to establish the International Centre for Waterspout Research. Q: I first came across your name as the author of a brief 2009 paper titled A Waterspout Forecasting Technique. In it, you described four types of waterspouts—thunderstorm-related, upper low, land breeze, and winter—and offered three significant parameters for forecasting them. Presumably, thunderstorm-related waterspouts evolve through processes familiar to storm chasers. But the remaining three are less familiar. Would you briefly describe the conditions that produce them and what distinguishes them from each other? Do any of them have a land-based equivalent? W: As a correction to the article, “thunderstorm-related” should be “severe weather.” Severe-weather-type waterspouts, like tornadoes over land, are associated with mesocyclones. The other three types of waterspouts (upper low, land breeze, and winter) are categorized as fair-weather-type waterspouts. These form in a different manner than the severe-weather-type waterspouts. There are no mesocyclones associated with fair-weather-type waterspouts. In all three cases, circulation with fair-weather-type waterspouts starts at the surface of the water. As air rapidly moves upwards under the cloud, the circulation gets stretched upwards and forms a waterspout. What distinguishes the three fair-weather types is the weather pattern in which they form. Upper low waterspouts form under unstable conditions associated with what meteorologists call upper lows—large areas of cool, rotating air. Upper low waterspouts form any time of the day or night. Land breeze waterspouts form along convergent lines called land breezes. Land breezes form overnight under light wind conditions as warm air rises over the water and is replaced by cooler air from the surrounding land. This cooler air converges along a line over the water, and it is along this line of converging air that rotation is initiated and waterspouts form. Land breezes last until early afternoon, at which time the waterspouts dissipate. Winter waterspouts form when it is very cold and windy. This results in extremely unstable conditions over the water. However, winter waterspouts are rarely observed because lake effect snow obscures their presence. The land-based equivalent of the three fair-weather-type waterspouts is a phenomenon known as the landspout. Landspouts form in a similar way as fair-weather-type waterspouts. Q: You encapsulated the three chief parameters for forecasting waterspouts in the Szilagyi Waterspout Nomogram, which was the precursor to the Szilagyi Waterspout Index (SWI) and the ensuing colorized forecast maps for Great Lakes waterspouts. Those appear to be the first practical tools ever devised for forecasting spouts. Starting with the Nomogram, would you tell us how you developed them and exactly what they are? What improvements do you anticipate for the forecast maps? W: Back in 1994, I started investigating what meteorological parameters correlated well during waterspout events. I wanted these parameters to be easy to calculate for forecasters. Three parameters satisfied these conditions of good correlation and easy use.* I then plotted these points and noticed that they formed a concentrated cluster on the graph. I enclosed the cluster with two lines. These lines are called the waterspout threshold lines. If a calculated point falls within them, waterspouts are likely. Outside the lines, waterspouts are not likely. This is what constitutes the Nomogram. The Szilagyi Waterspout Index (SWI) is derived directly from the Nomogram. The purpose is to produce an index that can be used in computer algorithms to produce forecast maps of waterspout potential. The SWI ranges from -10 to +10. Waterspouts are likely for SWI ≥ 0. The new Experimental Waterspout Forecast System (EWFS) produces forecast values of SWI. Improvements to the forecast maps produced by the EWFS are planned. These improvements include a higher model resolution, simplification of the display, and most importantly, the incorporation of surface convergence. Surface convergence is essential for waterspout formation. Q: I understand that waterspout formation has five stages. Could you describe them? In a phone conversation, you mentioned to me that the presence of even a small funnel cloud means that a waterspout is already in progress, with circulation between the water surface and cloud base fully established. Most storm chasers are careful to distinguish between a funnel cloud and a tornado; they define a tornado by either the condensation funnel making full contact with the ground or else with visible rotation at ground level, typically verified by whirling dust or debris. How do you view this approach based on your experience with waterspouts? W: Dr. Joseph Golden was the first to identify the five stages of a waterspout. These are:

1. Dark spot. A prominent circular, light-colored disk appears on the surface of the water, surrounded by a larger dark area of indeterminate shape and with diffused edges.

2. Spiral pattern. A pattern of light and dark-colored surface bands spiraling out from the dark spot which develops on the water surface.

3.Spray ring. A dense swirling ring of water spray appears around the dark spot with what appears to be an eye similar to that seen in hurricanes.

4. Mature vortex. The waterspout, now visible from water surface to the overhead cloud, achieves maximum organization and intensity. Its funnel often appears hollow, with a surrounding shell of turbulent condensate. The spray vortex can rise to a height of several hundred feet or more and often creates a visible wake and an associated wave train as it moves.

5. Decay. The funnel and spray vortex begin to dissipate as the inflow of warm air into the vortex weakens.

Regarding reporting either a waterspout or funnel cloud, the same procedure should be followed as with observations over the land. Evidence of a spray ring, or a fully condensed funnel reaching the surface of the water, should be visible before reporting it as a waterspout. If there is no spray ring visible because it is too far away to be viewed, and if the condensation funnel appears incomplete, then it should be called a funnel cloud. Q: This year has been a record-breaker for waterspouts, bolstered by such landmark events as the September 21-24 Great Lakes outbreak. What has the ICWR gained, and what do you expect it to get, from this year? In your organization’s research overall, have you made any discoveries that have surprised you? W: This year’s record-breaking waterspout numbers have resulted in tremendous media attention for the ICWR (e.g. The Weather Channel). This media attention has resulted in more individuals submitting waterspout reports on our website, which we display.These reports are also used to update and improve the nomogram. A discovery that has surprised us at the ICWR is that the nomogram can be applied in other areas of the world, in particular over European waters. These observations were confirmed in a recent research paper. Q: Speaking of the ICWR, how long has it been in existence? What led to its formation, and what is the story of its growth? What are some of its significant achievement? What are some things you’d like to see it accomplish within, say, the next five years, and who besides yourself are the players? W: Founded in 2008 by me and two European colleagues, the ICWR is an independent non-governmental organization comprised of individuals from around the world who are interested in the field of waterspouts from a research, operational, and safety perspective. Originally conceived as a forum for researchers and meteorologists, the ICWR has now expanded interest and contribution from storm chasers, the media, marine and aviation communities, and from private individuals. The goals of the ICWR are as follows:
    • Foster the advancement of waterspout research and forecasting. • Provide an international forum for the exchange of information among researchers and meteorologists. • Facilitate the reporting of waterspouts from around the world from storm chasers and other interested individuals. • Promote, educate, and communicate to academic institutions, the media, marine and aviation communities, and private individuals.
Some of the achievements of the ICWR have been to jointly produce waterspout research papers. Another achievement has been the increase in public awareness of waterspouts around the world. Features on the ICWR web site called the “Live Waterspout Watch”, as well as the ICWR Facebook page have helped facilitate this public awareness. Some projects that are currently being undertaken, and which I hope will be completed in the next five years, are the Global Waterspout Forecast System (GWFS), Global Waterspout Database (GWD), and Global Waterspout Watch Network (GWWN). The GWFS will produce waterspout potential maps for the entire globe. The GWD is a database containing waterspout events from around the world. The GWWN is a global network of waterspout spotters. The ICWR is comprised of a director (me), as well as an executive committee. The executive committee has two representatives: Dr. Alexander Keul, from Salzburg University; and Michalis Siatous, meteorologist with the Greek Weather Service. The ICWR is also represented by a growing number of storm chasers, meteorologists, and research scientists. Q: Are there any ways that storm chasers, weather observers, and other interested parties can participate in or otherwise assist the work of ICWR? W: Yes. Storm chasers and weather observers can contact the ICWR and become part of the GWWN. Researchers and meteorologists can collaborate with the ICWR to produce joint research papers or develop forecast models. Q: How many waterspout incidents have you personally witnessed? Are there any that stand out as particularly memorable for you? W:I have seen waterspouts on five separate occasions. The most memorable one was the first time I saw them. I rented a cottage for a few days on the north shore of Lake Erie. The weather was warm and the hope of seeing any waterspouts diminished with each passing day. On the last day of the vacation, I stopped thinking about waterspouts. That morning the weather was cool. I went out onto the beach with my glass of orange juice and was looking around the sand. I looked up over the water, and to my amazement I saw a family of three waterspouts in a row! My jaw and the glass dropped. I ran into the cottage yelling, “Waterspouts!” My wife told me that I was like a kid in a candy store. I grabbed my video camera, and for the next fifty minutes I filmed several waterspouts forming and dissipating. Q: When you’re not researching waterspouts, what do you like to do? Got any hobbies that keep you occupied when the spouts aren’t spinning? W: Hey, waterspout research is my hobby! My other hobbies are archeology and treasure hunting, which I have been doing for the last twenty-six years. I have found several artifacts that have added to the knowledge of the history of my town. These artifacts go on display to the public at various events. I am also planning on creating a virtual museum. I should point out that one of my greatest dreams is treasure hunting on the beach while looking up and seeing a waterspout! _______________________ * The three parameters are as follows: (1) The difference between water temperature and 850 mb temperature; (2) the depth of convective clouds; and (3) the 850 mb wind speed, which must be less than 40 knots. For further information, Szilagyi refers readers to his article on waterspout forecasting.

Tornado Safety: Is It a Good Idea to Seek Shelter in a Ditch?

With storm season nearly upon us, now is a good time to revisit a post on tornado safety which I wrote back in November. Our understanding of tornadoes in the 21st century eclipses what we knew about them, or thought we knew, thirty years ago. Moreveover, our sophisticated warning system has made us much safer during severe weather events today than in decades past. Yet, while the NWS has done what it can to debunk them, some outdated myths still persist. The notion that motorists who see a tornado approaching should leave their vehicles and seek shelter in a ditch isn't exactly a myth. Rather, it's a gray area that you may want to consider more deeply before you bet your life on it. So give this article a read--and we'll both hope that you never have to put it to the test.

Leave Your Car and Take Shelter in a Ditch? Not So Fast!

You've heard it repeated often over the years during tornado warnings: If a tornado approaches you while you're driving, abandon your vehicle and seek shelter in a ditch. For several decades that instruction has been disseminated as if it were gospel truth. But is it a proven life-saver or, like, some other popular tornado safety myths (hide under an overpass, open the windows of your house, head for the southwest corner of the basement) bad advice that could get you hurt or killed? In my opinion, it depends. While the National Weather Service has historically recommended the ditch, recently at least some weather stations have been modifying that advice, and a lot of experienced storm chasers disagree with it vehemently. Among the excellent reasons why they would prefer to take their chances in a vehicle rather than in a ditch, they cite the following: ◊ Flooding. A ditch is a poor escape option if it's rapidly filling with water. There's no point in surviving a tornado only to drown in a flash flood. ◊ Debris. All kinds of material can get pitched into a ditch with lethal force during a tornado. This is no idle concern; ditches regularly fill with tornado debris. ◊ Electrocution. There you are hiding in your nice, flooding ditch, and down comes a power line smack into the water. Fzzztttt! You're a crispy critter. ◊ Snakes. Depending on where in the country you live, you could find yourself keeping company with rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins. All of the above are reasons commonly given by chasers why they will never abandon their vehicles in favor of a ditch. I'll add one of my own: Unless a ditch is sufficiently deep, chances are good that the wind will just scoop you right out of it and blow you away. Take a look at this photo of a rear-flank downdraft (a type of strong, straight-line wind from a severe thunderstorm) and note how the dust fills the shallow ditch on the right. The RFD jet was crossing the road about 100 feet in front of our car when I snapped the photo, and it was easy to see that the wind wasn't merely blowing over the ditch--it was blowing into it. There's no reason why tornado winds won't do exactly the same thing, only a lot more intensely. (Note as well the rainwater in the ditch and the power lines hanging overhead.) Still not convinced? Check out this up-close video of a small but intense tornado traveling along a roadside ditch in Minnesota and consider how you would have fared had you been taking shelter there.

And then there's the obvious.

Why on earth would you want to abandon your best means of escaping the tornado altogether, not to mention the added protection your vehicle affords, in order to expose your soft, pink body fully to the elements? Contrary to what you may believe, you can outmaneuver a tornado. Storm chasers do it all the time. Tornadoes move at roughly the same speed as their parent storm. True, some can rip along at 60 mph or more, particularly in the early spring. But most tornadoes move at a much slower rate, generally between 25-45 mph. Given a decent road grid, unless you're in an an urban area where traffic is congested, or unless your view of the tornado is impeded by terrain or precipitation, your most commonsense survival tactic is to get out of harm's way. If you can see a tornado, you should be able to escape it unless it is nearly on top of you.

How to outmaneuver a tornado: advice for the average Jane or Joe.

Those of you who are storm chasers can skip this section. You're already quite familiar with approach and escape tactics, or at least, you should be. (Of course, you're more than welcome to share your own wisdom in the comments section, and I hope you will.) The following is written for the saner 99.9 percent of the population who don't go gallivanting across the vast American heartland in the hopes of encountering massive wind funnels filled with debris, but who would like to know what to do when they see one approaching while they're out driving in their cars. Let's say you find yourself in just such a situation. Your most obvious first step is to determine whether the tornado is moving toward you. Chances are it will simply miss you. If you're north of its path, you may want to park under a shelter, because if you're not already getting clobbered by hail, you probably will be shortly. If you're south of the tornado, you might want to head a little more south yet just to be on the safe side. Then pull of the road and enjoy the spectacle, because it's not one you'll see every day. If the tornado is in fact heading your way--if it appears to be growing larger without apparently moving--then you need to take action. Assuming that it's approaching from the west or southwest, as will be the case in most (though by no means all) situations, your best bet is to head south. In the map to your right (click to enlarge), the tornado is moving northeast directly toward you. Note the location of the number 1. That's the general direction you want to head in for reasons you can easily see. If south isn't an immediate option, then drive east and bail south at your first opportunity. Depending on how near you are to the tornado as it passes north of you, you may get slammed with vicious straight-line winds wrapping in from the storm's rear flank, but that's better than getting munched by the tornado itself. The overall point is to sidestep the tornado by moving at a right angle to its path. (Situation: You're standing in the middle of a railroad track and a train is coming. What's the smart thing to do? Answer: Right--step off the tracks!) Heading north toward location 2 is also an option, but it's one you're better off avoiding if you can. While you'll escape the tornado, you will very likely find yourself in the storm's hail core. As a general rule, heading south will take you away from the big hail and blinding rain. Of course, if you think the tornado is likely to pass south of your location and you're concerned about crossing its path, then use common sense and either stay where you are or else move north.  Better to risk losing your windshield than your life. Let's say, though, that you're in a worst-case scenario. There's no fleeing. Many chasers, probably most, would still prefer to ride out a tornado in their vehicle rather than in a ditch. Granted, neither option is a good one. There's no question that the more violent tornadoes can do horrible things to an automobile; pictures abound of cars and trucks crumpled into balls of metal, or wrapped around trees, or filled with lethal debris. But at least your vehicle provides a layer of protection that you wouldn't have in a ditch.

So is a ditch ever a good option?

This is a good place to mention that the ideas shared in this article are my opinion. They are not the result of scientific research. Then again, neither is the decades-old advice to abandon your vehicle for a ditch. It started as someone's reasonable-sounding idea that gained authority through repetition rather than actual proof. Still, it does make sense to get as low as possible during a tornado, and I personally think there are occasions when a ditch could offer viable protection. It's a matter of situational awareness. Is the ditch deep, deep enough that it could minimize your exposure to the wind? If it were me, that would be my first question. Assuming that the answer was yes, my next concern would be with my surroundings. I would feel much more hopeful about sheltering in a ditch in the open countryside, with little in the way of trees and other large debris to get chucked at me, than I would in an area full of structures all strung together with power lines. And what about vehicles? I would certainly want to get far enough away from my own car that it wouldn't be likely to roll over on top of me. Flash flooding? Snakes? Those issues are of greater concern in some parts of the country than others. The best I can say is, know the environmental hazards of your territory and make your choices accordingly. Again, the best way to survive a tornado is to get out of its path. Since most tornadoes are only a few hundred feet wide, avoiding them in a vehicle is quite easy given decent visibility, good roads, and ample lead time. If you're in your car and you spot a tornado approaching in the distance, don't take the fatalistic view that you can't outrun it. It's probably not heading directly at you in the first place. Determine where it is heading and do what you need to in order to position yourself elsewhere. However, if it appears to be growing larger without moving to either the right or left, then you need to either skedaddle or else find adequate shelter. Ditches rarely qualify. In most circumstances, you should consider a ditch as only a last-ditch option.