June 12 Chase in Northwest Indiana and Michigan

There's nothing fancy about these pics. They are what they are. But after a tremendously frustrating May--a rant I won't even bother to get into right now--it is nice to have at least something to show. The setup was a warm front strung from Iowa eastward across northern Indiana, typical of the south-central Great Lakes region. While the NWS was talking of a derecho, forecast soundings a couple days in advance seemed to point to tornadic potential. And indeed, on the day-of, the SPC issued a high risk across the area, with a 10 percent hatched tornado risk in the area where Kurt Hulst and I chased and a 15 percent hatch farther to the west. 6122013 Meso NW INThe photos show what we came up with in northwest Indiana south of Koontz Lake. The first blurry shot is of a small mesocyclone on a storm which, on the radar, gave only small hints that it could harbor one. Sometimes, given the right environment, what base reflectivity renders as amorphous blobs can provide surprises where you find a little sorta-kinda-almost hooky-looking little notch, and that was the case here. For a minute, it actually looked like it might give us a tornado, but the lack of surface winds was a good clue that wasn't gonna happen. Structurally, though, this little storm offered an interesting opportunity to try and read clues in the clouds as to what it was doing or planned to do. I'm not sure I ever did figure that out, but it was fun to watch. 6122013 Meso S of Koontz Lake INAfter watching it for several minutes, we dropped it to intercept the larger, more robust cell advancing behind it. This storm had displayed prolonged rotation on radar, and as we repositioned near a broad stretch of field that gave us a good view, we could see a stubby tail cloud feeding into a large, flange-shaped meso. The storm was clearly HP, with a linear look to it that suggests a shelf cloud, but there was no mistaking the broad rotary motion, and you can make out some inflow bands in the picture. At one point, a well-defined funnel formed just north of the juncture with the tail cloud (or whatever you want to call it) and the  rain core, drifting behind the core and into obscurity. We played tag with this storm for a while, but it was toward sunset and getting darker and darker, and eventually we decided to call it quits and head back. The storms where we were just lacked the low-level helicity to go tornadic. There was ample surface-based CAPE--somewhere in the order of 3,000 J/kg, methinks-- but whatever inflow was feeding them appeared to be streaming in above ground level. So we headed back into Michigan, and as we drove north on US-31 near Saint Joseph, things got interesting fast. Green and orange power flashes suggested that a high wind was moving through nearby. A glance at the radar and, sure enough, there it was: a bow echo. It didn't look terribly dramatic on radar, but looks can be deceiving. Heading east on I-94, we attempted to catch up with the belly of the bow as it rocketed toward Paw Paw and Kalamazoo. The next fifty or sixty miles was a millrace of frequently shifting high winds and torrential rain punctuated by power flashes. At one point, we narrowly missed running into a highway sign that blew across the road in front of us. At another, we passed an inferno where a falling tree had evidently gotten entangled in a power line. North of us on the radar, we could see a supercell moving over the town of Wayland. But it was a little ways beyond reach, particularly given the kind of backwoods territory that lay to its east. The high winds and driving rain ended, ironically, as we entered Kent County. My little hometown of Caledonia got just a relative dusting of rain and maybe a zephyr of outflow. It was hard to believe how much drama was playing out just a few miles to the south. Big thanks to Kurt for taking me out with him when I didn't have the gas or the money to chase on my own. I needed to get out and chase, and the sneering irony of having a robust setup dropped in my backyard and not being able to do anything about it was really eating me yesterday. I got to go out after all, and it felt wonderful.  

The Passing of Andy Gabrielson

I returned home from practicing my sax an hour or so ago, dipped into Facebook, and was stunned to learn of the accidental death of Andy Gabrielson. The radar is lit up tonight with scores of Spotter Network icons spelling out the initials "A G" across the state of Kansas in his honor. I'm just sickened by the news of Andy's passing. I never met him, but like many storm chasers, I've seen and admired his work and his dedication. He was just 24 years old, barely more than a kid, but already he had attained an impressive track record. If storms were firing anywhere in the the continental United States, Andy's SN icon was sure to be there. I am saddened to think that henceforth it will be missing. But as much as the loss of Andy will be felt by the storm chasing community, our loss is nothing compared to that of his family. One idiot drunk driver headed the wrong way down the Turner Turnpike in Oklahoma has left a young wife without a husband and little girl without a dad. It is sad beyond belief. To the Gabrielson family, if you chance upon this post: I am so sorry. My thoughts and prayers are most truly with you.

Relocated: A Review of Ben Holcomb’s 2011 Storm Chasing DVD

With his newly released second storm chasing DVD, Relocated, Ben Holcomb has done a fabulous job of capturing the action out west during 2011, a banner year for chasers. I just finished watching the DVD with Kurt Hulst. That makes my third time, and I've only had the video for a week. I much enjoyed Ben's maiden voyage DVD, which shows highlights from his first three years of chasing. Relocated improves on that foundation. As its name implies, this DVD reflects Ben's move from Lansing, Michigan, to Norman, Oklahoma, smack in the heart of Tornado Alley. It also demonstrates Ben's development as a videographer and producer, as evidenced by the quality of both the content and the packaging. From laid back to intense to pure wow, the moods and dialog in Relocated cover a variety of situations a chaser is apt to experience; and the storms are always the star of the show, which is how it should be. While I'm on that last subject, one thing I appreciate about this video is its conservative use of background music. I enjoy a certain amount of music for spice, but not a lot. Mostly, I like to hear the environmental sounds of the chase--the crack of thunder, swoosh of the wind, and clatter of hail; the spontaneous comments and interactions of chasers; even the road noise and the sound of the car engine. I want to feel like I'm there, and this video does that for me. Anyone who knows Ben knows how passionate he is about chasing. He moved to Oklahoma to maximize his opportunities to chase tornadoes, and 2011 rewarded him with a bumper crop. The action starts on April 9 in Mapleton, Iowa, a day that drew a lot of chasers out for an early chase. This section ends with a neat synchronization of freeze frames with music. I won't say more--you'll have to see for yourself. I'll just tell you that it's clever and nicely executed. A couple weeks later, on April 24, things appear to have gotten a bit hairy for the Benster out in Baird, Texas. As he trains his camera on a distant lowering, a vortex spins up in the field next to him, and it becomes clear that circulation is establishing itself directly overhead. Call me a wuss, but that is the kind of situation that would make me pee like an elderly aunt in a beer tent, and it evidently inspired Ben to lean plenty on the accelerator, all the while continuing to shoot video. The result is some exciting footage shot at uncomfortably close range, and for me it's the adrenaline spike of this DVD. Don't try anything similar at home. The footage from the May 24 Oklahoma outbreak is outstanding. What more could a chaser possibly want? The Chickasha EF4 grows rapidly from a cone to a powerful stovepipe as it crosses the road and then moves past Ben's position at a distance of perhaps three-quarters of a mile (just guessing here). The tornado continues to grow into a violent wedge with a collar cloud circulating around it like a monstrous merry-go-round, dropping lower and lower toward an immense dust plume that rises up to meet it. Remember I mentioned that this video packs wow-ness? Well, here is a prime example. Next, Ben captures a spectacularly beautiful white rope-out of the Shawnee tornado, which crosses the highway, then more-or-less anchors in a field and attenuates into nothingness as debris drifts out of the sky, sparkling in the sunlight. The camera probes high up the side of the disintegrating rope funnel, all the way up to its juncture with the cloud base. Very nice. The June 20 section, shot in Nebraska with J. R. Hehnly, is one I find a bit frustrating to watch because I missed the tornadoes myself by about an hour. Not Ben. He got great, ongoing footage of a cyclic supercell that kept popping out tubes one after the other. A high point, fairly early in this part of the DVD, is some fantastic multiple vortex action after the first tornado crosses the road in front of the vehicle and then intensifies. You see a gorgeous white cone with suction vortices pirouetting around its base, an elegant egg-beater. It's my favorite scene in a DVD that's full of great tornado videography, and I'm caught between admiring the storm's beauty and wanting to bang my head against a wall. Aaagh! Sixty more miles...one lousy hour sooner...nutz. Bad for me, but good for Ben and J. R. That's it for the tornadoes, but Ben has sweetened the deal with bonus footage of the last launch of the Atlantis space shuttle. Right, that has nothing to do with storm chasing, but it was obviously a standout event for Ben, as it would have been for anyone. So why not conclude this 75-minute DVD with a personal glimpse of a historic moment? Relocated is a thoroughly satisfying video that anyone with a jones for tornadoes and severe weather will enjoy. Be aware, though, that this is the real deal, a realistic and personal presentation of storm chasing as most chasers experience it rather than what reality TV has made it out to be. The camera is often hand-held by a guy who is either simultaneously driving or else trying to gain an optimal view from the passenger seat. That's part of the package, and it makes for an honest and engaging production. Purchasing Information Purchase price for Relocated is $15.00 plus $2.00 shipping. For more information and to place your order, visit Ben's site, where you can also buy his first video, My First Three Years, for the same price. Or save $2.00 when you purchase both videos together for just $28.00 plus shipping. If you're looking for some great storm footage to while away the hours from now until spring, buy this video. And no, Ben didn't pay me to say that or to write this review. I took it upon myself to do so because Ben is a good friend, a passionate chaser, and a guy who puts not only expertise but also a considerable amount of heart into what he does. Which is why Relocated rocks, and why it belongs in your video collection.

First Public Speaking Engagement

Yesterday morning I delivered a presentation on storm chasing for the residents of Covenant Village, a retirement community on the west side of Grand Rapids. The event was my baptism as a public speaker, and it went very well. The positive comments I received encouraged me that I did a good job for a greenhorn. But then, I had a compelling topic and plenty of material to make up for my lack of experience behind the podium. I spent most of the previous day organizing my notes and photographs. By the time I was finished, sometime around midnight, I had a collection 37 images, including two radar screens. I also had seven pages of notes that covered • who storm chasers are, what they do, and why they do it; and my own growth as a storm chaser; • severe weather in Michigan, using this year's May 29 straight-line wind event in Battle Creek as an example; • basics of a tornadic supercell, tracking the June 5, 2010, Elmdale, Illinois, storm from initiation to tornadogenesis to impact on a small community; • and finally, my most intense personal experience to date, that being May 22, 2010,  in "The Field" near Roscoe, South Dakota. Inviting my audience to interject with questions made for more organic, interesting communication. A number of  people responded with some excellent questions, and I liked how those freed me from the tyranny of my notes. I really don't like to getting my nose stuck in a pile of notes--they interrupt my flow. Hopefully I'll get more speaking opportunities, and those will help me to internalize my material, at which point I'll be able to jettison the notes entirely. At the request of organizer Linda Kirpes, I concluded my talk with a rendition of "Stormy Weather" on my saxophone, followed by my theme song, "Amazing Grace." Probably most speakers don't cap their presentations in such fashion, but it suited me, and I'll do it again if I get the chance. The storm and the horn of "Stormhorn" go together, after all.

The Historic 2011 Tornado Season in Review: A Video Interview with Storm Chaser Bill Oosterbaan, Parts 2-4

This post continues from part one of my video interview with Bill Oosterbaan on his storm chases during the monumental tornado season of 2011. Since the interview involves one chaser's recollections, it obviously can't and doesn't embrace the entirety of this year's significant tornado events, such as the April 9 Mapleton, Iowa, tornado and the April 14–16 outbreak. The latter event was historic in its own right, the worst outbreak to occur since February 5–6, 2008. During most years it would have been the biggest headline maker for spring storms; yet in 2011, it got eclipsed three weeks later by the deadly super outbreak of April 25–28; and again on May 22 by the heartbreaking disaster in Joplin, Missouri, where 158 lives were lost. The tornadoes of 2011 will long be remembered for for their violence, size, and path length; for their sheer number; and for their devastating impact on large towns across the South and Southeast. In the following videos, my friend and long-time chase partner Bill talks about his experiences in Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. If you haven't already seen Part 1, I encourage you to start there and view the entire interview in sequence. These videos constitute a person-to-person conversation, not a series of tornado clips. In fact, due to issues with his camera, Bill regretfully didn't get the kind of video record he hoped for. He did, however, manage to film the Vilonia, Arkansas, wedge; and, equipped with a new camcorder on June 20, he captured some interesting and exciting footage in Nebraska, some which you can view here and here. Bill, while I couldn't join you on most of your chases this spring, I'm glad you had such a successful season. I know the dues you've paid over the years. You're the McCoy.

The Historic 2011 Tornado Season in Review: A Video Interview with Storm Chaser Bill Oosterbaan, Part 1

Just about any way you look at it, the 2011 tornado season has been exceptional, disastrous, spectacular, and heartbreaking. On April 25–28, the largest tornado outbreak in United States history claimed over 340 lives over a span of 78 1/2 hours. Hardest hit was northern Alabama, where 239 of the fatalities occurred. Of the 335 confirmed tornadoes that drilled across 21 states from Texas and Oklahoma to as far north as upstate New York, four received an EF-5 rating, a figure surpassed only by the 1974 Super Outbreak. In other ways, what is now known as the 2011 Super Outbreak rivaled its infamous predecessor of 37 years ago. There were more tornadoes. And, in an age when warning technology and communications far outstrips what existed on April 3–4, 1974, there were nevertheless more deaths. The 2011 Super Outbreak alone would have set the year apart as a mile marker in weather history. But less than a month later, on May 22, another longstanding record got broken--and tornado records are rarely anything one hopes to see beaten. In this case, a mile-wide EF-5 wedge that leveled Joplin, Missouri, became not only the first single tornado since the 1953 Flint–Beecher, Michigan, tornado to kill over 100 people, but also, with a death toll of 153, the deadliest US tornado since the Woodward, Oklahoma, tornado of 1943. This has been a year when large cities have gotten smeared, churned into toothpicks and spit out at 200 mph. Tusacaloosa, Birmingham, Huntsville, Joplin...if you survived the storms that trashed these towns, you were blessed. And chances are, you know people who weren't so fortunate. Rarely has the dark side of the storms that storm chasers so passionately pursue been on such grim and devastating display. This has been an awful tornado season, and that's the truth. It has also been a spectacular one, and if many of the storms were man eaters, yet many others spun out their violent beauty harmlessly out on the open plains. Chasers this year have witnessed the full gamut, from April's deadly monsters that raced across Dixie Alley to slow-moving, late-season funnels that meandered grandly over the grasslands. For me, the season has largely been a washout. Family and economic constraints kept me mostly benched this spring, and the few times when I made it out west to chase were unproductive. Not so, however, with my friend and chase partner of 15 years, Bill Oosterbaan. Bill has had a spectacular and a sobering season--and in this first-ever Stormhorn.com video interview, he's here to talk about it. The 40-minute length of this video requires that it be broken into four sections in order to fit YouTube requirements. It's a lengthy process, and me being a novice at video editing--particularly with high definition--it has taken me a while to figure out how to make it work. This evening I finally had a breakthrough, and now I'm pleased to say that Part 1 is available for viewing. I will be working on the remaining three parts tomorrow, and I hope to have them available in their entirety on YouTube by Wednesday. [UPDATE: Parts 2–4 are now available for viewing.] For now, by way of a teaser with some substance to it, here is the first part.

My Great 1,600 Mile Chase Bust

Monday and Tuesday this week were the storm chase from hell. It you're looking for a nice, upbeat post about chasing, you'd best skip this one. My feelings about my fiasco in Nebraska may have mellowed down enough for me not to unleash a full-bore rant anymore, but I've still got enough gunpowder left to blow off a few firecrackers. That's the result when impediment piles upon impediment and frustration upon frustration. With my sights Sunday night fixed on western Iowa and eastern Nebraska the next evening, I set my alarm clock for 4:30 a.m. and hit the sack. I was awakened by early morning light filtering through the window. Light? I glanced at the clock. It said 6:30. My alarm hadn't sounded and I was running late. Nuts. But okay, no problem. After a fast shower, I kissed Lisa good-bye, threw my gear into the car, and hit the road. I still had plenty of time to make eastern Nebraska, and that was a good thing because the SPC had bumped the focal point for tornadoes west. No time to analyze models--I just had to trust the Norman weather pros and hope for the best. Off I went. Thirty miles down the road in Zeeland I made a delightful discovery: I had left my debit card in my other pants pocket. This was the beginning of woes. Self-possessed person that I am, I responded calmly and maturely by protruding my eyeballs, depressurizing my feelings constructively using the special vocabulary that I reserve for just such occasions, and, a cat of nine tails not being handy, by rapidly banging my fist on the steering wheel in lieu of self-flagellation. Retrieving my debit card meant losing over an hour. I now was pushing the envelope, but I could still make eastern Nebraska by late afternoon. This being probably my last crack at a good setup in a record storm season during which I've been miserably sidelined, I was determined to try. So off I went again. I wasn't far south of Holland, Michigan, when the disquiet in my stomach became a bubbling, and the bubbling escalated into the kind of tar-pit-like seething that tells you a quick trip to a bathroom will be required in the near future. Between southern Michigan and east of Chicago, I made three pit stops. Another 45 minutes, literally gone down the toilet before I finally popped some Immodium and put an end to the rumblings. By the time I drew near to Omaha, the show was underway. A tornadic supercell was moving up out of Kansas into Nebraska toward the center of the surface low. My friend and long-time chase partner Bill Oosterbaan, who had called me as we both were initially approaching Zeeland and just as my debit card fiasco was commencing, was now far ahead of me and positioning himself for the next storm down. That storm went spectacularly tornadic and Bill got some great footage, probably the best he's gotten so far. But there was no way I could make it that far west in time to catch tornadoes. My show was clearly going to be the pair of cells to my southwest that were heading toward Lincoln. They were my one chance. But they were south of the warm front, and while surface winds were southeasterly, the storms were moving north-northeast. The low-level helicity required for tornadoes was lacking. My hope was that as the storms headed north they would tap into increasingly backed winds. But all they did was backbuild and congeal into a nasty squall line. My hopes were still up as I approached Lincoln; however, as I finally drew near to the northernmost cell along US 77 west of Roca, I could see that I was screwed. The cells had congealed into a pile of linear junk. I had driven over 750 miles to chase a shelf cloud, and it wasn't even a particularly photogenic shelf cloud. True, it had the local media in Omaha screaming about 75 mph winds and flash flooding, but I've seen plenty better right here in Michigan. Linear mess-oscale convective systems are our state storm. No point in prolonging the pain. I started heading home, my idea being to get far enough east that I'd have time to chew on the system's leftovers back in Michigan the next day. Bill had business in Iowa and was overnighting at the Hilton in Marshalltown, so I bunked with him there. He'd gotten four tornadoes in Polk County, and we reviewed his footage. Very nice stuff! He'd gotten close enough to a large tornado to capture the roar. Here's his YouTube clip. Sigh. So near and yet so far. An arcus cloud isn't much of a compensation prize compared to a tornado. Of course there was still tomorrow back home. A warm front looked poised to drape right across Grand Rapids with SBCAPE in the order of 4,500 J/kg--an optimal setup for Michigan, except that the models consistently depicted the 500 mb jet hanging back just to the west in northern Illinois and Wisconsin. Bill and I in fact hooked up again the next day after his business meeting and briefly discussed chasing the low in Wisconsin. But that area is some of the worst chase terrain imaginable, so we scrapped the idea and went our ways. Somewhere around Davenport, out of idle curiosity, I checked out the SPC's mesoanalysis graphics and noticed that the mid-level energy appeared to be nudging eastward toward Michigan. Hmmm...maybe there might be a bit of a show after all. I gave Kurt Hulst a call. He had hung back in town and was planning to chase today, not expecting much but thinking that the big CAPE could compensate somewhat for poor upper air support. I agreed, particularly now that it looked like 500 mb and higher winds might reach the threshold for storm organization. Later VAD wind profiles at GRR showed nice veering with height along with 30 kt winds at 18,000 feet. Not a setup to die for, but it might just work. And it did. A beautiful supercell fired up along the warm front, and Kurt was on it in a heartbeat. He got in some nice chasing on several storms, witnessed rotating wall clouds and a funnel extending halfway down, and did some call-ins for WOOD TV8. Good work, Kurt! As for me, I got delayed by a traffic bottleneck in Joliet, Illinois, and attempting to find a detour proved to be a huge, time-consuming mistake. I finally arrived in Michigan in time to chase storms, but not the ones on the warm front. Once again I had to settle for what I could get as I belted east down I-94 and punched through the line near Marshall. By then the mid-level winds had backed off and I was left with the usual, disorganized Michigan crap-ola. There was a lot of that, though. The warm sector was remarkably juicy, and more storms kept popping up behind the main line. Heading back through Battle Creek, I parked in a lot across from the old Kellogg Museum and watched a couple of cells south and west of me detonate their munitions. I'll say this: The lightning this day was intense, lots of brilliant, high-voltage positive strokes, many of which struck close by. It was an impressive, beautiful, and exciting pyrotechnic display. But now that it's all behind me, my tornado tally for this year remains zero. Between Monday and Tuesday I drove over 1,600 miles and blew through around $200 worth of gas to see nothing that I couldn't have seen by simply sitting in my apartment and looking out the window. It's frankly a bit humiliating, considering what a benchmark season this has been for storm chasers. Family comes first, though, and tight finances in a rotten economy have been a potent regulator. Sometimes all a body can do is choose his attitude. I confess that mine wasn't all that great these last couple of days, but I talk with the Lord about such things. It's the best I can do: put my feelings before Him honestly, then do what I can to adopt a more positive spirit and move on. Still...it sure would be nice to see a tornado yet this year. Just one. I don't think that's too much to hope for. Sigh. Maybe this fall.

Storm Chasing in Illinois on Wednesday

The formidable system that ground out large, violent tornadoes in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas on Tuesday will move east on Wednesday to bring another round of severe weather to southeast Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. And finally--finally!--I'm in a position to do some storm chasing. Financial constraints have majorly crimped my expeditions so far this season, but no way am I missing tomorrow. Based on Tuesday morning's NAM run, I'd been eyeballing Effingham, Illinois, as a preliminary target for trolling the I-70 corridor. The sounding for that area looked mighty pretty, as you can plainly see. Now, however, with the 00Z runs in, I'm inclined to shift farther east near Terre Haute. Here's another model sounding, courtesy of TwisterData, for near Oblong, Illinois. Maybe not quite as sexily backed at the surface as the Effingham sounding, but with stronger low-level winds and definitely quite functional. Maps of 500 mb winds and SBCAPE (see below) paint in a little more detail and suggest that near the Illinois/Indiana border is a good choice. Tomorrow morning's data will tell all. Meanwhile, it's time for me to get my ugly-rest. I am so excited about the prospect of finally getting out and feeling the moisture, watching cumulus towers erupt and organize into glowering supercells, and hopefully videotaping some tornadoes out on the flat, wide-open Illinois prairie! A good night's sleep and then I'm off in the morning.

What Do You Need to Chase Storms?

"How do I become a storm chaser?" If you've been asking that question, this post is for you. I write it with some reservation, knowing that there are people more qualified than I to address the topic. That being said, I've been chasing storms with some modicum of success long enough now that I'm confident my insights can have value for those who wonder what it takes to get started. What do you need in order to chase storms? I've seen some lengthy lists developed in response to that question. The input is good, but it can overcomplicate matters, and too much of it all at once can be daunting. If you focus on the word "need," the answer is much simpler. That's my approach here: strip it down to the basics, then build from there.

The Foundational Stuff

Here, in my opinion, are the few things that a storm chaser cannot do without: ◊ A roadworthy vehicle, be it yours or a chase partner's. By "roadworthy," I mean one that can successfully manage the terrain you'll be chasing in. If your territory is the flatlands of Illinois and Indiana, or if you intend to stay on main roads that aren't likely to run out of pavement, then pretty much any vehicle will serve you. On the other hand, if you plan to chase down west Kansas backroads, then you'd better have four wheel drive and great tires; otherwise, the clay out there will slurp you down and ruin your day. ◊ Road maps. Self-explanatory, I think. ◊ Money. You need gas for the tank, right? And maybe a burger along the way. ◊ Basic knowledge of storm structure. Sure, you can chase storms without knowing anything about their features and behavior. But you can't chase them safely, and the odds of your chasing them successfully are slim. So learn all you can. West Texas storm chaser Jason Boggs has created an outstanding list of educational resources that you can access as quickly as you can click your mouse. Jason's list mixes basic and advanced material together without discriminating between them. It's all good, but you should start with the fundamental stuff that deals with storm structure. Veteran chaser Gene Moore's material on identifying storm features is a good first bet. Also, a quick plug for Stormtrack, the online informational clearing house, learning resource, and virtual community for storm chasers worldwide. You'll learn an awful lot just browsing the forum. One final word on learning: there's nothing like a mentor. If you can hook up with a seasoned chaser who's willing to show you the ropes, grab the chance. You can shorten your learning curve significantly. But if such a person isn't available to you, don't let that stop you. ◊ Light bars for your vehicle. Absolutely mandatory. How is the world going to know you're a storm chaser if your vehicle doesn't resemble a mobile road block? JUST KIDDING! Don't worry about light bars just yet. That's it for the essentials. Pretty basic, aren't they--just you, your vehicle, maps, money, and a bit of knowledge. It really doesn't take any more than that to intercept storms. The main thing is to get out there and do it. Assuming that you've got the fundamentals in place, let's look next at a few things that will make your chases more successful and your experiences more rewarding.

Important Tools of the Trade

Can you chase storms without a laptop equipped with radar software and mobile data? Of course you can! Ask any chaser who's been around ten years or longer and they'll tell you. When the pioneer chasers began paving the way for the rest of us, they did it without all the trimmings. Even Rain-X wasn't trademarked until 1972, and David Hoadley was chasing storms long before then. For that matter, I didn't have any of the following tools of the trade for many years during my own illustrious ascent as a storm chaser. Of course, I didn't see any tornadoes, either, so don't take your cues from me. I will tell you that I had a lot of fun learning the slow, hard way. However, my successes came when I started adding a few resources, concurrent with improving my knowledge of forecasting and storm morphology. All that to say that while the items below aren't absolutely indispensable, that doesn't mean they're not important. They're very important, and not many chasers today, including the veterans, chase without them. ◊ Laptop computer. It's your control center. ◊ Power inverter to power your laptop and charge your cameras. ◊ Radar software. Besides a laptop, this should be your first purchase on the list of storm chasing tools. I recommend GR3, at least to begin with. It's the one used by most chasers, and for good reason: it's a fabulous program designed specifically for storm chasing, with incredible functionality and flexibility. Just get it, okay? For $80, trust me, you can't go wrong. For that matter, you get a free trial period that lets you play with the program for a few weeks before you slap down your money. ◊ USB modem and mobile Internet connection. Your best bet is to purchase a USB modem outright; that way you're not locked into a 2-year contract, and you can deactivate your account during the off-season instead of continuing to pay for data you're not using. As for Internet connection, Verizon currently provides the best data coverage nationwide, and a lot of chasers use it. Others prefer Sprint, also a good choice. Where you'll be chasing is something to consider in making your decision. ◊ Radar data feed for GR3. You can use the free feed that NOAA provides. But a lot of chasers prefer a dedicated feed such as those provided by Allisonhouse and MichiganWxSystem. Priced around $10 a month, such a feed is well worth the money. Nowadays more chasers are using Android phones with radar apps. Not being the geeky type, and also not having the cash, I haven't looked into these setups. I like having a large display in front of me anyway instead of a tiny screen, but I'm not knocking those who are working with with handheld units. The point is, however you get it and however you display it, you want good, detailed radar information delivered to you with timely updates. ◊ GPS and mapping software such as De Lorme. You'll also want a serial port emulator that will allow you to use GPS simultaneously with both your map and your radar. ◊ Rain-X. Worth every dollar it costs, and it doesn't cost much. ◊ SPC Convective Outlooks link. After all, all your great gear doesn't amount to squat if you can't find storms! Since you're new to storm chasing, chances are you don't have the knowledge to make your own forecasts. Start acquiring it now, beginning with the Storm Prediction Center's convective outlooks page. It will do two things for you: 1) show you graphically whether and where storms are expected to fire, and 2) through its detailed forecast discussions, familiarize you with the terminology and thinking that go into severe weather forecasting. ◊ Light bars. Don't leave home without them. How will drab, ordinary, non-storm-chasing mortals know you're a storm chaser unless...oh, hey, wait a minute. Sorry, we're still jumping the gun. Forget I mentioned light bars. You don't need light bars. Not now, anyway. Patience, patience!

Moving On

◊ Station obs, upper air maps, and other forecasting data. Here's where it gets fun! Making your own forecasts is what separates the be's from the wannabe's, and sooner or later you'll want to try your hand at it. Luckily for you, a cornucopia of forecasting resources is available to you for free online. So start acquainting yourself with the tools of the trade. Check out the tabs at the top of my Storm Chasing page for starters. Also, take a peek at the resources available on my friend Kurt Hulst's site, Midwest Chasers. ◊ Anemometers, weather meters, and other gadgets. Once you start chasing, you'll soon run into vehicles tricked out with various devices useful for personal monitoring of wind speed, wind direction, moisture, barometric pressure, and other localized weather conditions. You don't need any of this stuff in order to enjoy success chasing storms. But depending on how deep and techy you want to get, you might decide that some of it is for you. Just get it for the right reason: to enhance your chasing, not to impress the world with a mess of whizbangs and dingdongs ornamenting the top of your vehicle. Me, I like to keep things simple. Nothing about my car shouts "storm chaser," and the only gadget I use is a Kestrel 4500 hand-held weather meter. It's a cool little device, a regular Swiss Army Knife filled with all sorts of nifty features that I don't need. I use it mainly to get local, real-time reads on the dewpoint, temperature, and wind speed, information that I do find very useful. ◊ Camera and/or camcorder. A no-brainer if you want to capture visual images of your chases. ◊ Communication equipment. While it probably goes without saying, you should at least carry a cell phone with you. A lot of chasers are also HAM radio operators, and this spring I'll be joining their ranks with a hand-held unit of my own. I've chased for fifteen years without HAM, but I've seen the benefits of having it. ◊ Spotter Network. A service of Allisonhouse, Spotter Network interfaces with your radar software and GPS to show other chasers where you're at and to show you where everyone else is positioned. More importantly, it allows you to quickly and efficiently submit reports of severe weather online from your location. ◊ "NOW can I have a light bar? Can I? Pleeeeze?" Oh, good grief. Yes, fine, all right, go, get your precious light bar if you must. Buy seven or eight of the damn things. Pick up a spotlight or two while you're at it. Perish forbid that you should settle for anything less than the candlepower of a NASA launch pad. My serious opinion: any gadgets you purchase should have a genuinely practical application. I don't own a light bar myself because I don't need one. I'm not trained as a first responder, and in the event of an emergency, my best response normally won't be to clear the road for myself or alert others to my presence, but to get the heck out of the way of emergency personnel who need to get through. You, on the other hand, may in fact have medical or emergency training and a legitimate use for a light bar. If so, then get one. If not, what's the point? And this leads me to comment on one final, vitally important aspect of storm chasing...

Your Attitude

Even as storm chasing has captivated the public through documentaries and reality TV shows, it has also gotten a black eye in some parts of the country due to the misbehavior of irresponsible yahoos. More of these jokers are surfacing all the time. So let's be clear: chasing storms does not give you license to act like a self-centered idiot. Use common sense. You don't own the road, so drive safely and respectfully. If you want to stop and film, find a safe place to pull aside so you don't impede traffic. Drive at a sane speed that doesn't endanger others, and bear in mind that hydroplaning is a more serious danger to chasers than tornadoes. Also, have some respect for people who have been chasing for a while. Some experienced chasers have expressed disgust, anger, and disinclination to continue sharing their knowledge after encountering know-nothing newbies who think they know it all. So remember, as a neophyte you'll earn respect by showing respect. Humility, a thirst to learn, and passion for the storms will get you places that posturing and arrogance never will. 'Nuff said. Good luck, stay safe, and have fun.

First Day of Meteorological Spring!

IT'S SPRING!!! Spring, spring, springity spring SPRIIIIIINNNG! O joy! O rapture! It's springspringspringspringwonderfulwonderfulspring!!!!!!!!!!! And lest I forget to mention it--it's spring! Oh, I know, you're thinking I've lost my mind. Unless, of course, you're a storm chaser or a meteorologist, in which case you know exactly what I'm talking about. As for the rest of you, forget about that old astronomical calendar that wants to make us all wait almost three more weeks for spring to arrive. That way of thinking is so passe, so limiting. Embrace a new outlook full of fresh, springy-sproingy possibilities. Think meteorological spring, which begins March 1--today! This is the day all you storm chasers have been looking forward to, and I know from reading a couple of your notes on Facebook that a good number of you have been doing air somersaults and cartwheels. You're happier than Tigger on pot, and I don't blame you one bit, because we all know what has just entered the room: Storm Season 2011. That's right, boys and girls. Dust off your laptops, put your hail helmets in the back seat, and pour yourselves a nice, stiff shot of Rain-X, because it's time for a toast. Here's to moisture rolling in from the Gulf. Here's to a higher sun, warmer temperatures, and longer days. Here's to strong mid-level jets, deep lows, and gonzoid helicities. I wish you all safe chasing and classic supercells, my friends, and ample reason for steak and beer at the end of your outings. L'chaim! Let the games begin. It's spring!