Are the Great Plains About to Open for Business?

ECMF-GFS H5 fcst 0408013Last year’s abnormally balmy March opened for storm chasers with a lion-like roar on the 2nd with a deadly outbreak of tornadoes along the Ohio River southward. But from then on, with the exception of April 13 and 14, the season dwindled into a pathetic, lamb-like bleat.

This March has been the polar opposite, and I do mean polar. Many chasers have been champing at the bit due to a wintry pattern that has simply refused to let go. But that may finally be about to change, and April may be the month when this year’s chase season starts to howl. For the last several days, I’ve been eyeballing a large trough on the GFS that wants to invade the Great Plains around April 8, shuttling in Gulf moisture and also suggesting the possibility of warm-front action farther east on the 9th.

GFS H5 fcst 00z 040913The ECMWF broadly agrees. The first map (click to enlarge), initialized today at 00Z, compares the 168 hour forecasts for GFS and Euro heights for Sunday evening, April 7 (00Z April 8). The second map, from TwisterData, depicts the GFS 24 hours later at 7 p.m. CST.

Maybe not a poster child for negative tilting (though the 6Z run changes that), but it could signal the breaking of the Champagne bottle against the hull of chase season 2013. The details will fill themselves in as the forecast hour narrows down. Right now, this is a hopeful sign for storm chasers. Winter may still have a gasp or two left, but we’ve made it through, and change is on the way.

Prior to that, the models point to a shortwave moving through the upper Midwest next weekend. Will it have sufficient moisture and instability to work with near the warm front? Good question; we’ll find out, assuming subsequent model runs don’t wash it out. So far it has shown up consistently. For those of us who live northeast of Tornado Alley, it’s worth keeping an eye on.


Respect for the Victims: Some Thoughts on Storm Chaser Banter

Several weeks ago, en route toward a storm chasers’ conference in Minneapolis, my long-time chase partner Bill Oosterbaan and I caught lunch in Parkersburg, Iowa. Five years before, on May 25, 2008, Bill, his brother, Tom, Jason Harris, and I had intercepted a tornadic supercell half an hour after it leveled the southern third of that town, claiming seven lives. It was the second EF-5 tornado recorded using the Enhanced Fujita Scale (the first tornado destroyed Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007), and I was curious to visit the community it had impacted.

As we headed north into Parkersburg, just two signs of the disaster greeted us: wind-torn trees which bore silent testimony to the horror of that grim afternoon, and street after street of new homes and commercial structures. In that 150-year-old prairie town, the delineation between old buildings to the north and brand-new ones to the south was sharp, and it was telling. This town had endured something far beyond a bad windstorm. It had been forever altered by one of nature’s most violent and lethal forces. In just two or three brief minutes, one-third of the town had been swept away–homes leveled, businesses demolished, loved ones lost, bodies maimed, traumatic memories imprinted indelibly in the minds and emotions of survivors, and the history of an entire 1,870-person community dramatically shaped. Henceforth, Parkersburg would be one of those towns whose residents speak in terms of “before the tornado” and “after the tornado.”

As Bill and I walked down the sidewalk toward a family restaurant in the old downtown section, Bill remarked, “I can hardly wait to get out and chase this spring! Man, I hope we get some good storms.”

“Careful,” I said. “Remember where we are.”

Bill understood immediately. “Good point,” he agreed.

It’s so easy for even older, long-time chasers like Bill and me to forget. We’re enthralled with tornadoes and severe storms, we’re passionate about what we do, and we love to talk about it to the point where we lose track of how terribly dark the dark side of our interest can be. But those who have survived that dark side can never forget.

I look forward to an active storm chasing season this year, certainly better than in 2012. But as we chasers begin to feel our blood stir with the approach of spring, let’s bear in mind what we’re dealing with. We’re sometimes glib in our speech, and we say things jokingly or casually that we don’t really mean.

On Facebook and other social media, I run across comments like, “Bring on the EF-4’s!” or, “I hope I see an EF-5.” That’s typical chatter for storm chasers, particularly newer ones. But do you really want to see an EF-5? Remember, the EF Scale is a damage rating, so consider its implications. Saying that you’d like to witness an upper-end-EF tornado is different from saying you hope to see a mile-wide, violent wedge.

I would love to see just such a wedge, or two, or five or more, churning across the open plains this year. Gimme, gimme, I’m a junkie!

But would I like to see an EF-5? No. Not considering it most likely means that neighborhoods have been leveled and people killed. I hope I never, ever witness something as horrible as Joplin.

On three occasions, twice by night and once by day, I’ve tracked tornadoes as they hit towns. Chances are, eventually I’ll see something along the lines of Greensburg, and I’ll have video to show and a story to tell. But that will simply be because I was following the storm, not because I expected or wanted it to do something awful. Even EF-3 and lower tornado damage reflects a terrifying, hugely impactful, and sometimes deadly event for those in the path of the whirlwind. Chasers who witness such destruction inflicted on a community are sobered by it, shaped by it, and sometimes haunted by it.

So as we enter tornado season, let’s be mindful of what these storms can do and have done, year after year in town after town. My enthusiasm for chasing may not be be shared by the waitress who’s serving me lunch in some small Kansas town, who lost her home, husband, and child in a storm.

Mini-Tornadoes: Defining a Microscale Mystery

In Europe they have mini-tornadoes. There was a time in my callow, formative years as a storm chaser when I was unaware that there was such a thing, but one learns. Besides, even veteran American chasers could make the same mistake as I, and probably have done so many times. From the reports, photos, and videos I’ve seen, a mini-tornado so closely resembles a standard-issue tornado in appearance and effect that here in the United States, most chasers would find it impossible to tell the difference.

However, Europeans–newscasters and reporters in particular, who are largely responsible for disseminating the mini-terminology–are more discriminating and not easily impressed. In Europe, it seems that anything less than a Great Plains-style wedge isn’t considered a full-fledged tornado.

Not that wedges are a common occurrence across the pond. The perspective I’ve described appears to be based not on great familiarity with tornadoes, but rather, on a paucity of experience with them other than what is gleaned through viewing videos of the mile-wide monsters that stalk the American prairies. Now those are tornadoes! Compared to them, a trifling, block-wide vortex is … eh. Small change.

Plenty of U.S. chasers would take exception. The problem is, no mini-tornado criteria have been established that could provide a basis for arguing that probably 99.9 percent of mini-tornadoes are simply tornadoes. Not that at least one attempt hasn’t been made to provide such criteria. Back in 2006, in a thread on Stormtrack, I myself presented a plausible set of determinants for mini-tornadoes, complete with a damage-rating scale, and I’m surprised that the NWS never adopted it. Follow my logic and you’ll see for yourself that true mini-tornadoes are a phenomenon few Europeans, let alone Americans, ever encounter.

Mini-Tornado Criteria

A true mini-tornado must meet the following standards:
•  It is five feet tall or less. Of course, this implies an extremely low cloud base. You’d have to squat in order to get a decent photo.
•  Width: Two feet or less.
•  Human response: You feel a strong urge to say, “Awww, ain’t that cute!” You want to pet it and maybe even take it home with you and give it a nice bowl of debris.
•  The synoptic conditions can be contained within five city blocks.
•  Overshooting tops can be viewed from above by taking an elevator to the ninth floor.
•  Damage (introducing the M Scale):

  • M0: Damage?
  • M1: No noticeable damage.
  • M2: No, there’s no stinking damage. Now go away.
  • M3: Okay, some damage now. Card houses knocked over unless securely glued together. Hair ruffled. That sort of thing.
  • M4: Now we’re talking damage. Well-built card houses scattered into a lawn-size version of 52-Card Pickup. Ill-fitting toupes snatched away. Nasty things happen when you spit into the wind.
  • M5: Inconceivable inconvenience. Securely glued card houses swept entirely away and lofted across the lawn. Well-gelled hair twisted into impressive new designs. You want to get out of the way of this baby.

I hope this helps. Of course, according to these criteria, I suppose the UK has yet to experience a true mini-tornado. Someone should probably inform the press. And none of us should hold our breaths waiting for such an occurrence, because, truth be told, mini-tornadoes are extremely rare.

But not utterly non-existent. The late, talented storm chaser Andy Gabrielson managed to capture on video his personal encounter with a good mini-tornado candidate on May 24, 2010, in South Dakota.* Check out his YouTube video at 1:56, and like me, you too can say to yourself, “What the heck was that?”
* The footage up to 1:56 is not a mini-tornado.

Intercepting the March 2, 2012, Palmyra-Henryville-Marysville, Indiana, Tornado

Now, while my video from Friday’s chase is uploading to YouTube, is a good time for me to write my account of how things transpired down in southern Indiana.

The phrase “historic event” rarely describes something good when applied to severe weather. March 2 may qualify as a historic event. The current NOAA tally of tornado reports stands at 117; the final number, while likely smaller once storm surveys have been completed and multiple reports of identical storms have been consolidated, may still set Friday’s outbreak apart as the most prolific ever for the month of March. Whether or not that proves true, Friday was unquestionably a horrible tornado day that affected a lot of communities from southern Indiana and Ohio southward.

The Storm Prediction Center did an excellent job of keeping track of the developing system, highlighting a broad swath of the eastern CONUS for a light risk in the Day Three Convective Outlooks and upgrading the area on Day Two to a moderate risk. On Day One, the first high risk of 2012 was issued for a four-state region that took in southern Indiana and southwest Ohio, most of Kentucky, and north-central Tennessee–a bullseye in the middle of a larger moderate risk that cut slightly farther north and east and swept across much of Mississippi and Alabama as well as northwestern Georgia.

The SPC and NWS offices weren’t the only ones keeping vigilance. Storm chasers across the country were watching the unfolding scenario, among them being my good friend Bill Oosterbaan and me. Here are the February 29 00Z NAM model sounding and hodograph for March 2, forecast hour 21Z, at Louisville, Kentucky. (Click on the images to enlarge them.) With MLCAPE over 1,800 J/kg, 0-6 km bulk shear of 70 knots, and 1 km storm-relative helicity at 245 m2/s2, the right stuff seemed to be coming together. By the time the storms actually started firing, those figures were probably conservative, particularly the low-level helicity, which I recall being more in the order of 400 m2/s2 and up. Simply put, the region was going to offer a volatile combination of moderate instability overlaid by a >50-knot low-level jet, with a 100-plus-knot mid-level jet core ripping in.

I had my eyes set on southeastern Indiana. The problem with that area is, it’s lousy chase terrain along the Ohio River, and it doesn’t improve southward. If there was an ace-in-the-hole, it was Bill’s knowledge of the territory, gleaned from his many business trips to Louisville.

We hit the road at 7:15 that morning, stopping for half an hour in Elkhart so Bill could meet with a client and then continuing southward toward Louisville. Bill was of a mind to head into Kentucky, where the EHIs and CAPE were higher; I was inclined to stay farther north, closer to the jet max, the warm front, and, presumably, stronger helicity. But either choice seemed likely to furnish storms, and since Bill was driving, has good instincts, and knows and likes western Kentucky, I was okay with targeting the heart of the high risk rather than its northern edge.

But that plan changed as we drew near to Louisville. By then, storms were already firing, and one cell to our southwest began to take on a classic supercellular appearance. Bill was still for heading into Kentucky at that point, but after awhile, a second cell matured out ahead of the first one. We now had two beautiful, classic supercells to our southwest, both displaying strong rotation. It was a case of the old adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”–except in this case, there were two birds, back to back. And I-64 would give us a clear shot at both of them.

So west we went, and into chase mode. At the Corydon exit, we caught SR 135 north, headed for an intercept with the first supercell. The two radar captures show the base reflectivity and SRV shortly after we began heading up the state road.

A few miles south of Palmyra, we got our first glimpse of a wall cloud maybe four miles distant. That’s all there was at that point, and the hilly, forested terrain afforded less-than-optimal viewing. Within a minute or two, we emerged into an open area just in time to see a funnel descend from the cloud. Tornado!

The sirens were sounding in Palmyra, providing an eldritch auditory backdrop to the ropy funnel writhing in the distance as we drove through town. The tornado went through various permutations before expanding into a condensation cone revolving like a great auger above the treeline. It was travelling fast–a good 60 miles an hour, at a guess. As we sped toward it, the condensation hosed its way fully to the ground and the tornado began to broaden. It crossed the road about a half-mile ahead of us, continuing to intensify into what appeared to be a violent-class tornado with auxiliary vortices wrapping around it helically.

Shortly after, Bill and I came upon the damage path. We pulled into a side road lined with snapped trees, amid which a house stood, somehow untouched except for a number of peeled shingles. The tornado loomed over the forest beyond, an immense, smoky white column wrapping around itself, rampaging northeastward toward its fateful encounters with Henryville and Marysville.

The time was just a few minutes before 3:00 eastern time. While I prepared and sent a report to Spotter Network, Bill turned around and headed back south. We had another storm to think about, and it was closing in rapidly. It wouldn’t do to get caught in its way.

Back in Palmyra, we headed west and soon came in sight of another wall cloud. This storm also reportedly went tornadic, but it never produced during the short time that we tracked with it. We lost it north of Palmyra; given the topography, the roads, and the storm speed, there was no question of chasing it.

From that point, we headed south across the river into Kentucky to try our hand at other storms, but we saw no more tornadoes, nor, for that matter, much in the way of any serious weather. Not that there weren’t plenty more tornado-warned storms; we just couldn’t intercept them, and after giving it our best shot, we turned around and headed for home.

Lest I forget: my worst moment of the chase came when I couldn’t locate my video of the tornado in my camera’s playback files. It seemed unfathomable that I could have horribly botched my chance to finally capture decent tornado footage with my first-ever hi-def camera. After being miserably sidelined during last year’s record-breaking tornado season, the thought that I had somehow failed to record this day’s incredible intercept just sickened me. Fortunately, there were no sharp objects readily available; and better yet, the following morning I discovered that I had simply failed to scroll up properly in the playback mode. All my video was there, and it was spectacular. Here it is:

My excitement over the video was offset by reports of just how much devastation this tornado caused eighteen miles northeast of where it crossed the road in front of Bill and me. Henryville, obliterated. Marysville, gone. Eleven lives lost in the course of that monster’s fifty-two-mile jaunt. And similar scenarios duplicated in other communities across the South and East. The death toll for the March 2 outbreak presently stands at around forty.

In the face of a mild winter and an early spring, Friday was the inauguration for what may be yet another very active severe weather season east of the Mississippi. We can only hope that there will be no repeats of last year’s wholesale horrors. May God be with those have lost loved ones and property in Friday’s tornadoes.

An Interview with Shane Adams, Part 1: Retrospectives and Perspectives on Storm Chasing Yesterday and Today

In recent years, due largely to the influence of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series, storm chasing has exploded as an avocation. What began over fifty years ago with a handful of individuals roaming the American heartland in pursuit of nature’s most violent and beautiful storms has evolved into a hobby practiced by multitudes, shaped by the media, and facilitated by state-of-the-art technology.

Today, equipped with a laptop, a modem stick, and radar software, a beginning chaser has an excellent chance of seeing tornadoes right out of the starting gate. But it wasn’t always so. Once there was no GR3, no mobile data, no live streaming, not even any laptops—and nowhere nearly as many chasers as there are today.

New chasers conceive of storm chasing as it is, not as it was. That’s inevitable. People live in the present, not the past, and any of us can only board the train from the platform we’re standing on. Yet the past wasn’t all that long ago—that pre-tech era when the tools of the trade were few and the likelihood of busting far greater. Those of us who came up during those simpler times treasure the experience and carry a different perspective than those who cut their teeth on techno-chasing.

To scores of chasers who have been around the block a few times, Shane Adams needs no introduction. Shane has been a storm chaser since 1996. He’s well-known as a passionate and highly experienced chaser who lives, eats, and breathes storm chasing. With six storm chasing videos to his credit, Shane is the host of the weekly podcast The Debris Show; and, with his girlfriend and fellow chaser, Bridget Geaughan, he is the coauthor of the storm chasing blog Passion Twist.

Shane was good enough to do a written interview with me covering a broad range of topics of particular interest to storm chasers. The questions and responses range from the retrospective and occasionally philosophical to the practical.

Shane is an articulate, thoughtful, and passionate interviewee with much to share. Since the article is lengthy, I’ve broken it into two parts. In this first part, Shane talks about his personal development as a storm chaser; and, in the light of his own experiences, he reflects on the state of chasing today.

In part two, which I’ll release in another day or two, Shane talks about his personal approach to forecasting and chasing. He shares his unique account of chasing the tragic May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kansas, supercell, and he looks back on the three most outstanding chases of his career.

Enough of my introduction. Here’s part one.


Interview with Storm Chaser Shane Adams


Question: Some background stuff to begin with. Talk a bit about your boyhood. You currently live in the Fort Worth, Texas, area. Have you lived in Tornado Alley all your life?

Shane: I was born in Oklahoma City and lived there until my parents divorced at age four. After the divorce, my mother and I moved to Healdton, Oklahoma, which is in the southern portion of the state. Growing up there for me was fun, because we lived in the same house for thirteen years, and I made many lasting friendships and knew the area well. We had a pasture that butted up to our neighborhood, and my friends and I would spend countless hours playing out there, back when kids actually played outside. That was pretty much my life pre-storms, although growing up in Oklahoma my entire life, I had been aware of storms as far back as I could remember.

Q: What event, or events, first served to flip the switch of your fascination with tornadoes?

S: As I mentioned, I had always known about thunderstorms. I can remember way back, first seeing this weird word they always used on television weather warnings: tornado. I knew about severe thunderstorms but had no clue what a tornado was. My mother tried to explain it to me, but her very limited knowledge and understanding, coupled with my young mind, just didn’t really paint the picture.

Then April 10, 1979, came along. A massive F4 tornado ripped through southern portions of Wichita Falls, Texas, just eighty miles southwest of Healdton. A few months later, one of the local television stations did a story on the tornado. I was in my room when suddenly my mother started yelling for me. I ran out into the living room, and she pointed to the television. I looked at the screen and saw a huge, black, boiling mass of cloud scraping along the ground below the most ominous sky I’d ever seen. “There,” she said. “That’s a tornado.”

I was hooked for life.

Q: It’s one thing to be intrigued by tornadoes; it’s another to actually chase them. When did you first start chasing, and what inspired you to do so? What was your first chase like for you?

S: I dabbled with chasing for years before I really started, but this was nothing more than glorified spotting. I would move from one edge of town to the other, but when the storms moved on, I never followed. I did this infrequently from 1988–1995.

On April 21, 1996, I went on my first true chase, where I actually drove out of town, over the road, to try and find a tornado. However, this too was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and I only had a cheap disposable camera and a cooler full of ice in case I found big hail. There was no plan, except that if I got into hail bigger than golfballs, I would back off, fearing a tornado I couldn’t see would be close behind.

I did get hail up to golfballs that day, saved a few in my cooler, and took a few snapshots I never developed. But this was nothing I would consider a real chase by my standards. To make it a real chase for me, there must be a video camera for documentation. Otherwise, it’s just a drive.

My first “official” chase was June 6, 1996. I was working a landscaping job with a friend of mine named Greg Clark. It started to get stormy early that afternoon, so we decided to knock off early. I said on a whim, “We should go chase these storms and try to find a tornado.” Greg not only liked the idea but suggested that we grab his mother’s video camera and tape the experience. It had never crossed my mind to actually videotape a tornado, but I was wild about the idea. (As it turned out, having the video camera that day was pivotal towards me becoming a chaser).

We grabbed the video camera, stopped by my place to look at a live update from one of the local television stations, and then took off towards a storm that was tornado-warned. There was no plan; we just called it as we went. All I knew at the time was, you want to be out of the rain, so we just drove right into the heart of the storm until the rain stopped. A lowering was to our south, so we turned east to pace it. We stopped, and I started shooting video. Literally seconds after I did, a small tornado formed out of nowhere, right in the spot I was pointing at, lasting less than a minute. It was pure dumb luck, but it was a critical moment for my chasing future.

Q: That first tornado obviously hooked you. What was your growth curve as a storm chaser like from that point?

S: I laughed out loud when I read this one. To put it simply, I was horrible. For years. I got by the first four or five years on sheer passion and tenacity. I didn’t know anything about the atmosphere or that I even needed to. Computer models were something I didn’t even know existed for the first year I chased. All I was armed with was an unrelenting, unrivaled passion to see tornadoes. There really was nothing else other than the minimal, basic structural and behavioral experiences I was slowly developing as I chased more and saw more.

As the years started going by, I started to recognize patterns and tendencies purely from what storms looked like or what the sky in general looked like. By my fifth season, I was pretty good at working a storm—meaning, how I handled it once I found it—even though I knew virtually nothing about finding storms. Basically, I learned how to chase storms way before I ever learned how to forecast them.

Q: Who were some of your key influences during those early years—people who helped you learn the ropes or who simply inspired you?

S: The first storm chaser I ever heard of was Warren Faidley. I received The Weather Channel’s Enemy Wind on VHS for Christmas in 1992 and wore the thing out. I had no clue there were people out there who actually chased storms seriously. But even more, I had no idea there were several people other than Faidley who had been doing it for years.

The first storm chaser I began to seriously follow and look up to was Jim Leonard. He was bigger than life to me. I was brand-new to chasing and just discovering the wonders of my storm chasing passion. Jim was the guy who, in my eyes, had done everything I wanted to do. His dedication to the art of chasing, and the fact that he’d started around the same age as I was and was still as dedicated well into his forties, was amazing to me. I idolized him, and I’m not the star-struck type. I met him briefly at a landspout seminar hosted by Al Pietrycha in Norman in 1997. I asked him a few questions about what was, at the time, my favorite intercept video from him: his June 8, 1995, Allison, Texas, wedge tornado. It was such a thrill to actually be standing next to my hero, although he had no clue who I was or that I worshiped him LOL.

Another chaser who, in my later formative years, really reached out to me was Gene Moore. He realized how ignorant I was but also saw my passion and dedication. While he could’ve easily ridiculed me, he instead took the time to talk to me about a few things he considered the basic, important essentials for storm forecasting. Things I still use to this day, every forecast, every chase.

Q: You came up in a time when technology and the media hadn’t yet shaped storm chasing the way they do today. What was chasing like for you in those days? What benefits do you think you gained from the minimalist, old-school approach that younger chasers today are missing?

S: The main difference between chasing now and chasing when I started is the laptop computer, but that’s over-simplfying things. Back in the day, we didn’t just not have computers, we didn’t have smart phones or iPods either. Today’s chasers never have to deal with long hours on the road the way chasers did years ago. Sure, twelve hours cooped up in a vehicle is still extreme, but it definitely softens the experience when you have constant entertainment at your fingertips, the way you would at home.

Chasers today don’t talk to each other, they chat. They stream. They surf. They listen to music. There will be a carload of chasers and each one will be in their own world, playing on a cell phone. Chasers today will never know what it’s like to spend twelve hours in a car when all you have for passing the time is conversation. And many times for me personally, I didn’t even have that, because many of my past partners were champion sleepers when there was nothing exciting going on. It takes a special kind of person to willfully strap themselves in for a ride that could last over twenty-four hours, with absolutely no guarantee of seeing anything—even less of a guarantee without constant streaming data 24/7 to lead you to the storm on a string—and absolutely nothing to pass the time. These techno-generation chasers will never experience that level of dedication, and quite frankly, if many of them were to, I doubt some would stayas dedicated.

Basically now, chasing is just people doing all the same things they would be doing at home otherwise, except there’s a drive involved and maybe a storm or tornado. The “grueling, long hours” which are so often brought up by chasers praising their allegiance to their craft are nothing more than what they do every day, except they have to stop to use the potty.

I’m very grateful I was able to endure the type of chasing I did for a good number of years. We would jump in a car and drive to Missouri or Illinois from Oklahoma on a whim, with nothing to guide us except NOAA radio. We were always broke, so hotels were an extremely rare treat at best, maybe once or twice a year. Normally we’d just drive in shifts, and do straight-through chases of twenty-four hours or more. And this was with no Internet, no Spotify, and no Angry Birds. Just a carload of guys who shared one common goal: to see a tornado.

One time in 2000, we left Norman at 1:00 a.m. and drove straight through to North Dakota only to miss all the tornadoes by forty-five minutes. We stayed the night in Fargo, then drove straight back the next day, missing even more tornadoes because we got there too late again. That was a 2000-mile, two-day trip for some thunder and lightning. We had several of those back in the day, when the only thing fueling us was the desire to simply see and videotape a tornado.

There are few of today’s new chasers who would ever willfully endure that type of experience. Kids today want everything on a plate, with a remote, a keystroke, or some other too-easy device designed for no other purpose than to make an already easy life that much easier. A lot of chasers like to toot their own horn (nice pun, eh?) about how dedicated, extreme, and hardcore they are. Doesn’t take much to drive 500 miles when you know you’ve got Internet the entire way and a nice, comfy hotel bed waiting for you that night. Try it with nothing but a NOAA radio and knowing that regardless of what happens, you’re not sleeping again until you get back home the following day. That’s hardcore.

But it’s a different world, and I have to accept that. I look around, and I really can’t relate to most newer chasers. They rely on electronics for their lifeblood, they care as much about making money as simply videotaping a tornado, and they’re all so busy trying to come up with the next big thing or gimmick. For me, at the end of the day, it’s about the storms and tornadoes, period. Streaming doesn’t matter, money doesn’t matter, and every other chaser out there doesn’t matter. All that matters is my video camera and that tornado in front of it. My day ends when the last tornado ends and the setting sun bleeds away. Their day is just beginning, hustling to contact brokers or potential customers with their day’s bounty. That’s fine for them, but chasing isn’t work for me. It can’t be, because I love it too much to ruin it by putting money at the top of the priority list. Everyone likes to deliver that famous line, “Hey, if I can get some money back that’s great,” but the reality is, once you taste money from chasing, it stops being about seeing storms and starts being about selling video. Because making $$$ from chasing is too much work for it not to be the top priority.

I’m happy fading back into obscurity, with my long resume filled with amazing catches the world doesn’t value because they haven’t been splashed all over the internet and television. I’m perfectly content to sit back and watch the flame wars, the ego battles, and of course, the constant brand/money wars. I watch this blur of an activity, as it is today, and smile inside, thinking back to how simple and innocent it was so many years ago. Even more simple and innocent years before my own career started. I’m proud to have come along when I did, to get a taste of the tail-end of a great era of storm chasing. There’s no doubt I’m the chaser I am now because of the way I learned, and that’s something I cherish. I haven’t seen the most or the best, been the closest, or lived through the worst, been the most famous or the most respected. I’m just doing my own thing the best way I know how, and will continue to trudge forward, ever-attempting to pen the next chapter in my life’s storm chasing adventure.

(Coming in Part Two: personal forecasting and chase approaches, the 2007 Greensburg storm, and top three career chases.)

Just in Time for the New Year: Real Winter Is Here at Last

With the arrival of the new year, Winter 2012 appears to finally be kicking into gear here in West Michigan. I’m ready for it. We got off light in December, with little in the way of snowfall and much in the way of unseasonably warm temperatures. On New Year’s Eve, temps scraped above 40 degrees. In that respect, this New Year has been very similar to the last one, though not quite as warm.

The mercury started dropping yesterday afternoon as the wrap-around from a departing low ushered in colder air, and with it, the first significant snowfall of the season. Here’s what the L2 radar looked like at about 1:00 p.m. yesterday as the snow was getting started. Possible blizzard conditions were in the GRR forecast discussion at that point, but the winds never intensified to that level. Station obs currently show northwest surface winds up to 20 knots through West Michigan, and just up the road at the airport the temperature is 25 degrees. That sounds like winter to me.

And the snow that is piled on top of my balustrade and covering the cars out in the parking lot looks like winter. Here’s a view of the bird feeding station out on my balcony to give you an idea of how much snow has stuck since yesterday. Looks to be about four inches. More may visit me yet here in Caledonia, but right now we appear to be situated between bands of the heavy lake effect stuff, with the most intense band streaming south-southeast from along the lakeshore by Muskegon and Grand Haven toward Kalamazoo and Centreville.

I see that a few storm chasers are out for a romp. Enjoy yourselves, lads. Me, I’m recovering from a sprained ankle and my car is in the shop, so I’m not going anywhere. Today is a day to ice my ankle, kick back with a big mug of Lapsang Souchong tea, watch the finches frolic at the feeder, work on an editing project, and let the icy winds blow.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Noob: A Review of Adam Lucio’s New Storm Chasing DVD

June 17, 2010. If you were in Minnesota on that date, I need say no more. Regretfully, I was not there. But Adam Lucio was, and in his new DVD chronicling his chases from 2008 till today, Adam’s Minnesota chase–which rewarded him with some of the most visually stunning tornadoes of circum 2010–is just one in a list of potent tornado events captured on video.

No, it’s not the next best thing to being there in Minnesota–how could it be? What it is, is great footage of some spectacular storms, the kind of video that makes me wish like anything that I had been there and glad that Adam has done such a good job of showing me what I missed.

If for no other reason than the 2010 Minnesota outbreak, Adam’s DVD is a viewing windfall for storm chasers and weather junkies. However, June 17 is just one of a number of memorable chases that appear in The Noob. More recent footage from 2011 includes the dusty EF-3 Litchfield, Illinois, cone of April 19; a turbulent EF-4 wedge from the historic April 27 Super Outbreak; and the violent Oklahoma storms of May 24.

The Noob also whisks me down Memory Lane to May 22, 2010, in South Dakota, an unforgettable day for those of us who chased the northern plains. And heading back even further, Adam shares some visceral footage from 2008 of a large tornado crossing I-57 south of Chicago, his hometown.

At nearly two hours in length, Adam’s DVD covers a lot of material, and I’m not going to attempt a blow-by-blow analysis of it all. I’m just going to comment on a few highlights and let you discover the rest for yourself when you buy the DVD. Which you should do. You’ll congratulate yourself on your purchase every time you watch it.

I’ve already mentioned the Minnesota outbreak of June 17, 2010. This is the one section of the DVD where I took notes, because the storm was simply incredible. The video first shows an initial elephant trunk near Kiester. It’s followed by another much larger tornado, and from here the drama rapidly ramps up. I’ve heard some guys describe this date as their best chase ever, and I can see why: there’s a lot going on with both the tornadoes and the surrounding sky.

As the second, dark wedge does a multi-vortex dance on the other side of a distant woodlot, a new circulation rapidly develops in the foreground. There appears to be no handoff of energy from one circulation to the other at this point; for a while, presumably, two distinct, large tornadoes coexist in close proximity to each other. Eventually, however, we’re left with just one large, white cone surrounded by a huge, rapidly revolving collar cloud. The effect, already spectacular, becomes even moreso as the tornado moves toward Conger and then onward toward Albert Lea. It is a monstrous, long-track tornado that displays every shape and behavior in the book.

What at times captivated me as much as the tornado was the behavior of the clouds in the foreground. There’s at least one instance where you can see clear signs of anti-cyclonic rotation, both on a broader scale and in smaller swirls of cloud. It’s amazing to watch. And so is the horizontal vortex that passes overhead. The 1 km helicity near this storm had to have been just plain crazy.

Moving on, the Alabama footage is engaging not so much from a visual as a historical standpoint. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s good, entertaining viewing; it’s just nothing like the Minnesota section. What makes it remarkable is the date: April 27, the day of the 2011 Super Outbreak. Not since the infamous 1974 Super Outbreak have so many powerful tornadoes wrought such havoc in a single day. For that reason, this section of The Noob may be of historic interest in the future.

The May 22, 2011, South Dakota footage captures another spectacular, beautifully structured storm. What sets it apart, however, is the insanity of that a number of chasers experienced when the road they chose for an escape route dead-ended in a farmer’s wheat field. Adam was among them, along with his chase partners, Ben Holcomb and Danny Neal. With multiple tornadoes spinning up and advancing toward them, the chasers took the only evasive action they had left by bailing south into the field, where ponding eventually cut them off. “Game over,” as Adam put it. From that point, all they could do was hunker down and brace themselves until … well, you’ll just have to see for yourself what happened. Ben Holcomb captured the intensity of that part of the chase on camera, and Adam has included Ben’s video as part of the South Dakota section.

I might add, my buddies and I were in that same field just a stone’s throw from Adam’s vehicle, and I remember well how it was that day. But some of the footage here reveals things even I didn’t see, and viewing it makes me realize how truly blessed all of us were to have escaped without injury.

I could continue on, but you get the idea. The Noob is a great storm chasing DVD that delivers a huge amount of bang for your 14-and-99/100 bucks.

Adam is a passionate and capable chaser who takes every opportunity available to him to go where the storms will be. The title of his new DVD reflects to me both humor and humility, winsome qualities in any person.

The Noob is raw chasing. Adam clearly invested time and care in editing his material, and he offers a few nice editorial touches (such as Ben Holcomb’s embedded footage during part of the hair-raising South Dakota field escapade). For the most part, however, the DVD doesn’t get too fancy. In my book, that’s a plus. The occasional splashes of background music are conservatively used, not overdone, and hence a welcome addition rather than a subtraction from the focus of this video, which is tornadoes and the experience of chasing them.


Is there room for improvement? Sure. Much of the video footage is hand-held, which makes for slightly to drastically shaky viewing. Of course, this is real-life chasing–not a professional film crew, just one guy with a camera coping with constantly changing conditions as he pursues the most violent and volatile weather phenomenon on the planet. Some of the storms were clearly moving fast, and Adam didn’t have time to park his vehicle, set up his tripod, toss out a lawn chair, and sip his favorite beverage, iced tea, while casually filming. I noticed that he made better use of his tripod with slower moving storms. In any event, I’m pretty sure he has already been considering how he might get more stable shots next season.

My second comment: There were times when I wanted to see a continuing view of a tornado’s interaction with the ground, not the sky. In the Minnesota footage, a large wedge barely misses two farms, appearing to barely graze behind them. Yet the camera drifts away from the drama on the ground–it had to have been terrifyingly dramatic for the people living at those farms–to the cloud base, back and forth. There’s enough ground footage to give a good feel for what’s happening; still, I want the focus to remain on the lower part of the funnel as it sweeps past past human habitations, so I can dwell on the story unfolding there at the surface.

With those two critiques out of the way, the only question left is, do I recommend this DVD?

Are you kidding? Absolutely! Yes. Buy it. Watch it once, watch it again, watch it multiple times. This is killer stuff.

Purchasing Information

The Noob is 1 hour, 57 minutes long. Purchase price is $14.99 ($17.99 international). For more information and to place your order, visit Adam’s site.

Tornadoes in North Central Nebraska

With family visiting from various long-distance places of the globe, I’m not posting much these days. However, last night provided an interesting spate of late-season tornadic activity in north-central Nebraska that I’d be remiss in not slapping up a couple images from GR2AE at the peak of the activity.

Look at that pinhole in the reflectivity knob! I was even better defined in the ensuing scan, after which the rotation became more diffuse and the storm began to weaken. Prior to this, a few dedicated and fortunate chasers videotaped a nice

stovepipe tornado near Wood Lake. All this in northwest flow with the storms moving in a south-southeasterly direction.

Lightning at the South Haven Pier

Yesterday’s slight risk for Michigan looked more impressive in the models than it did up close and personal. With dewpoints as high as a sultry 78 degrees Fahrenheit in Caledonia (courtesy of my Kestrel 4500 weather meter), MLCAPE upwards of 3,500 J/kg, and 40 knots at 500 millibars, the ingredients were all present for a decent severe weather event. Backing surface flow even suggested the possibility of tornadic spin-ups, though winds at the surface were weak.

For all that, the storms when they finally arrived were pretty garden variety, with one exception: the lightning was absolutely spectacular, a

nonstop flickerfest bristling with CGs. The lines rolled across Lake Michigan in two rounds. Thanks to some good input from Ben Holcomb, I chose to set up shop at the South Haven beach, a great strategic location, arriving there in plenty of time to intercept round one. Kurt Hulst met me there, and we got our live streams going and tripoded our cameras as the northern end of the line bore down on us.

It was too dark to see the shelf cloud very distinctly. I tried to capture it with my camcorder; I haven’t viewed the footage yet, so I don’t know how it turned out, but I soon realized that I’d be better off working with my still camera, which I got mounted right about the time that the gust front arrived. The rain was near-instantaneous, escalating within moments from errant droplets to a horizontal sheet, and I scurried back to my car while collapsing my tripod as fast as I could.

What a great light show! After a lot of teasers this year, I finally got a chance to get some good lightning shots, particularly as the storm moved off to the east. With CGs ripping through the air over South Haven, anvil crawlers lacing the sky overhead, and now and then a brilliant bolt tracing a path from the sky to the lake across the canvas of a molten sunset, yesterday evening was a lightning photographer’s dream. Kurt is a great hand in that regard, and he captured some fantastic images. But for once, even I managed to get some shots I’m pleased with. Here are some of my better ones. Click on them to enlarge them.

As the storm moved on, a good number of people returned to the beach with their cameras to capture the amazing sunset and the lightning display. Storm chasers aren’t the only ones with an eye for the drama that the sky provides!

Some of my photos were taken later on, as the second line of storms was moving toward the shore. I’m particularly pleased with my shot of a lightning bolt off to the right of the pier; it’s a moody, mysterious image, and I intentionally left plenty of dark space at the bottom left.

I might add that the pics with raindrops all over the foreground were taken from my car during the height of the first storm. While I’d of course prefer nice, clear images, I don’t mind the drops. They lend a somewhat Impressionistic feel to the photos. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Misuse of the EF-Scale: Just the Facts, Please

Would the media and storm spotters PLEASE stop rating tornadoes before the official National Weather Service survey teams do!

A couple Fridays ago a radio announcer in Saint Louis assigned a tornado an EF-3 rating while the storm was still in progress, chewing through the city. More recently I read a news writeup in which the April 27 Tuscaloosa–Birmingham, Alabama, tornado was described as an EF-5, as though that rating were a done deal. At the time, the matter had yet to be determined by damage assessment professionals.

Both the Tuscaloosa and Saint Louis tornadoes were in fact officially rated EF-4. In one case the news medium underestimated the damage rating; in the other, it overestimated; and in both cases the media overstepped their bounds.

“EF-5 in Progress!”

It appears that a good number of reporters and storm spotters are prone to the same error that many storm chasers make: linking their impression of a tornado’s strength based on appearance–whether visually or on the radar–to an Enhanced Fujita scale (EF-scale) rating. Doing so demonstrates ignorance of what the EF-scale actually is: a tool that assesses and rates tornado damage, and from it extrapolates potential wind speeds. By its very nature, the EF-scale cannot be used to describe a tornado in progress; it was developed for use in post-mortem assessments of tornado events.

Expanding on the original F-scale criteria developed by pioneer tornado scientist Dr. Theodore Fujita, the EF-scale considers 28 Damage Indicators (DIs)–small barns or farm outbuildings, one- or two-family residences, strip malls, hardwood trees, and more–in rating tornadoes. Each DI is scrutinized according to its makeup, its circumstances, and the Degree of Damage (DOD) it received. For instance, did a hardwood tree sustain broken branches? How big were the branches? Was the tree uprooted? Snapped? Debarked, with only a stub of trunk left standing?

In its 95-page recommendation for an Enhanced Fujita scale that it submitted to the National Weather Service in June, 2004, the Wind Science and Engineering Department at Texas Tech University said:

Ideally the recommended approach for assigning an EF-Scale rating to a tornado event
involves the following steps:
• Conduct an aerial survey of damage path to identify applicable damage indicators and
define the extent of the damage path
• Identify several DIs that tend to indicate the highest wind speed within the damage
• Locate those DIs within the damage path
• Conduct a ground survey and carefully examine the DIs of interest
• Follow the steps outlined for assigning EF-Scale rating to individual DIs and
document the results
• Consider the ratings of several DIs, if available, and arrive at an integrated EF-Scale
rating for the tornado event
• Record the basis for assigning an EF-Scale rating to the tornado event
• Record other pertinent data relating to the tornado event.

Obviously this kind of information isn’t snap-judgment material. Making such assessments requires training and resources of a kind that most media personalities–and, for that matter, most storm chasers–don’t have.

The bottom line is this: It’s just flat-out wrong to rate a tornado in progress based on its appearance using the EF-scale. Also, while there’s nothing wrong with personally speculating about the nature of the damage you’ve observed in a tornado’s aftermath, remember that your opinion is unofficial.

Bear these things in mind the next time you hear someone say, “That’s got to be an EF-4!”–or the next time you’re tempted to say it yourself. Particularly if you’re a journalist. When you broadcast or publish as definitive what is in reality nothing more than your own or some spotter’s or chaser’s subjective opinion, you are misinforming the public. Your hunch might eventually be proved right, but it could also easily be proved wrong. Why create such confusion? It costs you nothing but sensationalism to refrain from presenting uninformed impressions as if they were fact. Leave EF-scale ratings out of the picture until the NWS has completed its investigation of an event and assigned official ratings.

So What CAN You Say?

You can describe a tornado that you are observing as weak, strong, or violent.

You can describe its size and/or appearance using subjective terms that are commonly understood by storm chasers and meteorologists. Small and large are good, as are wedge, cone, rope, stove pipe, and multiple vortex.

It’s correct to say, “That’s a small but strong tornado,” or, “There’s a large, violent, multi-vortex tornado in progress.” It’s incorrect to say, “Oh my gosh! EF-5 tornado!” or “A trained spotter has reported an EF-3 tornado moving toward the town of Pleasantville.” (A properly informed spotter won’t use such language.)

As for reporting tornado damage, most people–including me–aren’t intimately familiar with the nuances and complexities of the Enhanced Fujita scale. So leave it alone. Better to just describe the damage in general terms as light, significant, severe, homes completely swept away, trees uprooted, complete devastation, and so forth. Or if you want to speculate on the EF potential, make it clear that what you’re sharing is only your opinion. Saying, “This looks like it could receive an EF-2 rating,” or, “I’m guessing EF-3 damage here, but we’ll wait for the National Weather Office to make an official determination,” is different from stating definitively that “We’ve got EF-4 damage.” How do you know? Unless you’re a NWS damage assessment expert, you don’t. Your guess may prove to be true, but leave it out of print or off the airwaves until it has been established as fact.

The Bottom Line

It’s human nature to speculate on the strength and effects of something as singular, violent, visually striking, and impactful on a community as a tornado. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with forming your personal opinion regarding which EF-scale rating a tornado might deserve, bearing in mind that you could very well be wrong. But if you’re a broadcast personality, reporter, or storm spotter, hold your thoughts to yourself. When it comes to information that’s relevant and truly helpful to the public, you’ll do well to heed the advice of Sergeant Friday in the old Dragnet TV series: The facts, please. Just give us the facts.