Sunday, June 09, 2013

A Personal Experience Storm Chasing

In the aftermath of the El Reno, OK tornado back on May 31 which killed four storm chasers, including experienced and veteran Tim Samaras, I wanted to share my personal experience storm chasing and the dangers that come with it. I got the opportunity to chase twice, in the spring of 2007 and 2009, spending two weeks each time.  I greatly enjoyed the experience.  Would I do it again?  Probably not.  Getting too close to one storm was the tipping point for me.

On May 15, 2009, an EF-2 tornado touched down a few miles east of Pampa, TX.  It actually had spawned a few tornadoes during the storm's life, but it was the EF-2 one that got too close for comfort.  I had gone out that year with four friends. We had chased this storm from when it first popped up.  It steadily increased in intensity becoming a HP (High Precipitation) Supercell.  We had always been very careful chasing, but the lone reason we got caught so close in this one was because of losing internet access for 5 minutes, thus losing our ability to track it on radar.  We had broadband internet access, but most of the Northern Panhandle of Texas is a pretty desolate area. Having only one road option till getting close to Pampa, the storm continued to intensify and once we got the connection back, it was clear we were in danger and going to drive through the hook echo.  The rapid intensification of this storm is similar to El Reno, but thankfully was not even close to as powerful.  The storm was to our west-north west and we were driving along a road headed in a northeast to southwest.  It was a race to outrun this tornado as it was eventually going to cross this road.  We had two options:  Beat it and get south and east of it or stop and get stuck in the hail core and strong winds on the north side.  We chose the first option, but had we had not lost internet connection, we would have seen the rapid intensification and possibly drove faster.  This is a radar image showing the storm rapidly intensifying.  The white line is the road we were on.

I still vividly remember looking to my right towards a large field and seeing a massive rotating cloud just a half-mile away.  The tornado was inside, but rain-wrapped so you could not see it.  It was a race to get south and east of this storm and the next available road option that way  was still a few miles away.  But drivers ahead of us decided to take their leisure time for whatever reason.  We just barely avoided the tornado, but got caught in the rear flank downdraft.  We experienced winds of 80-100 mph and had baseball sized hail pelting our vehicle. I expected our windows to be smashed by the hail at any moment as well as our vehicle to possibly turn over from the wind.  But thankfully that never happened.  It was probably the scariest 3 to 5 minutes of my life as we drove through that.  Once we got south and east of the storm, we were out of harm's way and got to enjoy the seeing the beautiful structure of this storm.  Here is a picture showing the different parts of a typical super-cell thunderstorm and terminology.

From the picture, this is a classic super-cell signature.  As a chaser, the best location to be is to the south and east of the hook echo.  This will allow you to stay clear of tornado, while seeing it from a safe distance and getting a great view of the structure of the storm. And you also avoid the strong winds of the rear flank downdraft surrounding it.  You also want to always stay clear of the north and east side of it as this will be the location of the hail-core, so you can spare your vehicle of dents and broken windows.

The next image shows the Storm-Relative Velocity of the El-Rino tornado showing the strong couplet on radar of the tornado and all the chasers in vicinity of the storm.  All the dots represent vehicles.  This image is mind-boggling.  Why were so many chasers in the worst part of the storm?

Storm chasing is no joke.  You need to know what you are doing or you will get killed or seriously injured.  So many things are happening and sometimes there are only seconds to make a decision.  And even if you are 100% careful, something can still go wrong.  A group of four is a good number in cashing as you need to have a calm, but aggressive driver that can handle dangerous conditions.  Next, someone needs to be a navigator, having a road map to guide you on whatever road to take and also have options for an exit strategy should the storm take a sudden turn.  Another person should be watching the radar to monitor the storm.  And finally, the last should be the person that gets all the video and pictures of the experience.

The problem now is that storm chasing has become a thrill/freak show, rather than its intended purpose, and that is for research and a better understanding of how tornadoes develop.  Amateur storm chasers need to take a step back.  Leave it to the professionals.  Too many youngsters think they are invincible and mainly want to get very close to the storm for social media attention.  The greater the thrill and suspense, the higher ratings on TV, internet, etc.  It's all fun until you realize your life is in danger and then everything changes.  And you better be careful.  More often than not, you're in the middle of nowhere, so if something happens to you, don't expect to be helped right away.

I've always thought storm chasing was fun and a cool thing to do as a Meteorologist.  It may be OK to do it once for the experience, but after the El Reno event and the deaths that occurred, I think its time to say "Leave it to the professionals".