Forecasting the right questions, unwrapping my chase experiences, looking for the classic moments.

Eric Lawson

Enthusiast
Jun 14, 2020
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Fort Wayne, IN
I'm going to try to keep this as simple as possible, with the hopes of generating the right types of questions in the future, to learn about my forecasting errors.

Started seriously chasing tornadoes late 2015. Had a lot of success in 2016/17, but the last 3 years have been horrible. So bad, minus the Linwood, KS EF4 which I barley saw for more than a few seconds, I've decided its time to hit the books hard this offseason. It's my main inspiration for joining stormtack.

"A few seconds" is an important description of my motivations. Of the 20 or so tornadoes I have witnessed, those moments are defined in seconds. Most have either been rain wrapped, or the more classic moments have been at night illuminated by lightning strikes or power flashes (Perryville EF4)

Moving forward, I believe one of my major weaknesses is the depth of understanding I have with the lager synoptic patterns and evolutions of those systems, and applying that knowledge to finding the more classic supercell scenarios. This would also mean poor analysis and discriminations of hodograph structure within the overall environment.

To try to sum this up, I know I need some help. I feel like I've gone as far as I can go from a self taught perspective, and now its time to ask some questions!
 
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Warren Faidley

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Remember, the last few years have been tough on everyone. Forecasting may not be the issue. I've always gone for the long shots, chasing away from obvious HP or messy set-ups days in favor of isolated storms with a higher probability of high contrast tornadoes. These storm often form on sharp drylines in the western areas of TA or in capped areas. I will say I've missed a lot of tornadoes with this method, but I've also shot some crazy isolated events.
 

Jeff Duda

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"A few seconds" is an important description of my motivations. Of the 20 or so tornadoes I have witnessed, those moments are defined in seconds. Most have either been rain wrapped, or the more classic moments have been at night illuminated by lightning strikes or power flashes (Perryville EF4)
I'm not going to beat around the bush when responding to a statement like this. I haven't seen 20 tornadoes myself since 2015, and I have a fucking PhD in meteorology and have been chasing regularly for over 10 years now. So...temper your expectations; you have already experienced a degree of success that is quite rare among new chasers these days.

Next major point: Warren is right - the last 3 seasons have been particularly difficult to have success seeing tornadoes, even if you chased 20 days each year. Tornado counts on the plains have been down, and the 2019 season, despite its statistical prowess, was actually a highly compressed season (pretty much every noteworthy event that year occurred within an 11-day stretch between 17 and 28 May). In decades past, May tended to feature a dependable string of troughs every 3-6 days that would offer a fairly classical setup somewhere on the central and southern plains, and June usually offered several mesoscale setups (and the occasional deep trough) that offered later-season chasers plenty to brag about. More often, now, however, we are seeing the biggest yearly events occurring outside of the plains, whether in Dixie alley, the Midwest (i.e., E MO through IL and IN), or on the far fringes of where most perennial chasers are willing to go (i.e., WY/MT/Canada), or outside of the traditional season (hell...one of the best tornado outbreaks in 2018 was in Iowa in mid-July!). So you may not like the lack of success you've had in seeing tornadoes the past few years, but guess what: pretty much everyone else has struggled as well. So you're not alone. But that doesn't necessarily mean you need to go back to the drawing board and re-learn meteorology or anything. Even the most knowledgeful chasers (those with meteorology degrees or decades of experience with chasing) fail frequently, just as Lebron James misses shots all the time.

Regarding your last comment -- I doubt that a deeper understanding of synoptic scale patterns is going to lead to greater success for you. The classical synoptic-scale patterns associated with tornado activity like those identified by Fawbush and Miller 70 years ago have long been established and are pretty easy to learn about, and I presume you're already aware of them, even if you can't name the names. If you need to learn anything, it's that tornadoes are a very small scale phenomenon that depend on atmospheric features on every scale above them, from the sub-storm scale to the storm scale to the meso-gamma/-beta/-alpha scale to the synoptic scale. Everything has to go right for a tornado to occur, and there are countless examples of favorable synoptic and mesoscale setups for which tornadoes failed to occur because those smaller-scale features did not align properly. And the science currently lacks the observational ability to know beforehand whether tornadogenesis will occur in a supercell in an otherwise good-looking setup. The science is also not yet 100% complete on the conceptual origins of all tornadoes (although we're getting close). And even if a tornado does form, whether or not you will see it depends on other meteorological and non-meteorological factors such as whether or not cloud bases are low enough to restrict your visibility; how much rain is in the RFD (and the degree of rain-wrapping); terrain; and road network. I still claim that somewhere around 50% of the success a chaser has on any given chase comes from where they woke up that morning. There are many cases in which people awaken within 100 miles of the target area but still end up missing the best storms/tornadoes of the day - they had so much time to sit around and watch data that they got pulled away from where the best stuff happened, whereas someone driving in from 300 miles away was able to watch things evolve from afar and can target the storm of the day with a hair trigger since they have the 30,000-foot view. And the vice versa is true, too - people coming in from further away sometimes just don't make it in time before the first storm goes up, produces a nice tornado, and then dies or goes upscale quickly.

Bottom line: study the details where you can, sure, but...welcome to storm chasing!
 
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Randy Jennings

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I was felling down on myself. I'm at 0 tornadoes this year despite more chases than most. Then I noticed something - most chasers don't see as many tornadoes as you think they do (or that they lead you to believe) . I saw several chasers I respect post about how bad the last few years are and how few tornadoes they had seen the last few years. It was a lot less than I thought. All of a sudden I didn't fell so down. I had a fairly good 2019. I was lucky. 2020 has stunk, but it has stunk for almost everyone too. Sure there are chasers who see a lot of tornadoes. The main difference between the high count folks and the lower count folks is how much they chase. The high count folks chase almost every day for months on end and drive an insane number of miles (not that I am one to talk - I've driven well over 1,000 miles in a single day chasing before). There is always something to learn. Learning more will make you a better chaser. But chasing is more than skill. Luck and time spent have a lot to do with it also.
 

Todd Lemery

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I’ll just add that I started chasing in the early eighties and think I do an OK job on storm day. Total tornadoes in 2018 - 0. Total so far this year -0. It’s not like I haven’t been out either... when it goes right it seems like you are fishing with dynamite it’s so easy. When it’s not going well you question everything!
 

Warren Faidley

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I've often pondered about how many "classic tornadoes" I've actually seen over the last 32 years of storm chasing (including hurricane-generated tornadoes and assorted land / waterspouts). I stopped counting after 50 or so, and there have been many times when I did not even bother to photograph them if they were too far away, I was exhausted, occurred at night or had no contrast. (Sometimes I was more concerned about getting closer, getting away from a situation or I went looking for a better perspective). I'd say only 1 out of 10 might be worthy of "photojournalism."

It does sound like you realize that there is more to chasing than just looking at SPC outlooks and reading Twitter targets. That's great!
I highly recommend the SPC Mesoscale forecasting page noted below if you are not already familiar with it. Also use it to forecast targets on days you are not chasing and test your skills. If you double click on a area, it will also provide you with historical tornado / storm climatology for comparison.


One last piece of advice.... be very careful when altering your daily chase (or even chase season) by wacky, jacked-up forecasts from "experts." A well-known chaser was boasting in advance about capturing 12-20 tornadoes a few weeks ago based on a somewhat questionable set-up. People may have actually left home and drove hundreds, if not thousands of miles based on that statement. It turned out to be a bust -- which could have been avoided within a window of "cancellation" via close scrutiny of the latest models. I'm not saying to avoid the opinions of skilled meteorologists and experienced chasers, but make sure to design your own forecasts based on the type of storms you are seeking and the amount of chaser convergence you can tolerate!
 
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A couple of thoughts as to what helps in feeling successful....

  1. Most tornadoes are not long lived. You get a minute or two on most if you're lucky. If you catch one that's long lived it makes you feel much better and much more successful. Unfortunately there just hasn't been many of these the last few years.
  2. If you're seeing the same tornadoes as everyone else, you're doing pretty well. If you're seeing tornadoes that no one else is, then you're rocking it. If you're missing the ones that everyone else is seeing, then it's fair to question whether to go back to the drawing board or not.
  3. Most of the time, it's about being out that matters. People who chase everything tend to see more, those who chase less have less chances to see anything. People who are out more (some chase everything) look more successful from the outside looking in. Simply being there to catch it if it happens helps tremendously.
  4. Sometimes the devil isn't in the details, it's more about chance assessment and knowing what you're wanting beforehand. Just want to see anything that you can call a tornado? Success will be much easier to achieve. Want long track photogenic beauties? Probably going to be much tougher to achieve, which doesn't feel so good sometimes.
To summarize, hitting the books and learning more is never a bad thing but if you're unhappy with your results that can be changed by other factors than just swimming in minutiae.
 

Eric Lawson

Enthusiast
Jun 14, 2020
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Fort Wayne, IN
I'm not going to beat around the bush when responding to a statement like this. I haven't seen 20 tornadoes myself since 2015, and I have a fucking PhD in meteorology and have been chasing regularly for over 10 years now. So...temper your expectations; you have already experienced a degree of success that is quite rare among new chasers these days.

I hope you did not take my statement as attempting to boast or brag, or seem that I am unappreciative of those moments I have had. I really struggled to find a way to best describe the issues I feel like I'm having, and how to better understand my mistakes or poor observations.
I still claim that somewhere around 50% of the success a chaser has on any given chase comes from where they woke up that morning. There are many cases in which people awaken within 100 miles of the target area but still end up missing the best storms/tornadoes of the day - they had so much time to sit around and watch data that they got pulled away from where the best stuff happened, whereas someone driving in from 300 miles away was able to watch things evolve from afar and can target the storm of the day with a hair trigger since they have the 30,000-foot view. And the vice versa is true, too - people coming in from further away sometimes just don't make it in time before the first storm goes up, produces a nice tornado, and then dies or goes upscale quickly.

100% agree with this and was talking about this very thing during my last trip. I typically have a greater rate of success when spending most of the day driving to the target region as opposed to hours of waiting in a target close to where I'm located.
It does sound like you realize that there is more to chasing than just looking at SPC outlooks and reading Twitter targets. That's great!
I highly recommend the SPC Mesoscale forecasting page noted below if you are not already familiar with it. Also use it to forecast targets on days you are not chasing and test your skills. If you double click on a area, it will also provide you with historical tornado / storm climatology for comparison.

Warren, the SPC Mesoscale forecasting page is pretty much my go to source on chase day. Especially once we get to about 6 hours out. I will occasionally check forecast models during that time to try to pick up on changing trends throughout the day, but pretty much its all SPC Mesoscale page.

Using it to forecast on days I could not chase is exactly how I started to have some success. I would look at all the ingredients present when tornadoes were occurring (or not occurring) and take note. I then would look for AMS Journals and papers on those ingredients to try and understand how it all worked together and to which ingredients I should perhaps favor with certain situations. Rich Thompson's forecasting lectures on YouTube have also helped a bunch!
One last piece of advice.... be very careful when altering your daily chase (or even chase season) by wacky, jacked-up forecasts from "experts." A well-known chaser was boasting in advance about capturing 12-20 tornadoes a few weeks ago based on a somewhat questionable set-up. People may have actually left home and drove hundreds, if not thousands of miles based on that statement. It turned out to be a bust -- which could have been avoided within a window of "cancellation" via close scrutiny of the latest models. I'm not saying to avoid the opinions of skilled meteorologists and experienced chasers, but make sure to design your own forecasts based on the type of storms you are seeking and the amount of chaser convergence you can tolerate!
I went out during that week at the beginning of this month, mainly because I had the opportunity to do so and this year didn't seem to offer a better multiday trip that I had the chance to participate in. I admit, I felt some optimism with his statements, not to mention the wording in the SPC daily outlooks, but the model forecasts had me filled with pessimism. I did experience the derecho and an accidental possible tornado (Mound City, MO) on the way home, so not a complete wasted trip. Plus I still learn something new every time I go out there.
 
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