Storm Chaser’s Guide to Navigating Tornado Alley

Jun 16, 2015
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quincyvagell.com
I’d like to share this with the community. It’s a project that I’ve on working on that was kind of sparked by @Jeremy Perez and the storm chase map he created a while back.

Storm Chaser’s Guide to Navigating Tornado Alley

Like many of us, I’ve found myself with extra free time lately. I had an idea to summarize my favorite chase areas, by ranking different parts of tornado alley. I felt that it would be a better use of my time if I could create something more useful for other storm chasers. It’s also something I can quickly refer to, instead of having to dig for one of the many maps I have printed out.

It is focused on tornado alley, particularly the Plains, Midwest and Dixie Alley. I’m always open to suggestions on how to make it more useful. I stuck to the areas I am most familiar with and have storm chased at least a few times.

I drew and redrew the lines for each area multiple times, but I’m settling on the 35 zones I included. At the end of the day, I felt that grouping areas the were the most similar in terms of road networks and terrain was key. I then tried to use state lines and rivers (in most cases) as other familiar ways to differentiate between the zones.

Jeremy’s original thread on his map project: US Chase Map Project
 
Jun 16, 2015
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Based on the feedback so far, I will soon be adding more of Lower Michigan and parts of the Carolinas.

I may change the name for Eastern Cornbelt too. It wasn’t meant to be a geography lesson, but that seems to be a bit vague or weird for the locals I’ve talked to.
 
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Jeff Duda

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Sorry to shit on this project, even though I think it has the potential to be one of the greater resources available to the storm chasing community, but I think it can be so much better than it currently is. My biggest complaint is that it reads as if it was written for NatGeo or CNN, i.e., too cursory to be useful to a serious chaser who may not already be intimately familiar with a given region's terrain and road network. You could glean most of this information from a 30 second glance at a road atlas for a given state or a look at the NWS website.

I'll explain this better using the example of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles section.

Terrain said:
Terrain
There is just about a little of everything in the panhandles in terms of terrain. The western Texas panhandle and most of the Oklahoma panhandle are relatively flat plains. There are a few hills and patchy areas of trees mixed in. Elevation also increases, gradually, with westward extent.

The central and eastern Texas panhandle is a little bit more diverse. Hills and rivers tend to be the dominant terrain feature north and east of Amarillo. The Canadian River cuts through the area, featuring some forested areas along its path to make storm chasing a little bit more difficult. To the southeast of Amarillo, the Caprock region begins, featuring a challenging array of hills, thickly forested areas and canyons.
This description is not inaccurate, but it misses the mark. Easily the two most influential terrain features in this region are the Caprock and the Canadian River valley, which should be the very first two things mentioned. What makes the Canadian River valley so special is that it features a very wide terrain gorge spanning a solid 30 miles across almost its entire west-east traverse across the panhandle, and the road network within that gorge is pretty awful even compared to the rest of the Panhandles region.

You missed mentioning that the Caprock is a favored area to chase due to the terrain gradient helping to force CI on dryline days, which is the staple feature of this region.

Road Network said:
Road network
The road network across the Texas panhandle is not the most favorable for storm chasing. Most roads tend to follow curved, irregular paths. There are gaps in the road network as well, especially north and east of the greater Amarillo area. The road network in the southeastern portion of the Texas panhandle, near the Caprock, can be frustrating as well. Often, there is only one paved road that will lead you to a storm here. This frequently results in storm chaser bottlenecks (traffic) during severe thunderstorm events. The Oklahoma panhandle has more of a grid-type road layout, but even in that area, there are often multi-mile gaps between stretches of roads.

Interstate-40 is the main freeway that will take you east or west across the Texas panhandle. I-27 will bring one south from Amarillo toward the Lubbock area. I-27 comes to an abrupt end in Amarillo, so if you need to continue north, consider taking the TX-335 loop or some other deviation around to bypass the downtown area.
This section is dreadfully lacking in specifics. It only takes looking at Google maps of this region at a zoomed out level for 60 seconds to ascertain this information. This section should contain the golden nuggets that people who haven't chased here wouldn't think of until it happens to them. Here are the specifics for this region:
-Roberts County (with Miami) has horrid terrain...the major paved road going through is in a narrow valley most of the way, severely restricting visibility much of the time.
-More broadly than Roberts County, the section of land bordered by state highways 152, 136, 207, 51, and US Highways 83 and 60 (broadly enclosed by Canadian, Pampa, Stinnett, and Spearman...roughly 2,000 sq mi. in size) is a total no man's land. That entire section has only one highway that completely crosses it, and if you split this region by that highway, there is a piece of real estate between Stinnett and TX-70 that covers pretty much exactly 1,000 sq mi. that has zero accessibility for chasers. "Heh...don't try to chase along 152 east of Stinnett!"
-PALO DURO CANYON: if you're trying to chase to the immediate southeast of Amarillo and along the Caprock ledge, you need to plan your chase routes much further in advance than you would in other areas of the Plains (similar to the "Roberts County Gap") described above. TX-207 is a critical highway, as it is the only path through the canyon between Amarillo proper and the Clarendon-Turkey corridor, which itself is a risky 40-mile gap. Related: the drive from Childress to Silverton is pretty desolate, too. Hope you don't run out of gas or get caught by a storm in that stretch, because local traffic is about as thin as it gets there.

To me, these are the real positives about doing something like this - give those who don't already know these things the heads up before it is too late for them. While I didn't read many other sections, I would guess the rest are also lacking in those detailed spots as well.

If you need help with this, I would certainly be willing to offer some of my own experience as assistance. I'm sure you have covered as much territory as I have, so you are also probably pretty familiar with a lot of these tidbits.
 
Jun 16, 2015
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Whatever ends up resulting, I am very much for it. But I can't contribute much unless you wanted to include a Minnesota section.
There are three areas that cover Minnesota, the only place I did not include was north-central/northeastern Minnesota. This is a heavily forested area that tends to be outside of where most storm chasers are willing to venture.
 
Jun 16, 2015
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@Jeff Duda I appreciate the feedback. Considering I wrote all of this in about a week, of course it’s not going to be as detailed as possible.

I’ll take some of your suggestions into consideration, but I’m not looking to produce a lengthy document that’s not digestible for most people. I’m sure diehard chasers who frequently roam the Plains may not find much value in this guide. Oddly enough, several veteran chasers praised it on Twitter, but maybe they’re in the minority?

If all I’ve accomplished is putting basic geographical/road/climatological knowledge into one interactive webpage, then I’m fine with that. It’s meant to be an “at a glance” document.

If someone wants to hire or pay me to write a comprehensive encyclopedia, that’s another story. The only reason I’ve even had extra time to create this was the virus situation. I’ve already had some people telling me I shouldn’t have put this out there for free.

Basically, my goal was to provide an overview. That’s why it’s free and available with no ads. It’s had great reception so far and over 10,000 page views. Aside from your comment, the only other criticism I’ve gotten was not including certain states, the naming of the IN/MI/OH area, the precise lines drawn in a few zones and one typo on the Arkansas page. It seems to be well-received based on dozens of comments on Twitter, hundreds of likes and positive emails I’ve gotten, but then again, what do I know.

While I agree there is a potential goldmine here, I don’t have the time, energy or motivation to produce what you are looking for. I actually considered writing a book on the topic and taking a more comprehensive route. I settled on something more digestible for more of an “average” chaser or an enthusiast.

Finally, the whole idea came up less than two weeks ago. I’m open to making changes if more people think it needs work.

Maybe the crowd on here will look at it from a more critical standpoint. I welcome that and I am open to hearing other perspectives.
 
Jun 8, 2017
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Quincy,

This is fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to put this together and for sharing it with us. I will certainly be utilizing it in multiple ways this season and in many more to come.
 

Joey Prom

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I think it would be very beneficial if we had a more detailed version, which could be managed by the Stormtrack community as a whole. That way one person would not be burdened with the entire project and we could get more detailed coverage of each area. Either way I think this is a tremendous project, very grateful to Quincy for putting in the time.
 
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