Too timid?

Moe E

EF0
Apr 3, 2020
16
24
1
Colorado
Hey guys,
So far this season I've been able to get out on six chases and have busted on four mostly because I've found myself getting nervous about hail damage, vehicle breakdowns, downbursts, microbursts, lightning strikes, etc. After the storm in Sharon Springs, KS last year and losing a window, I got pretty spooked. How does one overcome this? Is it just a fact of chasing that you're going to break a window or get hail damage at some point?
Thanks!
 

Dean Baron

Supporter
Sep 25, 2006
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Minneapolis, MN
Hey guys,
So far this season I've been able to get out on six chases and have busted on four mostly because I've found myself getting nervous about hail damage, vehicle breakdowns, downbursts, microbursts, lightning strikes, etc. After the storm in Sharon Springs, KS last year and losing a window, I got pretty spooked. How does one overcome this? Is it just a fact of chasing that you're going to break a window or get hail damage at some point?
Thanks!
Where were you in relation to the storm when you broke your windshield? There are certain areas around a storm that are better than others for offering a view of the base without much risk of running into hail. You might just need to brush up a little on how to place yourself in a good spot on a storm to lower the risk of getting hit with hail. In my 15 years of chasing I have yet to lose a window and don't run into hail in general very often so I think it's just about knowing where you want to be in relation to the storm more than anything.
 

Jeff House

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Jun 1, 2008
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Safety first. In my opinion, you are right to bail if you're not comfortable. They will always be other tornadoes.

The only time I encounter hail is approaching from the north (east of the cell). Hail in the front flank is usually not dangerous, if you are certain you are not near the true core and meso. I've also noticed right when the hail seems like it's going to get out of control, one passes through the issue. Darkest night is right before the dawn. This is only valid way out in the front flank. Don't approach through the core.

Strongest straight line winds are usually the RFD. One can encounter that chasing from the southwest. That is a very safe spot relative to the tornado. However close southwest can get RFD'd pretty bad.

Lightning risk can't be eliminated. One should stay in their car. I've been known to squat on the balls of my feet, but that's incorrect. One needs to stay in their Faraday shell (vehicle).

I typically chase from the southeast looking northwest. I won't get a beautiful front-lit tornado that way. However it's pretty low stress chasing. Little chance of hail. Most wind is inflow. However lightning is un-avoidable.

Especially in Dixie I'll miss tornadoes from the southeast. Aggressive Plains chasers get northeast (in the slot) however that's highly discouraged without years of experience. Tornadoes move that direction.
 

Warren Faidley

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May 7, 2006
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We hit softball hail near Johnson, KS years ago, destroying a lot of glass, and I still hate hail. I'm not so worried about the damage as I am concerned about being taken out of the chase and having to waste time with repairs -- maybe losing a complete day. Hail is part of the core. This means you could be very close to the danger zone. Unless you have a lot of experience with storm dynamics, I'd try to avoid hail. Windshields are not terribly expensive, but side and back windows are. Knowing how to interpret radar is also important, including understanding the relationship between your location and storm movement. Lightning cannot be avoided completely, but generally if a storm is lightning active near you, it's best to stay in your vehicle.

Most importantly, don't think you are "timid" because you are careful. I assume you have watched videos of idiot(s) doing very reckless things. Don't try to emulate such stupidity. People have died and been seriously injured after being inspired by overly aggressive behavior. It's not what storm chasing is really about. There are naturally-inherent risks with chasing that cannot be separated, but generating your own jeopardy is not smart.
 

Moe E

EF0
Apr 3, 2020
16
24
1
Colorado
Where were you in relation to the storm when you broke your windshield? There are certain areas around a storm that are better than others for offering a view of the base without much risk of running into hail. You might just need to brush up a little on how to place yourself in a good spot on a storm to lower the risk of getting hit with hail. In my 15 years of chasing I have yet to lose a window and don't run into hail in general very often so I think it's just about knowing where you want to be in relation to the storm more than anything.
I was due east of it and took a direct hit (see attached image). I was facing northwest and the side of the car got hit the hardest. Had about 90 mph winds and half dollar size hail being flung at the car and broke the driver's side window. I had been chasing the storm out of Kit Carson and never acted on an escape route. NIK_1768.jpg


Since then I've been doing some off season research and figured out the best positioning is probably southeast of the storm, but it seems a lot easier said than done given the road networks, storm motion, timing, etc. I did build a hail cage for just the top of the car, I need to work on the rest of it once plexiglass is available again, but I think that would help tremendously once that's done.

I definitely need to learn more about storm structure and what to avoid. Obviously, I know to stay out of the Bear's Cage, main hail core, under a wall cloud, etc. However, some questions I have are, how far out of a storm can an RFD be impactful? Is it good positioning to be in the inflow winds just southeast of the storm? Do I need to consider other cells (especially along a QLCS) developing on top of me if I'm currently on the southern most cell?

Thanks for all the input! I definitely have a lot more to learn. I realized how little I knew last year when I pulled this stunt and been getting nervous since. Hopefully, storm season 2020 ISN'T over and I can get more experience.
 
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Dean Baron

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Sep 25, 2006
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Generally, for a storm moving east you want to be on the south or southeast side of the base. This usually will give the best view of the base of the storm. Having said that, there are a number of complicating factors on any given storm or set up in general. High precipitation (HP) supercells will cut of your view of the base from the south and southeast and you will often run into hail/strong winds if you try to get closer, in addition to possibly getting too close to the tornado itself if there is one ongoing. It also helps to know the setup you are dealing with. Is it likely that the storms will be producing large to very large hail? On days where hail is a big concern, I may be more conservative in my positioning on a storm because the risk of running into damaging hail is higher. On days where hail isn't as much of a concern I may be more aggressive. Considering you are in Colorado and I assume you will be chasing in CO the most, hail is going to be more of a concern for you than other areas of the plains. Punching the core is a big risk because that is where hail is most likely to be and it's hard to tell how big it is going to be until you are in it. Punching the core can also put you in risk of getting in the path of a tornado.

There are a lot of other things to consider as far as positioning goes but I think this is a good start.
 

Jeff Duda

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Oct 7, 2008
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Lots of good advice here. I won't reiterate it all and instead leave it to, "*points up* what they said."

With that said, now, there are some definite finer points of storm chasing that would likely help you. The first is not to be ashamed of being nervous about being in a harmful spot. Fear leads to caution, which keeps you safe. I was pretty timid in my first several years of chasing, too. To be honest, what got me over most of it was dipping my toe in a little more each time and coming out unscathed, but also having a few experiences where I clearly goofed and paid the price. Since then I have known where the line is. You will (or already have) discover your own personal comfort line in a similar fashion.

Next, think of storms in a relative sense rather than in cardinal directions. While others have said it is safe to be southeast of the storm, that assumes typical Ely or NEly storm motions. There are many situations in which storms do not move in those directions, and thus your specific positioning on a storm should change accordingly. I think what Jeff H. and Dean said speaks to the idea that a desirable position to be in is both "ahead of" and "off to the right" of the storm's path. Find the storm motion vector and then sweep a path along that whose width is determined by the reflectivity edges of the geometric union of the FFD and RFDs. First priority - stay out of that swept area. Keep in mind that if a storm is moving southeast (as I believe the Sharon Springs, KS storm last year was), this safe spot is actually to the southwest or even west of the storm. East or southeast puts you directly in the path of the core, so it is not surprising you took a hit.

The object is to stay in visibly clear air (but also outside of significant hail or wind), and I have found that you can generally see though 40 dBZ precip as long as it isn't several miles thick. So you can afford to be in an area around the edge of the FFD with reflectivity values roughly 40 dBZ and below. Many chasers will haphazardly charge into visibly obscured conditions to catch a rain-wrapped tornado, or just punch through a core to see what is behind it. Most of the time they get through just fine (although luck is involved with that, and hydroplaning is an understated hazard). Sometimes, however, like with Silver Lining Tours last year, they get one of these (NSFW quip) greeting them on the other side, which is a good PSA for not plowing into an area when you can't see.

As far as staying out of "not obvious big hail" and strong non-tornadic winds, don't forget about the vault region of a supercell (the area immediately downshear of the updraft...which often appears visibly clear...giant sporadic hail stones don't obscure visibility like densely packed and small rain drops do), and read radar velocity. Outside of the RFD, strong surface winds are pretty rare, but if you see a big downburst/downdraft signature on radar (learn how to diagnose those), then stay away from the area unless you are prepared to take it on. Also, learn how to identify an RFD signature visually - the "cut" in an updraft base (which gives it a horseshoe appearance) or a small-scale shelf cloud are usually strong indicators of the leading edge of an RFD, so assume the surface RFD boundary is slightly out ahead of that. Winds within the RFD can be pretty nasty, either with or without falling precipitation, and this may not always appear on radar velocity. But check radar velocity always, and stay out of the RFD altogether if you cannot confirm low wind speeds within or are unwilling to take damage from what might be lurking in there. A good sign of safe RFD transect is if you can see clearly under the base and there are no imminent signs of cloud base rotation or dust flying up from the ground.
 

Dean Baron

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Sep 25, 2006
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I agree with everything Jeff just said. Getting yourself used to how to position on an east moving storm is a good place to start. One of the hardest aspects of chasing is figuring out how to apply these same positioning strategies to storms moving in other directions (NE, SE, due north, etc.). You have to take what you know about positioning and rotate it to fit the direction the storm is moving. Storms generally move east and northeast, so if you can figure out how to position yourself in those situations you will be good to go for most setups. Lastly, knowing where to position yourself is one thing, knowing HOW to position yourself is another. This is especially important for storms moving northeast or southeast. Most roads in the plains only run in a North/South or East/West grid. If you have a storm that is moving northeast or southeast, unless you get extremely lucky, you won't find a road that parallels the motion of the storm. This means you will need to step ladder yourself along the road network in order to stay with the storm (e.g. going one mile east then one mile north to stay with a storm moving northeast). It's not always a perfect strategy because the road network doesn't always allow you to do this and you may also have to take into account river crossings, lakes, interstate crossings, etc., but understanding how to do this properly is a big aspect in chasing and can help keep you away from hail.

Having said all of this, it is still possible you will get hit by hail. That's just the nature of the game and the risk we take. You can take every precaution and still get hit by a rogue chunk of ice. It's happened to me but luckily it wasn't big enough to do damage.
 
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Simla CO went due south. York NE June 20, 2011 went due north. Holly CO last Thursday went east, but backbuilt all the way down to Johnson City KS and beyond, SSE, and I got hailed on in Johnson City. One thing that's really important, IMO, is to watch out for a storm to turn right, which seems to happen more with the monsters than lesser storms (I could be wrong about that).

You should always have an escape route. Don't ever go anywhere without one constantly in mind, and always be on top of your situational awareness. Those are a couple of stormchasing commandments.
 

Michael Towers

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Jun 28, 2007
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Agree with others about discomfort, nothing wrong with having a degree of fear and respect for something that can kill you. I’m probably more averse than most chasers to the risk of getting nailed by hail and even though I tend to try to play it safe I’ve still taken my lumps, chase enough and you’ll likely have an unpleasant or unexpected encounter (I’ve been pelted by nickels a few miles from the updraft under a sunny sky). But stones from the blue likely won’t hurt you much, slight dings but no dents or cracked glass. What can hurt is opting to take a hit as a lesser of two evils but if this happens it probably means you got a bit too aggressive, I’ve opted to take the hail versus risk the tornado and that’s not a nice place to be. What can also hurt is underestimating the storm. Don’t assume because a storm doesn’t currently exhibit visual characteristics or radar returns of a monster hailer that it won’t by the very next volume scan. Doing so can teach you a lesson and you’ll likely not get too comfortable again playing in regions that can get real bad real fast. Also, as @Bob Schafer pointed out, beware of a right turning storm, especially given a general preference for chasing to the right of the path of the storm. Without a doubt my worst encounter happened this way (2009-6-7) on a monster cell moving NE that I was tracking just to its south. The storm took a hard right and caught by surprise I had no real escape option and was at the mercy of the baseballs that rained down all around me. My old chase vehicle somehow avoided losing any glass but boy did it get scarred badly.

Given those experiences I’ve still never lost a window on a chase but have had to replace three windshields when cracks became apparent in the aftermath. My advice is that armed with a solid understanding of storm structure/behavior along with maintaining a proper degree of caution, planning, situational awareness and a little fear and/or discomfort you can likely avoid a catastrophic hail encounter. Always maintain a healthy respect for a supercell regardless its current state and if you try to play it safe with hail I think you’ll be even less likely to have a catastrophic encounter with a tornado.
 
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Mark Blue

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Feb 19, 2007
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When you start hearing pings on your car switch your radar program to VILD (Digital Vertically Integrated Liquid) and stay well clear of the high end of the scale, usually shades of white and gray. Those are indicative of gorilla hail and can help you navigate the hail core safely. Here is a blog post from RS that provides a run down and screenshots of the VILD product. That’s the best quick and dirty advice I can give you.
 
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Joey Prom

EF1
Feb 11, 2020
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St. Paul, Minnesota
Thanks all for the contributions to this thread. I really learned a lot reading it. I really appreciate that you took the time to help educate us newer chasers. What are your methods for navigating the road grid? I often have to zoom in on my gps in order to see the small roads, but I cannot tell how far they go because I am so zoomed in. Also, I cannot tell if they are paved, gravel, or (groan) dirt. Also, is there a way to tell the difference between an outflow dominant RFD surge, or an RFD gust that may be trying to wrap up a tornado? Thanks.
 
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Feb 21, 2012
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Staying out of hail is relatively straightforward if you watch VIL (vertically integrated liquid), however sometimes large hail can get lofted well outside of the main hail core, especially if you're in the notch or east. My only slip up was in Colorado last year, forgot what day it was, but maps showed what appeared to be a clearly public road, however when I go to the road, which was the only east option away from the core of the storm, it was a private road. I made the conscious decision to drive back into the core to get west to a road that would take me north to the next east option, and in the process was greeted by tennis balls. This put a nice shiner on my windshield and about 20-30 small dents, however I didn't lose the windshield completely. Bottom line is if you're aware of where the hail is and what your roads are doing, you will be fine. Even getting close to tornadoes is pretty safe after you're familiar with visual cues and if you have a good escape route at all times. I generally will only get in the path of a tornado if I have a very clear east road, preferably paved.
 
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Moe E

EF0
Apr 3, 2020
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1
Colorado
You guys are so awesome! Thank you! I will definitely keep all this in mind. Like many chasers this season, I have next to nothing to show for myself, but I'm hoping to use some of these techniques in SD on Saturday. I did chase a bit two days ago in WY as a practice run and I found being behind the storm and tailing it is a much better experience. Of course, it wasn't a tornadic supercell so I assume my staging would be slightly different for that but, it was still a great chase, a lot more relaxing and allowed me to really marvel at it and watch it evolve. Thank you guys so much!
 

Jeff House

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Jun 1, 2008
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There is something to be said for being able to relax and marvel at the incredible sky. We do tend to hang back for that reason, also not constant repositioning. Last May we saw our first good tornado in a couple years. I didn't bother much with photos - carryover from the 2017 eclipse. I literally said, I'm just to to relax and enjoy the tornado. Relax, is probably not the first word most chasers say.

Also will revise my RFD relatively safe sentence. In HP supercells it can be a hidden menace! If multi-cycle a new wall cloud may be developing, while the old tornado is grinding away in the RFD. Star Wars guy - it's a trap!
 
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James K

EF4
Mar 26, 2019
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Especially considering the fact I'm still relatively new to this, I pretty much plan to stay back from the storm a good safe distance...
I know that means I "won't get the best pictures/video" but I'm ok with that, would rather be safe than sorry. Plus I also want to see some structure, (and also part of it also just being to experience a storm out in the open)

When it comes right down to it, I fear hail as number one - so even more than a tornado itself, (and the RFD comes in second.)
Hail & RFD (generally) cover a much larger area than a tornado, infact you'd almost have to really work at it to be hit by the tornado.
 
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Jeff House

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Good plan. You actually may get really good photos from farther back if visibility is good, which it usually is High Plains. Keeping back allows one to capture the whole structure. Tornado might be smaller but the enormity of the structure jumps out.
 

Moe E

EF0
Apr 3, 2020
16
24
1
Colorado
Wanted to post an update, I've been heeding your advice and it's been super successful! I am no longer losing my mind on chases and getting nervous about damage, I'm staying out of the direct path, always keeping in mind escape routes, etc. I've also been chasing with a few other chasers as well to get an idea of how to implement these techniques in the field. Thank you guys for the advice!! I'm starting to feel like a real chaser now :)

115764669_10219200953949520_888558673740873063_o.jpg EdWvL6sXsAUqItT.jpeg