You Know It's Going to be a Bad Year When...(a thread for lamenting the long-term downturn in chase season quality)

Jeff Duda

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I have been chasing seriously since 2008. Here are my yearly chase numbers:
(year) (# of chases) (# of tornado days)
2008 6 1 (but came very close on 3 other days and would have seen Parkersburg had I known what I was doing)
2009 14 3 (credit some of the bump to chasing with TWISTEX, but for a year with a terrible May and 10 chases in June, the year turned out more than satisfactory)
2010 20 4 (my career best year; saw Bowdle and the Minnesota outbreak on 17 June)
2011 10 4 (moved to Oklahoma from Iowa after the spring and got to chase in November; had a career-top-3 tornado)
2012 10 4 (despite 2012 being a drop from 2008-2011 quality levels, still managed a couple decent days)
2013 9 1 (those who know me know this was my "Wall of Shame" year...missed everything big, even though I lived < 100 miles from where most of it happened)
2014 7 0 (what I used to consider rock bottom for my chasing career...midst of a 700+-day tornado drought)
2015 14 5 (grungy days, but the success rate was much higher)
2016 15 3 (salvaged an okay year despite missing all of the biggest days)
2017 6 2 (beginning of the end)
2018 5 1 (only tornado day was the Great Colorado Memorial Day Landspout Fest of 2018...not even a supercell storm)
2019 3 1? (not even sure what I saw was a tornado)
2020* 1 0 (what...; *through May)

While I have done a great job over the years missing the biggest events, I've managed to scrape acceptable years out of most of my career except for 2013/2014 and now 2017-????. 2017 was the last year I saw any decent supercell structure or a mesocyclonic tornado. 2020 looks like it is going to be 2014-tying goose egg.

On a larger scale, though...other than 22 April in SC OK, this year has been absolute dick for tornadoes on the plains. All of the biggest events have happened outside the plains, and some of them also at terrible hours of the day (e.g., Nashville at midnight local, South Carolina at like 4 AM).

What the hell happened?

Do you guys remember when we used to be nearly guaranteed supercells and tornadoes every 3 or 4 days throughout most of May? I remember in 2011 when I saw the GFS progging an extended downtime through mid-May to the point where I was willing to chase way outside my usual area on one chase (that ended up busting bad, and I drove >1000 miles that day). Two weeks later May 24th happened.

Ha! Now it seems like we are lucky to see even one quality trough cross the Plains during the climatologically active season.

Climate change? Planetary scale oscillations? Too many chasers hogging the moist air and vorticity?

Let the bitching and discussion begin!
 
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Warren Faidley

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Just logged in after sniffing a tube of glue because the horrible chase season ends today.... and was planning on writing a similar "what the hell happened" thread. I am no climatology expert, but after 30 years of this, there is no doubt climatology has changed. This is not just in the Plains, but elsewhere, and I'm sure other long-time chasers have seen changes in their own regions. In Arizona the lightning season has been low grade for 10+ years. The big event for me now are the initial dust storms in late June and early July. Such dust storms are common now. Then we have the hurricane season, with bigger, meaner storms. With relaxed westerlies this year, look out.
 
Jul 5, 2009
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One week from today will be 10 years since Campo. In the decade since, my ONLY tornado days were Canton OK 2011, Lacrosse KS 2012 (poor contrast near dark) and Dodge City 2016.

2013 was also my “Wall of Shame” year, despite being on my chase vacation the last two weeks of May and having opportunities every day. Blew every one of them, including deciding to go home as scheduled the morning of El Reno instead of finding a way to stretch my trip one more day.

Nothing memorable, not even particularly good structure, in 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019. Could have seen tornados in 2018 and 2019 but didn’t. Even 2016 after DDC, I left miserable because I missed Chapman. Then 2017 was particularly bad, had one chase day, then three down days, and a long range forecast that said “go home” - so I did.

So 2012 ended a streak of three tornado years. ONE tornado day in the last seven years! Yeah sure I screwed up plenty, but the problem is there just haven’t been enough opportunities. If you’re playing baseball, it sucks to be in a batting slump, but if you‘re only getting one or two at-bats per game instead of four, your slump is going to last a helluva lot longer.

This is why my chase partner and I last year were almost thinking of quitting. Not that I ever really would, but we were more frustrated than ever. The return on investment just doesn’t seem to be there anymore. Even the active days seem more often than not to be mushy HP crap. I always blamed myself, but fact is it really hasn’t been a conducive environment for success for a majority of the last few years. It makes it particularly difficult for chase vacationing, with the increasing likelihood that a week in peak season can be completely devoid of activity.

Of course, it’s all subjective. Very hard to quantify “quality” seasons and separate personal success from available opportunities. There is always a bias to put a heavier weighting on the most recent experiences. Is it the longer range forecasting capability that gets our hopes up for the “big day” that then falls apart? Did those of us who started back in the 1990s or earlier have fewer expectations? But there must be something to the disappointment, there seems to be plenty to go around.

To paraphrase @Brett Roberts who I think said it best, ”Plains storm chasing may now be a less sensible obsession than its short history of wide participation (i.e., the 1980s-2010) had perhaps led us to believe.” If I lived out there I would keep an eye out to optimize any reasonable opportunity. But chase vacations are beginning to feel like an exercise in frustration and disappointment; it’s harder and harder to justify jerking around out there for two weeks, leaving family and professional responsibilities behind. But I’ll keep doing it anyway, God willing. 😏
 

Warren Faidley

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Forecasting is a lot better than it use to be. In the cave man days (before modern models, laptops and mobile radar) you had to be there. I would often place myself in the Alley for 30-45 days every year and hope something happened. It was often when I departed, despite a miserable forecast, that something would explode. I recall a photographer from NYC once rented a hotel near the airport in AMA for two months and just sat there. Every day we would drive by and honk the horn or maybe stop and say hi if we had time. That guy was devoted. He might still be there if someone can check?
 

John Farley

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I saw at least one photogenic tornado every year except two from 2008-2016. The off years for me were 2012 and 2015; those probably say more about when and how well I chased than the overall quality of the year. Since 2016 it has been harder, except for last year when due to a lot of competing commitments I was only able to chase 3 days but saw photogenic tornadoes on two of those days. Probably some luck involved in that, though my forecasts did work out pretty well. This year I am probably only doing chases where I can go out and back in a day due to COVID, but even without COVID I am not sure my results would be much different than they have been so far (one local chase of a good hailer but non-tornadic storm). It does seem like in recent years, even the good ones, a lot of activity has happened during one period of a week or two, and in several years, there wasn't much at all. This year seems to be a new low, although I guess yesterday was pretty good for those who were able to be in the right places in IA, IL, and TX. But nothing that was obvious in time to plan a longer chase trip, even if you wanted to. And after today, probably quiet for a fair while, at least.
 

Warren Faidley

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The bottom line is that is it going to be a lot harder to see a tornado, especially if you do not live in the region and have access to mesoscale accidents. The climatology has changed. Who knows how long it will be until it reverses, if at all. The old days of Lubbock being the center of the tornado universe are done. A chaser must be prepared to chase in the far northern (no road) regions later in the season and take bigger risks on high cape, low shear set-ups. The early season storms cannot be ignored because you never know if that will be it. There are things other than COVID that can kill a season or make it more difficult like possible extreme gas prices in 2021 or smoke from wildfires in Mexico, which has happened before.
 
Apr 13, 2009
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I agree the last few years have been much worse. My chasing log is below. Some years I went out twice. This year I didn't go the Plains due to COVID-19 but actually had a good chase in Illinois on Saturday.

Good: saw decent tornadoes and/or good structure, multiple chase opportunities
OK: Some decent structure or maybe a brief tornado. Overall some good, but also down/boring days.
Poor: Few chasing opportunities; generally poor structure if storms at all

Good years: 2008, 2010, 2016 (May)
OK years: 2011, 2013 (May), 2014, 2015
Poor years: 2012, 2013 (June), 2016 (June), 2017, 2018, 2019
The worst: 2009

This is all my own experience and your may vary. For example, I took 2 trips in 2013 but ended up home between them and missed most of the 2 week season. In 2015 I caught some tornadoes in eastern Colorado in early June, otherwise that would have been a lost year.

Last year was certainly better than 2017 and 2018, but there was a lot of down time and in the end I didn't see anything of note. I didn't really know what I was doing the first years and had much less data/radar/etc. Now I know more what to do and I'm still having bad years. To me that's a sign of a pattern change.
 

Mark Blue

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I took some time to read the latest ENSO forecast yesterday and it seems we are in a neutral phase with a trending forecast of cooling in the next several months. That doesn’t mean it will happen but that’s where it currently stands. I enjoyed reading the whole document found here, but I particularly like the historical chart on page 21 of 32 going back to 1950. My observations are anecdotal at best but it looks to me like our best chase years in the recent past tend to be associated with La Nina events. There are outliers though and those years tend to correlate with El Niño events. It seems like when it’s ENSO neutral that it’s pretty quiet. 1988, 2006 and 2009 appear to be when we‘re shifting between patterns and in a basically neutral phase. Interesting to note is 1988 and 2006 were opposites as far as shifting from one phase to the other is concerned. To those Mets who follow the research literature, it would be interesting to see if there have been attempts to correlate the ENSO phase with the MJO to identify the most productive years for tornado counts. That’s an over simplification I’m sure and there will always be good chase years that don’t fit but it sounds interesting to me nonetheless. I guess I better hop on Google and see what pops up!
 

Todd Lemery

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With all the information available nowadays in the palm of our hands, you’d think the success rate would be going through the roof! I’m sure it has for some people, but not me. Eating a big bowl of disappointment flakes is nothing new for me, but It’s not that I’m missing the good storms when I’m out, it’s that they just don’t seem to be happening as much. It would be a lot harder watching all the awesome videos of the storm I whiffed on. Promising setups seem to go in the crapper as we get closer to the day rather coming together as we close in.
My “highlight” was 2018 when I saw a grand total of zero tornadoes. That’s exactly where I’m at now. There’s still times like last year when I simply get worn out from chasing and head home to rest even though there are still more tornadoes to be had. Those are the outliers though. I’m not smart enough to know why that is so I’ll still happily head out and get whatever I can. Great structure and big hail will always be really cool in my book.
One more note. I’ve no data to show it, but it seems the SPC has been having a pretty rough go of it too. It seems they’ve been having a harder time of it too. When you have hatched areas flaming out on a regular basis it gives me a little comfort knowing I’m not the only one getting their rose colored glasses slapped off his head😊
 
Jul 5, 2009
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I was focusing on the last 10 or so years in my earlier post but @Mark Blue you reminded me in your post of 2006, yeah I remember that one being absolutely horrible, quite literally nothing during my particular chase vacation and I seem to remember it staying shut down through June that year.

As I reflect on that decade, I remember 2000 also being pretty bad. Others have mentioned 2009 already - that year I actually had some flexibility as to when to go out and kept delaying it, finally went out for just about a 9 day period at the beginning of June but remember coming home reasonably happy after just having a good CO structure day on my last day. But still a “bad” season. In the 2000s I missed both 2003 and 2007 when my kids were born. But those were good chase seasons. So from 2000-2009 my personal tally is two missed years (2003, 2007), three bad years (2000, 2006 and 2009), three good years (2004, 2005, 2008), one OK year (2001, which I remember being frustrated until the Trinidad CO tornado) and one I can’t even remember so I guess that must have sucked too? (2002). Still a better decade for me than 2010-2019 though, and most definitely better for most when you add in 2003 and 2007 that I missed.

The most recent decade certainly features more of a string of recent bad years from 2017-2020. In the prior decade, the good years were more evenly distributed throughout the decade, with good ones as late in the decade as 2007, 2008 and 2010.

2019 was interesting though because there was actually quite a bit of activity, maybe more like an “old school” season in that regard, but oddly devoid of quality chasing opportunities.
 

Bobby Little

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Wasn't May 2011 a terrible bust till the outbreaks around the 22nd and then Joplin? Not that i want another Joplin, and i know we are talking about June...but hey, maybe mid June we will have a Huge Outbreak! So keep bitchin..maybe that will turn things around? I do know this..if we do get a big event, i cant imagine with all that pent -up demand how bad the convergence would be. All we need is SPC and the Weather Channel predicting several severe days.
Having just retired and planning on spending weeks in the plains chasing at my leisure, this would be my 2nd seriously year of chasing.. i am just dumbfounded.
 
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Warren Faidley

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Interestingly, this year has no transition period. It went straight from a bogus season (BS) to a more boguser season (MoreBS) with no NW flow or northern region opportunities. I'm not sure how this will effect the Bermuda High over the next month as it sets up for the monsoon season. It will be interesting to see. I've got a little over three weeks to start scouting additional dust storm vantage points in Arizona. Who would have thought we'd go from tubes to dust chasing.

m500z_f216_ussm.jpg
 
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Apr 13, 2009
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With all the information available nowadays in the palm of our hands, you’d think the success rate would be going through the roof! I’m sure it has for some people, but not me. Eating a big bowl of disappointment flakes is nothing new for me, but It’s not that I’m missing the good storms when I’m out, it’s that they just don’t seem to be happening as much..."
I completely agree with your first sentence. I think we may be putting more pressure on ourselves. Also, with social media, streaming video, etc. it is much easier to tell these days if you miss something.

I remember the "thread of shame" on here a few years ago. It was really cathartic to see all the times people have whiffed on storms and missed tornadoes for the dumbest of reasons (as have I!).

That said, it does seem there are few opportunities as well. So both a change in weather and a change in perceptions / expectations.

RST
 
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Dean Baron

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The northern plains have been really quiet since 2010. There have been some good storms and tornadoes sprinkled in since but I don’t think we have really had a defining setup/storm/tornado since 2010 here in the northern plains. In fact, I think the last time MN had a tornado stronger than EF2 was almost a decade ago. Not that we get strong tornadoes regularly, but to go 10 years without one is bad, even by northern standards.

Here in Minneapolis we have had snow storms well into April for the last three years. It seems our seasons have shifted because it seems like our winters also start a little later than what I remember growing up too.
 

Jeff House

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Jun 1, 2008
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You might know it's going to be a bad year when.. 1. Pandemic is declared before Season. 2. Overnight EF-3 passes within 2 miles of my home (Easter) so I guess that was my season. 3. Cutoff low hell breaks out. 4. Murder hornets in the Pac NW screw up troughs - just kidding!

Used to be one could fly to ICT OKC or wherever noted above, and base from there near peak local climo. Now it's driving all over between Billings, MT and Charleston, SC hoping for something visible, during the daytime, and not surrounded by other cells.

So far I've not attempted a Plains trip in 2020. In 2018 we made no serious Plains effort. In 2017 we made no Plains trip at all. 2020 could end up like 2017, no trip at all. From 2007-2016 we went every year (except birth of kid). Before then I lived in Wichita.

For my first 10 years outside the Plains I actually enjoyed travel chases more than when I lived there. It's like gambling. Why do we do better in Vegas than at local casinos? Our theory is that on true vacation you can relax - and do it right. Gambling or forecasting.

Now reality is in! I can't chase April in the Plains. I'm not going out for 1-2 days. I wait for the May trough. Um, well, that has not really happened well since 2016. We got tornadoes in 2019 but they ain't no DDC or Rozel or 2008 multi-cycle show.

Time to re-evaluate the hobby? Choice A is to learn to chase Dixie since I'm right here. F*** that's a bitter pill! We make fun of Dixie tongue and cheek, but it really is that bad. Except for 4/27/11 Dixie is un-chasable slop; and, that day is too tragic.

Choice B is remain a Plains snob, knowing the chase trip is not annual. Chase trip happens when it can, every 2-3 years when a quality May trough sets up. If the Alley really is shifting with climate or some other cycle, A&B are both under consideration.

Choice C is just hope the Plains debacle rights itself. Can we get a true multi-year -PDO or has climate change nixed that?

Choice D is a new hobby. If I'm still addicted to total solar eclipses after April 2024, there's a few in sunny Australia the following years. Save up by skipping Plains storm chasing.

I try to remember Dan Robinson threads about appreciate what we have. I got the following four-cycle shows: Harper-Attica 2004, Hennessy OK 2008, Rozel (only two cycles but so gorgeous) and Dodge City 2016. Arguably I've had a quality career and can quit.

On the other hand if they happen every 4-5 years maybe I'm due. Leaning Plan B attm. Oh and Plan D too.
 
Jul 5, 2009
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I think I’ll go with Choice C Jeff! Choice B would be really tough. It’s agonizing enough figuring out which week(s) to go in a given year; deciding whether to go *at all* would be brutal. Also, making the dates flexible gives me enough trouble trying to manage expectations/schedules at work and home, and that’s when I say I’ll be gone two weeks out of these three or four calendar weeks; imagine saying I may or may not be going at all! If I treat it as optional, and don’t keep it firmly on the calendar as a priority, someone will prioritize something else for me!

Choice D is a good option regardless - just to have something the whole year and to stop investing so much emotionally in something that often disappoints and even at its best can only be enjoyed for a handful of days each year (and that’s even if you do live in the Plains). That’s a subject for another thread: to really analyze the underlying reasons storm chasing is so enjoyable, and figure out what other hobbies can scratch the same itch. (My other main hobby is Brazilian jiu jitsu, which, grappling being the antithesis of social distancing, is off the table right now...)

I think Choice C with an attitude adjustment - i.e., more realistic expectations - is the answer. Know that it’s like baseball, if you can hit 300 you’re doing great and that’s about the best you can hope for. You may only hit 225 or 250 as a long term average. The misses have to be worth it to you, for that one great day that used to make a year - and now may have to make a decade.

BTW - I agree chase trips, and that rhythm of being immersed in nothing but chasing for two straight weeks, seems more enjoyable than living on the Plains and doing one-offs. I’m not a gambler, but I like the gambling locally vs Vegas analogy. Come to think of it, storm chasing and gambling have a lot in common, maybe gambling should be my new hobby...🤔
 

Noah Anderson

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Aug 22, 2018
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Know that it’s like baseball, if you can hit 300 you’re doing great and that’s about the best you can hope for. You may only hit 225 or 250 as a long term average. The misses have to be worth it to you, for that one great day that used to make a year - and now may have to make a decade.
As someone who started chasing in 2018, this is the attitude that I have had to live by. A combination of inexperience and general lack of quality chasing opportunities (skipping some more major events east of the Mississippi due to concerns about terrain and storm-motion) has meant that I have been on a three year tornado drought, (technically 20 years, if you include the years of not being a storm chaser). Preoccupation with college last year meant that the ~10-day May sequence of 'decent' chasing was inaccessible, and after being sent home to Minnesota this March due to COVID to finish my semester online, I was SO excited to finally have the flexibility to really chase during the "great" month of May. Yeah, about that. The best way I can describe the past three years as far as chasing goes is that is has been a big bummer.

And yet, it has all been worth it. Going through such a drought (recently broken this Saturday in Northern Illinois) has pretty much forced me to appreciate every other part of storm chasing besides the tornadoes. The innumerable hours on the open road, while sometimes grueling, have made me appreciate how lucky I am to have the freedom to do what I do. The hundreds of small towns that I've passed through all have their own distinct charm (or lackthereof) that make them unique and memorable. And, as I mentioned above, finally seeing a tornado for the first time was made just that much more incredible and special given how hard I've worked for it.

That being said, this year and the past three have sucked hard, and I'm mad at the world for serving me such a shit platter. Here's to an anomalously great June! ;)
 

Mark Blue

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It's good to see the newer chasers who are hanging in there for the long haul (Noah). My wife and I had a lot of fun chasing the northern plains, especially MN in 2010 where you're from. It seemed like every other country mile was paved so for chasing it was nice. I haven't seen that anywhere else that we've chased and we've been everywhere in tornado alley. Maybe June will turn out okay this year but who knows for sure. It seems like we're a month behind the seasons here in CO, so I'm hoping for June and July to offer up some action. Keep learning and chasing and it'll eventually pay dividends.
 
Jun 3, 2009
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Stuttgart, Germany
As an overseas chaser, I actually appreciate how May turned out to be a dud. Now I can say: "Lucky us, look at that ugly pattern. We would have been so pissed!" I know that doesn´t help you guys at all but that´s me trying to see the upside of this whole messed-up situation.

However, I put so much hope into 2020 after 2017-2019 being mediocre seasons at best for us that it still pains me to not be able to go. June can still turn things around for you guys but not for us obviously.

I like Warren´s countdown but it shows the brutal truth: one entire year of waiting and who knows how things evolve with Covid, I hope we can travel normally in 2021 again.
 

Jeff House

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Countdown reminds me of kids waiting for Christmas. Poor troughs and covid feels like canceling Christmas for adult chasers.

Forgot to mention in 2017 we had the total solar eclipse, though it's implied by the new hobby Plan D. Eclipse is one reason we made no Plains trip in 2017. Just in case it'd be necessary for the eclipse. In 2020 we don't have such a great make-up event. Oddly, here in the worst climo of the 2017 eclipse path, we had the best weather. In a weather related hobby, we count our blessings.

Eclipses do offer much of the same forecasting anticipation. I mean we know it'll happen, but sky condition is the question. One needs about 3 motels booked ahead of time. Cancel the unused ones and go to the best forecast. All that requires getting neurotic watching ensembles two weeks out and deterministic in the lead-up days - just like storm chasing. Woo-hoo!

Alas this is the weather lamentations thread. Next trough looks far north. Probably Canada, lol.

Back to the climate change issues. Will we ever get a -PDO? Maybe the ocean cannot sink anymore heat. Continue AN SSTs forever. Cancel all future Plains seasons. Continue overnight tragedy in Dixie. Time to install a safe room here!
 
Jul 5, 2009
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Newtown, Pennsylvania
As an overseas chaser, I actually appreciate how May turned out to be a dud. Now I can say: "Lucky us, look at that ugly pattern. We would have been so pissed!" I know that doesn´t help you guys at all but that´s me trying to see the upside of this whole messed-up situation.
Joerg, I think all of us chase vacationers - including those of us that live in the US, but not on the Plains - feel the same way. Definitely a relief to not have missed anything, it helps to make peace with the decision not to take a chase vacation or to not be able to take one. If I was out there from May 13 (I think that was a good day IIRC) through this past weekend, there would have been a few chase days, nothing great but it would have been better than nothing considering it’s a year between trips. Although there was also a whole week of mostly downtime in that stretch. A trip just for this past stretch starting Thursday May 21 would have hardly been worth it, knowing that nothing lies beyond it. Some years I would have gone anyway, just based on that initial stretch (3-5 day forecast) and deliberately avoid looking at the long range, being willing just to take my chances, go for the vacation time and hope for the best. That would have worked out terribly this year, I would already have cut it short and would be home by now.
 
Jul 5, 2009
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Newtown, Pennsylvania
Going through such a drought (recently broken this Saturday in Northern Illinois) has pretty much forced me to appreciate every other part of storm chasing besides the tornadoes
Appreciating everything outside of tornados, and just having a love/fascination for the weather and the non-weather aspects of storm chasing, are definitely part of it. Some chasers are better at living those words than others, but regardless even the Zen-master chasers among us I think all have a pretty similar idea of what the ultimate chasing treasure is. So it becomes how much time, money, effort, frustration and disappointment you are willing to endure to find that treasure. I remember hearing a podcast where someone described how achieving any goal requires enduring pain along the way, but every individual has pain he is willing to endure and other pain he is not willing to endure. As the ratio of “pain to pleasure” in chasing may be shifting in an unfavorable direction, we have to decide if we are still willing to endure it. In some ways it should make the pleasure greater - the spectacular days are spectacular precisely because they are so rare. The challenge is the appeal. Also, being able to appreciate everything about chasing besides tornados does a lot to make the “pain” less painful.