As I write this, winter officially started ten days ago. Depressing, I know. However, consider that the days are now lengthening. Although cold air masses will continue to explore the continent for awhile longer, surface heating is on the upswing. The first of the spring storms will begin waking to life in only several more weeks.

Now that I've got your attention, the proximity of the upcoming spring leads to a few thoughts, one of which is: What will chasers face this year?

Weatherwise: The latest NOAA/CPC predictions are in. While they're still nebulous at best, enough data is in to hint at a "fair" chase season for spring 1997 in terms of the number of active chase days. Interpretation of the long-range outlook product suggests that the persistent fast zonal flow we've seen for much of the winter is expected to continue, with a developing tendency for broad long wave ridging in the western U.S. On the bright side, though, this suggests we will see less of those high-amplitude troughs digging through the southern Plains and cleaning out the return flow. In any case, you can see the prediction summary itself on the Climate Prediction Center homepage. I should also point out that there are a number of chasers who believe the character of a chase season can't be accurately predicted. Let's hope these chasers are right!

Video:Video piracy is the hot topic right now among all chasers. In response to the increased public interest in severe weather last year, piracy of storm footage spiralled out of control, victimizing almost every experienced chaser and ranging from misuse of news stock footage to unauthorized full-length production broadcasts on national networks. Although (to my knowledge) criminal charges have not been filed against any of these companies and individuals, the FBI was notified in certain instances and other chasers are planning lawsuits. Much of the illegal activity was not the result of blatant infringement but from loss of control when agreement loopholes allowed footage to be passed on to numerous third parties. In one instance in November, our own co-editor Tim Marshall received a call from a Japanese network thanking him for the use of one of his tornado segments. Tim was certainly not happy, and had not authorized its use, much less knew that the video had ended up in Japan.

Before you let anyone use your video, make yourself fully aware of who you are dealing with and demand a written agreement. Since these agreements are often written by company legal folks who will squeeze out extra earnings using a subtle twist of wording, you're strongly urged to let your attorney read any agreements before you sign. Never, ever enter any agreement that you are uncomfortable with.

A final thought: Always register the copyright of your video before letting it out of your hands. Although your video is automatically protected when you take it, this fact is technically undocumented until you register with the U.S. Copyright Office. This is in effect a notarization process involving sending them $20, a form, and a copy of the video.

For more information, see the piracy information on the Storm Chaser Homepage. The paper The Cancer Within, by chasers Rich Thompson and Roger Edwards, goes further by presenting some excellent reasons for not selling your video.

Events: Winter is certainly a good time to brush up on your knowledge, meet other chasers, and get acquainted with storm spotting. A great place to do all that is at the Garland, Texas Skywarn seminar being held February 22 at 9 am at the Garland Performing Arts Center, and hosted by veteran chaser and NWS forecaster Alan Moller. It's the largest annual severe weather get-together in north Texas. If you can make it out to Des Moines on March 15-16, you'll certainly want to attend a regional NWA severe weather conference at the airport Holiday Inn. For more info, click here. On Saturday, April 12 from 9 am to noon, there is the Texas Severe Storms Association annual meeting in the Council Theatre, 1520 Ave K, Plano, Texas. Finally, there's the annual StormTrack party, which will be held in May. More details will be forthcoming.

Gadgetry: Unless you play Doom while chasing, I don't recommend sinking money into a Pentium notebook. Regardless of what anyone says, you simply don't need a Pentium for looking at web pages or downloading data. Thankfully, the market's frenzy of Pentium notebook sales has forced i486 notebook prices well under $1500, leaving active matrix video displays as the only pricy component. Yes, 486 notebooks indeed are still made, but since most vendors are primarily concerned with pushing higher-value merchandise, don't expect to find them at your corner computer store. You can also get great deals on used i486 notebooks, too. For getting that critical surface data while on the road, a frequently-overlooked and economic alternative to cell phones is acoustic couplers, which hook your modem up to any pay phone. Acoustic couplers, costing around $100-150, can achieve data rates up to 28.8 kbps with unlimited geographic coverage and a much lower phone bill. Acoustic couplers made nowadays are slim and easily fit in the pouch of your laptop carrying case, and are designed for "road-warrior" business travellers who are frequently out of cell phone coverage zones. Companies that make them include Teleadapt and Konexx. Of course, don't forget a copy of my own weather mapping software.

Chasemobiles: Finally, this is a reminder for all chasers to set a little money aside and prepare your vehicle for the season ahead. A deserted highway in Roberts County is not the place to discover that your timing belt snapped and should have been replaced months ago. For those who haven't spent much time under the hood, I located an excellent page covering preventative maintenance. Taking your vehicle to a service center for a full checkout is also a good idea; naturally, they'll quickly find problems that you've overlooked.

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