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An intro to storm chasing?

Tui McInnes

Hey, so just introduced myself in the thread at the top of this sub-forum... But anyways, I'm an operational meteorologist across the Pacific. The weather's a little different here where I am (only a tiny handful of tornadoes for us annually, usually frontal, short-lived ones at that...).

I have been wanting to try storm chasing for a while now, and the current plan is to give it a shot next year mid-May/early-July. The plan is to chase with my father - do a sort of road trip of sorts through a bit of the US and chase for two weeks.
Now I know that two weeks is a small time, but to be honest, the forecasting side of things and being able to even just see TS's one the scale of the midwest would still make the holiday a success in my books (we only get about 2 days with thunderstorms annually on average where I live). Also it being a holiday, time is of course a limited resource. A pity about the current state of ENSO, I was hoping that a La Nina phase could make for increased activity...

So some starter quesitons:
What are the more "unique" things I need to know about mid-west storms? I've taken to reading a few papers on tornadic thunderstorms but of course the meteorological nature of the mid-west is very different from down here!
What sort of car is a minimum for chasing in the plains? Where would I find information on the actual logistics of chasing?
What are the best ways of getting model data? (Which models do people use and how do the access them?).
Pertaining to the last question, how do chasers get their data on the go (quickly and not costing the Earth...)

Hopefully I can start gaining insight into some of these points. Sorry if I've approached this with the wrong tact or in the wrong place! And sorry for being such a rambling poster!

Welcome aboard Tui. New Zealand is quite a ways away. I'll touch on a couple of your questions. The first thing that comes to mind when it comes to the uniqueness of the southern plains is the dry line chasing and the storms they produce. I'm from the upper Midwest where there are never dry lines for us to chase either. You can at times get a beautiful LP storm that is damn near stationary. I suspect that would never happen in New Zealand.
The car you choose to chase in should have four wheel drive. Many of the roads you'll experience are clay. After about ten drops of rain, the nice firm road you were driving on turns into an ice rink. Some secondary roads will quickly become unpassable with two wheel drive.
Don't make any pre plans on where you are going to eat or sleep on any given night. It's common to put hundreds of miles on in a day, so you'll want to hold off on making any reservations until you know what city you'll actually be at.
The cell phone service to have is Verizon on the Southern plains. That may not be the most convenient way for you to get your data though, coming from another country. Since you will be renting a vehicle anyway, you may want to look into having your internet come with the vehicle you rent. I don't know a lot about it, but I hear it works very well. That could kill two birds with one stone for you.
Good luck!
The meteorological questions are too broad to address in this forum. I would recommend purchasing a few books to study prior to your trip to the United States. I would recommend obtaining some books by Tim Vasquez in his forecaster's handbook series. His Severe Storm Forecasting (2015) is a good start. I would also get the Storm Chaser's Handbook. The current 2nd edition is still good for basic forecasting and chase techniques but is rather out of date. I think he is working on a new edition which should become available later this year. If it is released, I highly recommend getting it. http://www.weathergraphics.com/

Read through the StormTrack archive including previous chase accounts and old issues of StormTrack. There are many problems that come up while chasing that can be avoided with a little prior planning. Reading accounts is a good way to learn what others have experienced.I find many of the older accounts are better as a lot of folks including myself have gotten a bit slack at writing them. http://stormtrack.org/weather-library/

I find there is no need to pay for weather data other than bandwith on a smart phone. I don't know if it would be cheaper to use your own phone with a data plan or to purchase one just for use in the United States. There are no-contract phones that can be purchased at Walmart or Best Buy. Overall, I think Verizon has the best coverage. Many mid-level hotels (ie Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn Express, some Super 8's) often have a computer in their lobbies for guest use. Another option is stopping by a public library though most chasers have abandoned this option years ago.

As for rental cars, as listed above, four wheel drive is a great way to go but you can still get stuck. I have always rented regular 4 door sedans (usually a Chevrolet Impala) and have done well. I usually avoid dirt roads though I almost got suck last year south of Dodge City on a muddy road.

I chase by myself or in a caravan of independent chasers, By the time one adds up rental cars, gas, data, hotels etc, chasing is very expensive. I really think you all would do better with a storm chase tour for your first time. It would be more cost effective and you would have a better chance of success. More importantly, you would learn all the different practical aspects of chasing along with the meteorology. Most tours have a significant number of folks from other countries. I would recommend Cloud 9 Tours, Tempest and Silver Lining though there are some other good ones that I am not familiar. I learned with Cloud 9 Tours in 1997 and have chased on my own each year since that experience.

Good luck!

Bill Hark
Thanks for the replies (and sorry for taking so long, myself!)

I get the jump for a tour but it's not something we're really considering (far more expensive than what we're planning for and I'd be missing out on the self-forecasting aspect which would diminish the excitement a fair bit), but thanks for the suggestion!

With 4WD, is it necessary to lean towards an SUV or in the case of the dirt roads, is it more just having 4WD - I know the dirt roads will be encountered but I'm thinking we'll be trying to avoid them where possible (famous last words haha!)

I'll have a look for some of those books thanks! I suppose it's a bit awkward coming from a meteorologists perspective. On the one hand US meteorologists would know this stuff through and through, but I'm a bit in-between - I'd be a little shy of forecaster discussions here but on the basis of not knowing the terms or specific local knowledge (but one can always learn!)

The cell phone service to have is Verizon on the Southern plains. That may not be the most convenient way for you to get your data though, coming from another country.
Perfect! That's what I needed! I'm probably gonna grab myself an ipad before the trip and was hoping to get a sim card; I just need to figure how to get one - I understand that's a little difficult but I know others have done it in the past...

You can at times get a beautiful LP storm that is damn near stationary. I suspect that would never happen in New Zealand
Yeah I don't think we ever get those here. The majority of our TSs form in fronts with sea-breeze convergence forming the rest over terrain. Bit of heavy rain. Some thunderclaps. Maybe hail if we're lucky (usually only graupel for us)...
I would add a couple of things - we use a rented wifi hotspot on Verizon - we can then use up to 5 items on it. We take an inverter so we have mains power in the car - we then plug a 4-way UK power cord into it so we don't need to take many plug converters! Hire-car wise - we go for an SUV - not for 4WD (many are not anyway these days) but more for the space to spread gear our, the comfort, as we're pretty much living in it for 2 weeks (10-12 hour days for many days!) apart from overnight, and also the fact they have multiple 12V outlets, to plug in other items (Satnav, phone, and so on).
Hi Tui, my name is David Williams, and each spring I invite storm chasers from overseas to come and chase with me. I also teach most of them to forecast and to chase tornadoes safely and successfully since many of them haven't been here to chase before. If you are interested in chasing with me/us, feel free to join us this spring. my vehicle is getting a bit full, over the course of 6 weeks I have a couple guys from Slovenia and a couple guys from Sweden in addition to a guy from California that will be coming out. However, there will be room for you and your dad in june if you're interested. I have a Toyota 4Runner so I can only carry 3 chase partners at a time. My website has a ton of information about chasing with me if you're interested. tornadoalleychasing.com


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I think the car comes down to your preferences, along with the size of the group and how much space you need. 4 wheel drive or all wheel drive is preferable, but the truth is that even with that you can get in trouble when the mud/clay roads get wet. I try to stick mostly to paved roads if where I am going is wet or about to be. Though if I think I can stay out of the storm I will take on those roads. I guess my point is do not let 4 wheel drive give you a false sense of confidence.
Thanks for all the replies everyone! (Sorry for such a late reply - been busy planning another holiday along with work). Looks

Thanks for the offer, David. I'll certainly keep it in mind! The car info sounds like preference is definitely more the key here then, which certainly helps us. What sort of things are worth being wary of when renting in the States?

I've heard about some of the bottlenecks and traffic jams that have been happening more and more recently as the stormchasing community grows. Are there ways to avoid joining the mob? It sounds fairly egregious, especially given the hazardous nature of the storms and the aggravation of locals it can cause... I come at storm chasing from a meteorological perspective, not the more adrenaline-junkie side of things that we all see on youtube and I don't want to be part of a problem I've seen discussed on here by any means!
I guess, what are the "cultural" tips around the chasing? What sort of places do you avoid etc... (I'm looking around for books at the moment; it seems Tim Vasquez's new edition isn't out yet).
As a general rule not lacking in exceptions, if you stay away from midsized or larger towns during an event, you should be fine. It seems like the only real traffic issues come when the local population gets out during what for them is a local event.