Night time tornado chasing - WHY??

Hi all.

This last weekend I got a chance to watch Tim Marshall's 2003 Chase Highlight video. In one of the more spectacular chases Tim and the Rhodens - Gene and Karen - took off after a night time tornado as it chewed through Northern OKC.

With little more than power line flashes and spotter reports to guage the storm's distance and heading, Tim and company overshot their target and set up directly in the storm's path. Realizing their mistake, the trio dashed for cover, and wound up hunkering betwen overpass girders (TM: "I'm not real proud of that...") while the tornado passed just to the North.

Watching the video leading up to that encounter, I kept asking myself, "WTF are they doing, and what do they expect to get out of the chase???" As far as I can see, all they got was some (too) exciting video and few fuzzy lightning illuminated shots of the wedge as it bore down.

So I'm asking anyone willing to write about it, "What's the point of night time chasing?" If chasers as experienced as Gene, Karen, and Tim can lose situational awareness and come within a few hundred yards of experiencing the suck zone first hand, nighttime chasing must be dangerous as hell. What's the payoff?


Anytime I see a tornado I'm getting the payoff... Day, morning, evening, night... A tornado is a tornado. I strongl prefer to not chase at night, but if a situation presents itself, I'll go out to see what I can find. My chase techniques during the night are quite different than during the day, however. I tend to play more of a 'spotter' during nighttime chases, in that I won't try to play w/ the 'bear's case' -- I'll keep my distance more than I would if it were daylight. It's a lot more stresful chasing in the dark, so I'd really need a nice supercell to pull me into the dark. Given one (e.g. May 9th 2003 OKC supercell), however, I'll see what I can find.
It is very different and much more dangerous at night. For me, it's pretty rare for me to set out AFTER dark for a chase. BUT, if I am already chasing, I usually won't pull off just because it got dark.

There are many payoffs and cool things to see, depending on what you like to see, nighttime adds more drama to it, but part of what I justify is that I just travelled 600 miles to chase a storm that day, I certainly am not giving it up just because it got dark, ESPECIALLY if the storms fired late.

Knowing the people that you mentioned, I am betting Gene, Karen, Tim and gang wouldn't have gotten in that situation had they not been in a metro area. Metro area chasing is tough, day or night. :shock:
If I have good visibility and a good road network, I'll continue the chase after dark. It's always amazed me how often the storms really don't get going until the low level jet kicks in after dark. Another thing that's nice is that there isn't nearly as much traffic around storms after dark....the 5/29/2004 storm in Oklahoma was a great example of this.

5/9/2003 was one I willingly sat out addition to the darkness, the storm was in a major metro area, the visibility was terrible both due to the smoke and the relative lack of lightning, and it was moving fairly fast.
I agree with Greg, what's the point? If I am ever chasing a tornado after dark, it's because it's heading for a town and it needs to be reported. Night chasing is dangerous, and very frustrating. :x
I don't like to chase at night, and rarely do it. I rather stupidly drove through the rain core of that May 9th storm for 20 miles. It was nearly impossible to see the road. There were about 8 or 9 cars (chasers?) following me all the way. At one point, I was driving straight and without realizing it drove onto a side road (the main road curved sharply to the left). Almost every one of the cars behind me followed me onto this side road, and then followed me as I turned to get back to the main road. So I know that they were just following my taillights and couldn't see much of anything either.

Fortunately, I never broke out of the blinding rain into the tornado. Unless conditions are just right, (or unless I'm spotting) I don't see what purpose there is in a night chase. Even experienced chasers can get into trouble quick at night. On a side note, I will say that when I caught up to that storm from the east at Union City it was the most incredible lightning show I have ever seen. The lightning was almost continuous. And I will testify that chasing in a metro area is very frustrating, especially at night.

One thing that was actually kind of funny: I was driving down I-44 that night and there was one cop driving about 30 straddling both lanes. He had a LONG string of cars in both lanes and every time someone tried to pass him he would swerve over so they couldn't. He was swerving so much it looked like he was driving drunk.

Night chases are especially bad with HP supercells. I could see maybe chasing an LP at night, but once you start talking heavy rain I head for home.
I don't think night chasing is that dangerous if you just give yourself a little more room than you typically would during the day. If you have radar and GPS I really don't see any reason not to chase after dark.
Different strokes for different chasers. I like being on storms after sundown.

I have never understood how night chasing is any more dangerous than some of the daytime chasing done by some of the crowd who like to push 100 MPH on wet roads in low visibility. At night, I am always on my own storm, at my own leisure, and sometimes you find a treasure. And you get spectacular lightning shows if you decide to stay out from underneath the beast or give up on him.

It is imperative that you understand the mesoscale conditions in your local area, have a strong conceptual model based on what your storm is doing, and a strong knowledge of the local geography. I do limit myself to night chasing in areas where I know the road network. Radar is nice to have but I would say it's dangerous to trust radar for your safety - go with what you can see and what you know.
To begin, the reward of a night time chase for me is the incredible lightning show, updraft towers illuminated from within, anvil crawlers, and the occasional tornado backlit by lightning.

I believe that most experienced, intellegent chasers can get into dangerous situations night OR day due to unique circumstances of that particular chase (including reasons already mentioned such as road networks, lack of radar, etc). Granted, at night it certainly is more difficult to "go visual" on the chase. Thus, it is more important to have radar at hand or updates from a nowcaster on a night time chase.

While you certainly shouldn't depend entirely on radar it does help to have continuous radar on the back roads which is now possible with the XM Mobile Threat Net. After initiation, I rely on visual clues in the sky and the storm. However, radar helps with clues as to direction, speed, intensity of the cell and, of course, the possibility of rotation. If I know where the cell is on radar I can be sure to come up behind the storm rather than approaching from in front of it's path and having to punch the core (which we all know is dangerous but has to be done at times).

Peggy and I found ourselves chasing into dark when we followed the storm which destroyed Hallam, Nebraska on 5-22-04. And yes, it was scary. That was the only time I felt scared on a chase. And I believe I would have felt more confident if we had a radar image to analyze, but we were out of digital range (and it was after this day that we purchased XM). We approached the cell from the North as the sun was going down. We did have a nowcaster providing us with radar updates. Based on movement of the cell he advised a specific route which would have led us to intercept the storm near Hallam, approaching from the NE as the cell moved NE (meaning we would have punched the core to pop out in the F-4 tornado). Since the nowcaster was awed by the radar image, reports of a large tornado were coming in, and it was beginning to get dark, I opted to go West and then drop South to come in BEHIND the storm. Of course, this meant playing catch up and intercepting at a later time but this was the best decision I ever made. It is possible that we may have driven right into the tornado if we didn't have a very updated radar report. Given it was getting dark, the tornado was very low contrast, and we may have driven straight south instead of going West and then south if we had not know specifically where the storm was on radar at that time.

So, in the end, I do not think radar is necessary for a successful chase but I do believe it makes the odds of safe intercept better, especially at dark or in low contrast, rain wrapped situations.

It's an adrenaline rush ,,, can't help it.

I stayed away from nightime chases until 2003 when after missing a tornado around Perry , Ok on 5-9-03 I sat and watched the OKC coverage on the portable tv of the turnpike cell. After awhile I decided I could make it to Bristow before it.

S. of Bristow
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After that night I was hooked.

Visual is less and you need to be able to trust your instincts and be gathering all the info you can.

and yes you can find yourself saying , oh Ö

Oneta 05-30-04 1:12 am
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You certainly propose good and legit questions and so far you have gotten great responses with a mix of feeling on the issue. This really just depends from chaser to chaser. Storm chasing at night is obviously a lot more difficult to do than during the day. It’s hard to see important features and it’s definitely hard to recognize the presence of a tornado unless you know of its exact location or can see power flashes.

Regardless of how experienced of a chaser you are, the same challenges of night chasing applies to all and each chaser is exposed to a more dangerous environment. Now the issue at hand here is still the need for ground truth and spotter reports; whether it be day or night. The NWS does not promote night spotting and they certainly don’t encourage it, but they still need those spotter reports just as much as night than in the day.

That would be the overall benefit, public safety and storm warning verification. This can also be a great photographic opportunity for storm chasers who are also photographers and want to do lightning photography.

Now that’s just an overall statement at the issue at hand.

On a personal level I will generally call off a chase when night sets and I’m dealing with a tornadic storm. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t go out at nights to storm spot for the county, anytime a warning is issued for the county I live in I will go out storm spotting; always a go on just severe thunderstorms and it really just depends regarding tornadic storms.

But in contrary of the situation you’ve described, these situations can even happen to any given chaser even during the day (I’m sure David could vouch on this one). I’ve seen a number of storm spotters and storm chasers place themselves in situations that they don’t desire to be in; so those risks are there both day and night.

Storm chasing at night can be dangerous, so can storm chasing during the day. It’s just harder to observe certain elements of the storm at night because of the lack of light.

And the link Gabe posted to his pictures,, is a great reason for why some chases at night. The photo opportunity presented to us is awesome and makes for great photography.

Everyone’s provided great answers, but the feeling towards night chasing is going to vary from one chaser to another. Some chasers might think it’s stupid to chase at night, some may think it’s just dangerous while others may be ok with it. It just depends on their level of comfort.

Just last year I did some spotting in the county at about 2 AM and watched an awesome funnel cloud pass about 2 miles north of me.

But the main thing is that regardless it’s always important to have that ground truth from those in the field. Radar can only see so much, radar may show that a storm has strong rotation but beyond that you can’t say whether or not a tornado is on the ground. So there are points of being out there at night.

Do I night chase?

Arizona Monsoon: Always

Plains: I don't set out to do just that but will continue photographing if I'm already on a good storm in the area anyway. I am realistic though, night-chasing the Plains can be hazardous. I have had some good experiences at night in the Plains but some freaky ones too, a few scary ones as well.

My pros & cons:

*Lightning photography, dramatic desert temperature drop, peace & solitude, tornado in the dark not as much of a factor in the Southwest.
*Cannot see flash floods, critters are very active, crime increases (metro areas and especially the border, best to stay away from there), drunks can be out on the road.

*Lightning photography, dramatic cloud images, usually you're out there already anyway finishing the day's chases, so why not work it while you have it...
*Cons: HAIL you cannot see, chance of tornado that could be closer than you think, road washouts or highway construction with poor visibility, big MCS's that rain or hail all night with deluges, creep-factor alone in some of the small towns, drunk drivers again.

Works for me:
*Stay doubly alert
*Don't drive tired
*Escape route...always
*Watch radar religiously and never turn off the spotter reports
*Stay respectful, don't get complacent
*Don't follow the herd blazing into the night, go with your gut
*Turn interior light off in car while photographing (so critters don't hitch-hike home with you).
*Be especially wary of water on the road
*Know where you are
I completely forgot to mention this, but the first tornado I ever saw was at nighttime, so I guess I can't be too hard on night chases . . .
I have a little different perspective. Since I am "reporting" to either Television or Radio live, I need to get out at night. Severe Weather doesn't stop just because the sun went down.

I also have the advantage of someone at the studio following where I'm at and watching the radar for me. I'm working on financing a wireless data connection which would even be better.
I used to be dead set against chasing at night. "Only morons chase at night," I would say. Then came April 17, 2004. Mike Kruze and I drove all day from KLAF to Ft. Dodge, IA. It was nearing sundown when the storms started going. After such a long trip, I'd be damned if I didn't give it a shot. We spent almost 5 hours cruising around in the dark, trying to get our first tornado (we were successful 3 days later in Jamestown, IN). The NWR was on the entire time, and we had an excellent atlas to guide us around the road networks, and of course we were on the phone with our nowcaster Kevin Peters for the duration of the chase (when we had signal).

During this time, we learned to love lightning flashes (and there were a LOT of them). We kept our distance well, and always had our escape plan in mind. The only time I was ever concerned was when we were stopped by a train just west of Manly with a potentially tornadic cell headed straight for us. That's one of those unexpected situations that can trap novice chasers (such as myself) and legends alike.

Since that night, my attitude towards night chasing has relaxed significantly. I still won't go after embedded supercells in a squall line after dark if there's tornado potential. Generally, I'll opt to spot as opposed to chase after dark. Besides, its hard to get a good lightning shot during the day.

Rarely will I intentially chase after dark. May 12 was an instance where I was returning to my base for the night and happened to come across the nighttime tornado.

I don't have the equipment to be chasing after dark, and when I am intentially out there, it's either because its in the city of Denver and is normally a severe storm within well lit city limits, or its cause I am heading to base for the night and happen along the storm.

I've had a couple bad nighttime experiences with storms and tend to want to avoid chasing after dark, but as Gabe posted, photos like that make it a temptation. If I'm far enough away from the storm, I'll chase it, but rarely will you see me getting close to a nighttime tornatic storm.

Lightning is a whole other story, though! I LOVE chasing lightning after dark!
(Gene's alter-ego here.... 8) )

Well this thread's been out here for a while but this is the first chance I've had to actually read it now that we're all coming down from TESSA. I would like to contribute to the discussion, but not in a complicated manner. Sometimes you get entangled in eloquent reasoning when talking about why you did what you did when.....and I don't think any of that would help matters.

Night chasing is one issue, our May 9th 03 OKC tornado chase is another. Normally, I avoid chasing anything at night like the plague. It's not hard to understand why - you can't see storm structure, it's hard to place features, and it's easier to get into trouble. It's also more lonely, somehow.

Would I do May 9th 2003 all over again? No. Did I enjoy it? No. Was I terrified? Yes. If I could, would I erase it from my memory and make it as if it never happened? No.

Gene and Tim decided to go after this supercell at dark from our home in Norman. Why? Did they want to spot? No. Did they think they were going to see tremendous structure or heart-breaking, high-contrast tornadoes? No. Did they do it to keep people safe in their beds? No, get real. This area is so awash with spotters and chasers that any reporting is becoming obsolete......unless you don't hear it being reported on the radio.

Gene and Tim decided to go after this storm for one very simple, real reason. An obsession. A love so deep that it can't be eliminated or understood. They live off and for storms (among other things). And a storm looking like that on radar just coming into the western edges of OKC? They were damn well gonna experience it.

Me? I wouldn't have gone after it. Why didn't I stay at home? Because being with them experiencing it is far better than sitting at home worrying about them. That, and I like to think that I have at least a smattering of their type of passion in my own blood....

Scores of chasers got into "trouble" on the night of May 9th 2003 in OKC. Hank Baker saw debris flying.....he was north of our tornado. Dave Gold and SLT sheltered in Cracker Barrell's freezer-room. Some other chasers did what may be considered the smart thing to do and booked east with the meso......they had trees fall on them. I believe we were entirely right and justified in seeking shelter the way we did......I'd rather be hunkered down under concrete girders than trying to take a white-knuckle drive east and get out of it in the pitch black.

Chasing this storm wouldn't have been nearly as possible without one person that night. Bob Conzemius. He was deployed and chasing with the DOWs - and coordinated things masterfully on the radio. He relayed what he was seeing with the DOWs observations to the spotter frequencies which in turn was relayed to anyone listening. His reports probably saved a lot of people (including us) from getting into a helluva lot more trouble. He is a great guy.

What happened happened. We wouldn't have executed the chase if we hadn't thought we were equipped to deal with it and understand it. Like Tim said - we're not proud of what we did. We don't go driving into tornadoes deliberately. On the night of May 9th 2003, we thought we could chase this storm.....and Mother Nature gave us a firm wrap around the knuckles as a reminder of just who is in control.

What did I come away from it with? Well.....very vivid memories. A tanglible experience with a weather phenomenon that will never leave me. A greater respect for what we chase and how we chase it. A greater understanding of just how quickly these storms can change character.........and a bond with Tim Marshall that endures to today and always will. There's a spark when Tim and I meet up or chase together......real friendship......and I don't get that close to many people.

My 0.02,

Karen Rhoden

(Our May 9th 2003 video can be seen on our recently-released DVD, Violent Prairies:
I've never tried anything at night besides spotting from a static position. Too many trees and hills in this area to make such a situation even remotely safe. In fact, it's bad enough during the day in my immediate area, although the terrain does improve as you go west.

Anyway, I'm glad Tim, Gene and Karen made it through that situation safely. I'm sure they didn't get so close on purpose.

Just a quick correction:

The pics I posted (from June 10) were shot by Doug Raflik, not myself. I was on the other side of the storm, and it was just as beautiful. :D

Greg, I was with the Dave Gold/Roger Hill's Silver Lining group Gene mentioned during the storm on Tim's DVD you describe. TTI we had stopped chasing for the night and were eating at the Cracker Barrel in Edmond. As the minutes went by the nowcasts from chasers and moles at the SPC and NWS to Dave got more and more alarming. When the barrage CGs started and the antenna farm disappeared everyone in the restaurant crammed into the walk-in freezer that passed for their "storm shelter". Shortly thereafter the power went and all you could hear was the deafening rattle of hail and various expletives in the total darkness.

Fortunately, the F0/F1 passed about a mile south and wasn't the violent 1/2 mile wedge being reported by the nowcasters, or I might not be writing this -- no joke. The freezer was actually built into a flimsy lean-to on the west side of the restaurant.

Enough time has passed and this is a suitable thread to give an opinion I've held for awhile about the incident. If you're mobile with dangerous storms in the vicinity it's a serious error to go to ground or "stop chasing". The big risk of nighttime chasing is that you put yourself in a position relative to a storm you'd never do in the daytime in a million years. You stop being the chaser and you become the chased. And I can vouch from personal experience, that's a whole different thing!
Originally posted by David Wolfson
Greg, I was with the Dave Gold/Roger Hill's Silver Lining group Gene mentioned during the storm on Tim's DVD you describe.

Enough time has passed and this is a suitable thread to give an opinion I've held for awhile about the incident. If you're mobile with dangerous storms in the vicinity it's a serious error to go to ground or \"stop chasing\". The big risk of nighttime chasing is that you put yourself in a position relative to a storm you'd never do in the daytime in a million years. You stop being the chaser and you become the chased. And I can vouch from personal experience, that's a whole different thing!

Well - first of all it was me that posted here, not Gene. :roll:

Secondly - I respectfully disagree with your idea that it is a "serious error" to "go to ground" as you call it. I would much rather stop and take shelter when in the immediate path of a tornado, than carry on running around like a blue-arsed fly. The chances of you coming into contact with tornadic winds is FAR more likely if you are moving across the area encompassed by the storm's meso, than it is if you stop and make yourself just one point to be hit. But then that's just the opinion of myself, Gene and Tim, who were there.

I don't care whether I'm a chaser or the chased.....I care about coming out of it alive.

Sorry, Gene! :?:

As usual I probably wasn't precise enough. I wasn't for sure intending to criticize your actions, Tim's, or the others who found themselves in a bad place while chasing that night and did what they had to do. I was -- well -- more referring to the situation involving the Cracker Barrel, where -- well -- people who should know better stopped chasing. There was plenty of time and plenty of information to get us clear of the storm. That's the serious error I was talking about.

I think I see where you're coming from, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I think stopping for the night and having a tornatic storm come barreling through is purely accidental. Unless you stopped at the resturant KNOWING a tornatic storm was coming, in which case, I think you have room to say oops. But if you just stopped for the night and a tornatic storm formed while you were eating, I'd just say you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nighttime storms are hard to really forecast, and I would think that I wouldn't change my stopping places at night based upon the chance of storms, but needless to say, it just sounds like you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless, because you were in that situation, I think you made the safer move between staying and fleeing.