The disparate nature of storm chasing knowledge: how do we fix?

Jan 14, 2011
St. Louis
Ask yourself this question: where did you learn everything you currently know about storm chasing? This includes subjects like how to forecast, how to intercept, safety considerations, vehicle equipment, hotels to stay at and avoid, and everything in between.

The answer to that question is going to be different for every single chaser. No one's story is going to be exactly the same, because there is no single source that can fully inform and equip a chaser. There is no storm chasing course that you can go through. No certification process that covers all of the essentials. Each chaser, for all intents and purposes, is on our own when it comes to learning the craft, being successful and keeping ourselves safe.

During my first 2 or 3 years on the Plains, I learned some of the basics from chaser friends, Stormtrack, WX-CHASE, Haby Hints and reading chase accounts on the web. Much of what I've learned since then has come from raw experience. I've made it a priority to share my experiences in the form of chase logs: forecasting methodology, chase strategies employed, what storms did that surprised me, how I succeeded and how I failed. In doing that, I become just one in another complex web of information that chasers who happen to read my site and my accounts on Stormtrack can integrate into their personal knowledge bank.

In most of chasing's history, there have been various closed circles of knowledge sharing. These have included the CFDG email listserver, private research groups and today, the conversations that take place within small circles on Facebook and even chat rooms here on Stormtrack. If you were excluded from those groups either via rejection from the community or simply not being a social media user, you end up missing a lot of the tidbits of knowledge that can make a difference in your success rates and your level of safety.

Some might choose to withhold knowledge to maintain some type of competitive advantage, which is understandable. For instance, if you've learned through years of experience how to identify subtle clues that precede a mesoscale accident-type event, why would you share that publicly when you could be the only one who scores it?

But you can see the problem with all of this. Some assume there are tenets of chasing that are common knowledge, but are in fact only knowledge shared by the group of your closest acquaintances and associates. How would you expect chasers outside of that realm to come into that same knowledge?

I consider myself well-read on storm chasing and mesoscale convective meteorology: I've repeatedly studied veterans' chase accounts, scientific journal papers, case studies, forecaster talks and more. But even then after 18 years of Plains chasing, I find myself missing things that some expect to be common knowledge.

How can experienced chasers go most of their careers missing seemingly simple points? I think that's the wrong question. The more appropriate thing to ask is, how can anyone be expected to know everything there is to know when there is such a fragmented nature to chase knowledge? Unless you purposefully immerse yourself in every chaser social circle and/or luck out into the elite groups like CFDG, you're pretty much on your own.

I think that should change, particularly with the safety issues. We can't look down on any chaser for a safety misstep when those points haven't been made clear in an easily accessible manner community-wide. Then again, where and how do we accomplish that?
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I understand how you feel.
No matter how many youtube videos i watch, I still feel like i am missing a true understanding of forecasting.

In Sept i start an online class for Penn State's Undergraduate Certificate in Weather Forecasting.
Only thing i know to do in order to get a better grasp on it.

Doubt i will go any further with it than that.
To get an AS degree just requires too much.
Tried to find where to attend in TX to obtain it and didn't really find anywhere in Tx, they all seemed to be far away in another state.
I also don't foresee any ROI with just an AS.
What really helped me get the ball rolling was finding an experienced chaser willing to show me the ropes in the field, reading up and self-teaching only goes so far. Seeing the atmospheric processes that lead to supercells and tornadoes in person really helped piece together the word salad I had spent nearly a year studying prior to my first plains run. You can study up all you want but nothing really can be substituted for field experience, no matter how knowledgeable (you think) you are.

As far as how to un-compartmentalize the knowledge that tends to stay within small chaser groups, I don't really know. Social media has compounded the issue for sure and at this point I cant really see a way to fix it.
Experience is a great teacher and really the biggest source of where I am today. I've had help from chasers as well - David Drummond took me on back in 2009 for a week. My thirst for knowledge on storms and severe convective meteorology has kept me looking for more every day. I don't know a lot, but I understand some basics like skew t's, upper air charts, qg theory (thanks to Rich Thompson's torcast and the SPC video lecture series). I think my strengths have been my ability to kind of visualize the atmosphere in multiple levels in my head and more than anything, multi tasking.

Everything else has been experience. From learning not to double tap my camera's record button to where to position to getting close to shoot wide, it's all come from experience. More like it's all come from messing up. I haven't been good at learning from others mistakes in this hobby.
Dan, this is a very interesting subject to me. I have been thinking about some aspects of this for a long time, so I had to post even though I should be working right now 😒 Hopefully this will keep me from being my usual wordy self...

The issue you raise is one of tacit vs explicit knowledge, a subject of interest to me in general, beyond chasing, including in the professional work environment. I have on my Kindle a book called "Tacit and Explicit Knowledge," by Harry Collins, which unfortunately I haven't read yet, but the fact that I bought it is at least evidence of my interest level 😉 . Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it, whereas explicit knowledge is formal and codified. Stormtrack at least codifies some knowledge to some degree; Facebook does not, which is why I detest the use of Facebook for chasing content.

Two attempts I am aware of to make chasing knowledge more explicit were "Storm Talk" by Tim Marshall (really dating myself with that one), and the "Storm Chasing Handbook" by Tim Vasquez, both of which would need to be updated to be relevant enough today. Even the content that is codified on Stormtrack and elsewhere is still scattered, in the sense that it is not all structured together in a step by step "curriculum" of "how to" chase storms, from forecasting through field strategy and navigating in the storm environment, to post chase analysis and documentation, etc.

You are also touching upon academic learning vs experiential learning. The meteorological side can be learned academically, but the application of that knowledge to storm chasing specifically becomes experiential. And I don't just mean the field side, which is clearly experiential by definition; I mean experiential in how meteorological knowledge is applied to a chase forecast and chase decision-making.

Clearly there is room for better codification and organization of chasing knowledge. But I don't think it's possible to ever structure all of the knowledge in an academic or explicit way. I'll use my own profession as an example. I am a CPA, and currently work as a financial officer for a business. "Accounting" is certainly codified in a series of textbooks and formally promulgated rules. But can "how to be a financial officer" be fully codified? Some aspects yes, but not entirely; it can only be learned through experience.

A related topic here, if we are talking about how to learn more about chasing and improve, is the concept of "deliberate practice." One important element of "deliberate practice" is immediate coaching feedback. This is a key thing missing in my experience of storm chasing. There are so many days where I am unsuccessful, either because the weather didn't cooperate, or my own forecast didn't verify, or I made a bad decision in the field. My biggest frustration is to very often not know *why*. Without coaching feedback, it's all trial and error. It's like trying to box only by getting in the ring and boxing, getting your butt kicked and trying harder the next time, with no formal coaching feedback. It could take 200 years to learn exclusively by trial and error, and that's most of what chasing is. The fact that, especially for a chase vacationer, there are only a handful of opportunities per year makes it even more problematic. I like chasing with just my chase partner, and do like having success and failure determined only by my own actions. Maybe it's a point of pride to not want to go with someone better than me, because I have been doing this over 20 years myself, and again like succeeding or failing on my own. But how I would love to have a professional meteorologist or better / more-experienced chaser to tell me what I did wrong and what he did differently. Imagine if there were the equivalent of an SPC outlook or an AFD that instead of a forecast was a post-mortem on what *actually* happened.

As for my own personal learning, I feel like in many ways I can't get past my current plateau. It's my own fault, because I admit to not making a lot of time for "studying" throughout the year. Sure, I read SPC, Stormtrack, chase accounts and all, but I don't study meteorological material, and I haven't even made time to sit through the SPC video series from Rich Thompson. Why? Because with a demanding job and a family, I don't have much time, and at the end of a work day I just don't have any remaining mental focus to study technical material. Even if I did, there is no way I could stay up on the latest research, how the models are being updated, etc.; I can barely stay up on developments in my own profession. I would venture to guess that many chasers are like me, they skipped the academic meteorological learning and have only the experiential. Maybe that's OK in some respects. For example, as long as I know that the northeast quadrant of a jet streak is a favored region of diffluence/lift, do I really need to know the underlying physics that make it so? This is chasing based on "rules of thumb", or heuristics. Chasing is more satisfying if you go deeper in your understanding, but do you have to, or want to, go deep on everything? I think every chaser is different in terms of how deep they want to go in different areas, everyone has to find the right balance.

Well I could go on but I already wrote more than I intended. Let's keep the discussion going!
I started chasing storms in 1997. I had been following WX-CHASE and reading chase accounts on print StormTrack and the web along with watching some early chase videos on VHS. I also took a Skywarn spotter training course through Sterling, National Weather Service Office and later the advanced course from Wakefield. I then took a two week storm chase tour with Charles Edwards of Cloud 9 Tours. I later read and reread Vasquez's Storm Chaser Handbook (first and second editions) until the pages fell out. After my very successful storm chase tour with Cloud 9, I went out on my own and learned from years of experience and interacting with fellow storm chasers. I learned from many more experienced chasers including tagging along with Dave Hoadley, Charles Edwards, Jim Leonard and Jeff Piotrowski. I started attending the ChaserCon in Denver and reading the online Storm Chaser Homepage. I read essays on chasing and safety by well-known chasers. Of course, learning never ends. I still read chase accounts on webpages and StormTrack, read some of Vasquez's more up to date books, watch Rich Thompson's and the SPC video lecture series, talk with other chasers and attend the ChaserCon, follow the weather when not chasing, and above all, get out and chase, succeed and fail, but always learning.

Unfortunately, there is no real central source of chase information for newcomers, but the information is out there if one has some patience. In addition to forecasting, chase techniques and use of equipment, I think it is important to convey the culture and history of chasing along with an emphasis on safety and responsibility. Learning never stops. For newcomers and experienced chasers who want to improve their knowledge or fill in potential gaps, I recommend the following in a loose order:

For someone initially learning about chasing, I'd recommend The Online Storm Chasing FAQ by Tim Vasquez and Roger Edwards, The Online Tornado FAQ and Chaser Safety by Dr. Charles Doswell, and Storm Chase Ethics by Alan Moller. Watch the videos, The Storm Chase Anthology by Three Reel Films (Blake Naftel) on YouTube, The Chasers of Tornado Alley by Martin Lisius (1996 but still useful, DVD and streaming available) and Chasing Reality - A short documentary about storm chasers by Chris Kridler (2011, 14 minutes on YouTube). The Chasers of Tornado Alley is supposed to have a sequel sometime in the next year. Look through especially paying attention to chase accounts. Many chasers have good websites with useful essays, reports and other info. Some useful websites include those by Roger Edwards, Chris Kridler, Dan Robinson and Chris Collura.

If one is getting more serious about chasing and is planning on eventually taking chase tour and/or chasing on their own, I would recommend taking the basic and advanced Skywarn storm spotter courses, preferably in person through one's local NWS office. I think some are offered online. The best one source for general storm chasing information and forecasting for chasing is the Storm Chaser Handbook (2008) by Tim Vasquez. It is still useful, but really out of date. Tim plans on doing another sequel, release date unknown. Everyone, "egg him on!" :) It is also a great source of information on chase techniques, safety and a very good general Tornado Alley travel guide aimed at chasers. The Storm Chaser Handbook, especially if it is ever is updated, should be required reading for all participants of chase tours in addition to those getting ready to chase on their own. Tim has a couple of other forecast books that are much more up to date and are a very good start for one learning to forecast though not necessary for most "tourists" unless their eventual plan is chasing on their own. These books include Severe Storm Forecasting (2010-15), Weather Analysis & Forecasting Handbook (2011-15) and Instability, Skew-T & Hodograph Handbook (2017.) These are available through Weather It will take time to read and study these books especially beyond the Storm Chaser Handbook. Once these are understood, one can watch the series of online tornado forecasting lectures by the SPC (for serious chasers, not casual tourists.) Google "Severe Thunderstorm Forecasting Video Lecture Series." Many are by meteorologist and chaser Rich Thompson. There is also the Tornado Forecasting Workshop presented by Rich Thompson. The series by Rich Thompson and others is on YouTube and can be Googled. The chase group "Tornado Titans" has a series short basic forecasting and chase technique videos online called "Titan U" that are also very useful and was originally funded by a Kickstarter. There was some talk of the Tornado Titans removing that stuff which would be utterly useless and a complete waste since it was quite good information and very worthwhile for chasers and spotters. The more serious prospective chaser should also start reading StormTrack in more detail including some of the archived print editions especially chase accounts, forecasts and equipment posts. Review previous chase days by looking at archived data, making a forecast and reading about the results. If there are storms currently forecast, practice looking at data in the morning, making one's own forecast and seeing what happens. Most experienced chasers do this when they can't chase for whatever reason. Weathergraphics has a Forecast Laboratory with archived outbreak and null days where one can look at morning charts, make a forecast and see if the forecast verified through the day. Meteorologist Tim Vasquez will do online forecast training sessions via Skype, but I'd recommend doing some initial learning first. Mike Hollingshead has a nice DVD on forecasting that is for sale. Check out some of Skip Talbot's lecture videos on YouTube and Jon Davies severe weather blog. Attend some of the local and National Storm Chaser Conventions and opt for the forecasting class if available.

One can study, but eventually, the best training is to actually get out and chase. Ideally, that would be with an experienced chaser either in a small group or with a storm chase tour group. There are many reputable storm chase tours. Just make sure that they do some teaching about chasing and forecasting. If either option is not possible, just get out there, but cautiously. Don't make a high risk day one of the first few days out. Chase some regular non-severe summer storms first before attempting more dangerous storms.

Dan, this is a very interesting and important topic. Thanks for starting this thread.
What I've learned(which honestly is just a little) so far has been from reading...

I found PDF's for 'Weather Spotters Field Guide' (both the beginner and advanced version) on some NWS website & downloaded them, then put them on a tablet & read them over a couple week's worth of lunch periods .lol.
More recently I got my first actual storm book: Tim Vasquez - Storm Chasing Handbook, and have slowly been reading it...mostly a couple hours at a time on weekends while sitting at the park. (my 2nd storm book is Arjen & Jerrine Verkaik - Under The Whirlwind, its sitting aside waiting to be read)
I enjoy looking around the StormTrack forum ('Target Area' for example can be particularly fascinating to read, even if its a section I'd never post in).
I don't really consider it learning, but I've watched a ton of tornado vid's on YouTube (and well over half of them being the El Reno storm). I've also watched a fair number of hurricane vid's.

Forecasting is something thats way beyond my skill. Eventually out of curiosity there's some links to various learning sites I've seen posted here that I want to check out.
I don't believe its something I'll ever be able to actually learn how to do....being old and bad memory, that's getting worse deff doesn't help.

Still that all said, if the right storm shows up - which would also have to be one that's not too far, and on a weekend - I'd go try to get a look at it.
I didn't learn much that would help me with storm chasing when I studied meteorology about a decade ago at a university on the East Coast, which was working on their meteorology program. (some important courses were not added until after I graduated, although I'm not sure they would have helped much more with chasing, specifically) Severe thunderstorms are less common in Connecticut than, let's say, Kansas, and it wasn't a strong focus with the program. Sure, we talked about skew-Ts, wind shear and mesoscale meteorology, but not much at all that would help with storm chasing.

Like some others have said in this thread, I learned from experience. I spent several hours a week researching past severe weather events and websites like habyhints, in the weeks and months leading up to my first season of chasing semi-full time. To start my first spring of storm chasing, I knew how storms formed, but I didn't have much knowledge beyond that, the things that you need to know when you're storm chasing solo. The first few chases were major learning experiences. I kept the close calls to a minimum, but it's easy to see why someone who did not have a degree and/or did not spend a lot of time doing research first could go into chasing without critical knowledge that's needed to chase effectively and safely.

After a while, chasing literally hundreds of setups ranging from complete junk to higher-end outbreaks, I learned, a LOT. Almost all of what I know has been self-taught. I go back and review storm chases. I did case studies to see what factors led to more tornadoes, photogenic storms, etc. I spent countless hours just browsing SPC web pages and clicking on the help buttons for the different parameters on the mesoanalysis page. I chase alone and I'm very introverted by nature, so I didn't go out seeking help. I found it on my own and that's how I learn the quickest, usually.

Even this year, I'm still learning, more than I probably would have expected. To learn and grow as a storm chaser, I think it's constantly a learning experience. Sure, you may eventually get to a point where you're not learning as much as you did earlier in your career, but there's always room to grow.

The trouble with teaching safety is that it's not an inherently exciting topic. Most of us can recall learning to drive a car. I don't think many people found learning safe driving to be fun or exciting. I do think social media can be a way to help, but even there, I wonder how effective it will be. It's not a chaser problem, necessarily, but we've seen a lot of people get called out lately for parking under overpasses, but it keeps happening. We've even had storm chasers called out for dangerous driving habits, but little if anything is changing. You'd think examples like El Reno, the Williamson crash and the tour van incident would serve as examples to live by, but as more and more chasers hit the roads, it seems like the rate of unfortunate accidents will inevitably increase.
This site, and all of it’s members, may be responsible for more relevant information educating chasers than the rest of the internet combined. As long as Stormtrack members continue to be willing to share with others, the world will be a smarter and hopefully safer place. Kudos to all who share on this site.
There’s no faster way to speed up the learning curve than chasing with an experienced chaser though.
I started chasing close to home in 1998. I got serious in 2000 and started learning from different sources. I had a friend that worked for a local tv station in Amarillo named Dan Skoff that took me under his wing and taught me a lot. From 2001 to 2010 I worked nights and pretty much stayed on that same schedule on my 4 days off. What else is there to do at night besides learn about weather? I studied Haby's Hints, Stormtrack, lots of publications written by Mets, along with other sources of education. Experience has taught me a lot as well. IMO experience is defined as making mistakes, but learning from every one of those mistakes.
I appreciate several people taking the time to make long, thoughtful posts here. I agree with much of what Dan, James, Bill, and Quincy have said above. Like several others that have posted here, I started chasing in the mid 1990s and am mostly self-taught, primarily from online sources such as Storm Track, and older sources including WX-Chase and Gilbert Sebenste's old Storm Chaser Home Page. My advice would be much like Bill's, though I must admit don't have the patience to watch as many videos or read as many books about chasing as I probably should. But the more of that you can do along with the online sources (especially Target Area here in Storm Track) the better. That and experience - there is no substitute from being out there, seeing the storms for yourself, and learning from your successes and failures. Thanks to Dan for starting this important discussion.

On the subject of safety, one thought occurs to me - perhaps some kind of wiki type website would be useful. It might be too big and complicated to do something like that for chasing overall, but perhaps for a narrower and critical area like chasing safety, something like that might work.
IMO safety - regarding any activity in life - should be common sense. I don't believe you can "train" a person to be self-accountable for their own safety; that should be a built-in instinct a person either has or doesn't. Kids are a great example. I see kids constantly walking down busy streets, backs to traffic, never even bothering to glance backwards. Same goes for bikes. Youtube is filled with videos of various "disasters' or "fails" where people are just standing around in an already-dangerous situation, completely oblivious, and then when something happens they become victims (or narrowly escape). This lack of self-awareness/preservation baffles me. Thus, I don't believe it's possible to teach/train personal safety. "Is it hot? Then don't touch it." "Here's a light socket. Don't stick metal in there." "This is a piece of heavy equipment dangling another piece of heavy equipment in the air. Don't stand next to it."

Unless it's a specialized field (like disarming explosives) or some other extreme occupation, a general every day "here's how you stay safe" program will be failed by anyone who needs it. If you're so clueless or complacent that you don't think about personal safety CONSTANTLY, every day, there's no hope for you. You're just a statistic waiting to happen.
Youtube is filled with videos of various "disasters' or "fails" where people are just standing around in an already-dangerous situation, completely oblivious, and then when something happens they become victims (or narrowly escape). This lack of self-awareness/preservation baffles me.
Part of it's the Optimism Bias, Shane. Bad things happen to other people. Part of it's that kids haven't had that "hand on the hot stove" moment yet. They may learn. They may not. Google "redneck tattoo removal" for the ones who didn't.

As to education, Skywarn training has helped me the most (I address this to the beginning-intermediate chasers, which I consider myself to be). Go to more than one session, though. I've been to 11 of them in five NWS CWAs. Each time, I get something out of it, even if it's just a new, clearer way of thinking about something I'd already learned. It is interesting to hear the different approaches by each WFO, or even by mets in the same WFO. There's new footage each year and updates on the technology. Wichita had an advanced session this spring. They recommended the online sessions of Skip Talbot and Rich Thompson.

Signs of motels to avoid (mentioned in the original post):
1) Furniture out in front of the rooms. A sofa, kids' bikes and a full-sized grill are signs you're not dealing with overnight travelers.
2) After midnight, a young man knocks on your door to ask if you have drugs.
2) After midnight, a young woman knocks on your door and asks if you "want some company."
4) From your room, you can hear the distinct break of the cue ball on the pool table in the lobby.
5) The desk clerk steals your laptop.
I think the definition of personal safety is different from person to person … I feel safe close to a tornado and I am willing to take calculated risks while others are not and stay further back. This is something that came with experience though.

Back to the subject I read a lot of books to include the series by Tim Vasquez. I came on this forum and asked questions a lot was actually about safely and gear for my truck. I talk to people that you should ask questions of like Skip. I chased with a group for a while for more experience but since want to live and die by my own forecasts and decisions. Once armed with what I thought was a start the rest was learned over the last 11 years out in the field actually SEEING what I read about. Every chase I learn more and gauge what risk I will or will not take by the days parameters and what the storms are actually doing real time.

I think we all would agree that a lot of time preparing to chase should happen before you ever actually start chasing.