Location: Falls Church, Virginia
Started Chasing: 1956
Tornadoes: I have seen 231 and either photographed or videotaped 203
Bio: I was born in Indiana, raised in Washington, D.C., and followed my father’s change of federal jobs to Bismarck, North Dakota. The year I graduated from high school, 1956, a severe storm swept through my home town and started me on the path of chasing. I earned a liberal arts degree from Indiana U. and a Master’s Degree from the U. of Virginia in Foreign Affairs. However, hearing the sometimes unpleasant experiences of students overseas (plus long tours away from the land of storms) turned me from the foreign service. I wound up as a budget analyst and personnel officer in the water quality program at EPA. Although I am called the first storm chaser (“first” to make my own forecasts and travel interstate), my personal choice for that august title is Roger Jensen, who was photographing storms two years before me in Minnesota. However, I will let future historians settle that claim. My wife only chased with me once (bored with the driving) and my daughter five times –the last in 2008, when we saw two tornadoes near Osborne, KS.
Favorite Storm Chasing Photos
How did you realize your love for weather?
When a severe storm swept over Bismarck one June evening in 1956. I remember a reddish-golden sunset under a dark cloud base to the west, when I entered a movie theater –but thought nothing of it. In the first half hour, very loud thunder rolled over and around the darkened theater. “What’s going on?” Then my dad drove down, came in, and told me there was a better show outside. The rain was already mostly over, as we emerged. Curbs were overflowing with rapid runoff and lightning flickered across the eastern sky. My dad drove me through the darkened neighborhoods, and we saw where big cotton wood trees had fallen and taken down power lines. At one point, we turned a corner to see a bare plot of wet grass, where a broken –but live– power line flashed bright, hot sparks, and jumped like a snake in the wet grass. I thought, ” ‘Wow!’ I’ve got to learn more about this.”
When did you decide you wanted to storm chase?
When I got a better look at damage the next day, including a tall, steel, transmission tower that was doubled over, with the tall end on the ground.
How long have you been actively chasing?
Do you chase for a reason?
Aesthetically, to see the structure of a severe storm and photograph its life cycle from beginning to end. Also, for the visceral experience of getting close enough to feel its energy –the gusting south wind sweeping past and rising into the gathering darkness, lightning striking the earth in a silent instant, and then -across the sky-deep rolling thunder. When, for a few brief moments, you forget who you are and become one with the storm.
Do you see passion as a good or bad thing?
Good if it motivates you to “connect the dots” to learning; bad if it causes you to take chances you would not otherwise take.
Do you prefer to chase alone or with a group?
All of my early years of chasing were alone, partly because there was no one else who was interested. Also, chasing alone let me set my own schedule, such as how far I drove between “nature breaks.” I also learned to value the solitude of those long miles going home with a golden, sunset and the beauty of the prairie –with time for reflection. It some ways, it was a growing experience.
Have you ever considered going on a storm chase tour?
Sometimes, as I get older and each trip west becomes more of a burden. But I am also not anxious to give up my independence.
How do you feel about the current state of storm chasing?
Its trajectory has evolved somewhat independently of how the older veterans prefer. The increase in risk taking and close-in chasing should have been foreseen as, perhaps, inevitable in this “media driven” age. I tend to believe in the “historic imperative.” All things being equal, some cultural, political, and imperial tendencies will probably happen anyway, regardless of individual initiative or criticism. Thus, storm chasing, as it is today, was perhaps inevitable. It is neither good nor bad. It just is. Older veterans try to persuade the young bucks not to set bad examples or risk lives, and some of this may stick to the betterment of all. But storm chasing now has a momentum of its own. Those wishing to influence it, need to recognize this reality, before entering the pulpit.
Which era of chasing would you prefer to exist in? Old-school or new-school?
I prefer the “old school.” The prevalence today of instant information and technology certainly leads to more successful chases. However, those who go this route also remove an element of mystery and surprise that made the old school more of an adventure.
How far are you willing to travel for a good set up?
One vacation of 18 1/2 days, I averaged 631 miles a day. The longest non-stop drive (except for gas and snacks) was 1,537 miles.
What are your favorite areas to chase? Least favorite?
Favorite is western Kansas. Least favorite is southern Missouri and most of Arkansas.
What is you favorite type of setup to chase? Least favorite?
Favorite setup is a negatively tilted trough pushing a surface low with strong, backing winds; beneath broadly diffluent upper flow; a sharp dryline; and a narrow, deep moist axis wrapping around the low. If these ingredients are present, then all the other necessary values (cape, helicity, etc.) tend to fall in place.
Least favorite are deep, positively titled troughs with almost meridional flow from the ground on up.
What is your most memorable chase? Least memorable?
Difficult to decide the most memorable, so I must pick two: May 12, 2004 for at least 3 tornadoes from Sharon to Harper, Kansas and April 14, 2012 for the large F4 tornado from Geneseo to Marquette, Kansas (as far as I could see).
Least memorable was one day in the Texas panhandle, when I placed too much credibility on a strong cap and drove away from a clearly (if slowly) building pocket of heavy convection. Later, Jim Leonard got great video as it wound up into a thick cone, while I chased high-based, baby funnels on the northern (less capped) boundary 50 miles away. That one hurt.
Have you ever feared for your life?
Closest was when my daughter and I left the car and jumped down a Nebraska embankment on the night of June 6, 1993, as an F3 formed overhead. But I was less fearful than curious, as I marveled at its awesome energy, and wondered what it would do next –as if I could always “walk out and get more popcorn.”
Are you afraid to make dangerous maneuvers while chasing? (i.e. -core punching/hook or slicing/living in the bears cage)
I try to avoid these situations. That is why I have a telephoto lens (Duh!). My main fear when working close in is large hail taking out a windshield. Do I want (1) to be grounded the next day getting it repaired, when (2) an even better storm is rapidly building a short distance away? If both happened, when would you stop kicking yourself?
Do you have any superstitions?
Would you sacrifice a salaried job with full benefits but with only 2 weeks out of the year to chase for a paycheck to paycheck life with unlimited chasing?
Doesn’t apply, since I am retired. I aim for a balanced life of paying the bills on time and maintaining family ties. I also cultivate other hobbies and interests, so try not to be too one-sided.
Are you currently doing anything job related to the weather?
No, I have been retired since 2003.
Have you ever been to ChaserCon?
Yes, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2014.
Are you more likely to hang out with other chasers while waiting for initiation, or sit alone on a country road watching the sky?
More likely the latter. There is an increasing techy gulf between what most chasers know today and my old ways. Thus, I have less in common with their world and, correspondingly, less to contribute.
What was your favorite storm chase and why?
The most challenging was the April 14, 2012, Geneseo to Marquette, KS tornado. I awoke at 5:15AM at the Super 8 in Perry, OK and left soon after for the largest High Risk area in Nebraska. After driving through brief, heavy rain and small hail, I reached my target by late morning. However, I was soon frustrated by the pervasive low overcast and cool temperatures. I drove back and forth across SE Nebraska, chasing the latest tornado warnings but never saw any base or lowering. Not even once, when the warning was right over my head!! Finally and bone tired, I took another look at the cell phone radar app and saw several discrete echoes in central Kansas. I drove somewhat leisurely down to Salina, gassed up, and in frustration at how my last chase day that trip was turning out, turned off the cell phone and car radio. I was tired of chasing Nebraska ghosts and decided I would go visual. I just didn’t care to be “connected” anymore, as little as it had gained me.
I drove south to McPherson and then west toward the nearest, barely visible anvil –one last time. Couldn’t have made a better choice! I drove to just north of Little River –where I saw the new, distant wedge southwest of Geneseo. I parked and watched, as if in a movie theater, as it slowly approached with excellent contrast, like a giant barrel. It passed within 1 1/4 miles to my north and continued to the northeast until mostly lost in rain. I drove just over 600 miles that day, from Nebraska disaster to Kansas triumph. The most dramatic tornado, I had ever seen or probably ever would.
Do you always know why you made the wrong or right decisions to chase a particular day?
I try to make every mistake a learning experience. I go back old notes and photos to reconstruct the day. What did I miss, when, and could I have made any other decision –given what I knew at that moment.
How did you learn what you know about forecasting and meteorology?
Beginning in 1956, I spent many years of trial and error, plotting surface maps, noting where storms and tornadoes began, and looking for “pattern recognition” in morning maps that might indicate where afternoon storms begin. I assumed a link between surface and upper air patterns, so trusted the surface data to eventually give me the answer. I probably could have filled four standard copy-paper boxes with elaborate data charts and forecasts that didn’t work. Keep in mind that most of my forecast grounding was during the years before satellites and computers made connecting the dots a lot easier.
Do you consider the day a success, even if you don’t witness a tornado?
If a nearby tornado was missed, I would be very discouraged. However, after a few hours of dejected driving, the night sky would darken, clear itself of clouds, and a million sparking diamonds would appear. Then I would stop, turn off the lights, look up –and begin healing, amidst wonders that make my small pain even smaller -until it disappears altogether. How can anything you say, or do, or feel matter beneath such stunning beauty and depth? This is also storm chasing.
Do you feel short changed if you see a tornado from a greater distance to you than you prefer?
Not short changed, just disappointed. However, I am then better able to enjoy seeing other chaser’s photography, including the ones close in. It just all feels like I was there with them, that we shared that storm, and all the photography is appreciated equally.
Do you feel like the scientific community should get the same respect as emergency vehicles around storms?
Emergency vehicles and their staff have an immediate mission to save lives, and scientific vehicles should get out of their way. Science can wait to gather data, analyze it, and filter out what is useful. Their timeline is not bound by an immediate need, certainly not at expense of human life.
How you do you feel about the media in regards to the weather and chasing?
Its purpose is primarily to make money. If a little education is slipped into the message, it is to seek a patina of legitimacy to blunt the criticism of its detractors. The more profitable media outlets are the ones that sensationalize storm chasing as an exciting and carefree diversion for otherwise dull and colorless lives. Even the Weather Channel can be a learning experience, if the viewer is willing to sit through an hour of fluff for every 2 minutes of real knowledge.
Who are the most influential people to you out in the field?
Current and historically – Howie Bluestein, Chuck Doswell, Roger Edwards, Gary England, Greg Forbes, Ted Fujita (d), Martin Lisius, Tim Marshall, Alan Moller (d), Gene Moore, Rich Thompson, and Josh Wurman.
Would you considering getting your children into storm chasing?
Yes, if my daughter (now 40) decided she wanted to do that.
If you didn’t know anything about storm chasing, how would you react if your child said they wanted to be a chaser?
Too hypothetical a question. I can’t imagine being ignorant of storm dynamics and morphology.
What do you fear most about a storm?
Hail taking out my windows –and then lightning taking me out!
What type of storm do you prefer to chase? (Ugly HP/sculpted LP/classic/squall line)
LP/classic/squall line for photogenic storms that would look good on a calendar,
Do you stop your progress toward a storm for a great photography opportunity?
I used to do this more in the early years. However, now I have so many attractive distant towers and anvils, that I am more inclined to pass up these scenes and charge for the payout at the base.
How do you feel about law enforcement immediately around a tornadic supercell?
They are just trying to do their job, the best way they know how to save lives. If they make some bad judgment calls, we should not berate them but help them understand what we know –and do a better job enforcing the law. Our inconvenience due to their occasional lapses in judgment is trivial, compared with the awesome responsibility each one faces …and the guilt they must live with, if responsible for lost lives.
Should storm chasers feel more entitled to be around storms than law enforcement or locals?
Their should only feel entitlement if they were performing some immediate public service to save lives.
Do you have a job that supports storm chasing?
No, I am retired.
Do you have a family that supports storm chasing?
Yes, my parents, wife and daughter have always been supportive –if also a little concerned about my safety. The married chaser cannot say enough about a spouse who supports him or her in this strange hobby.
How long do you plan on chasing?
As long as I am physically able. As I age, mobility gradually becomes more difficult and the long drives out and back (3,000 miles round trip to and from storm country) become more challenging. When no longer able to chase, I will spend my evenings pulling out old file folders and photographs of storms I have chased over the years and enjoy re-living each of those days from my La-Z-Boy.
Thus I hope to save whatever long-term memory is allowed, until someday it doesn’t matter anymore. And that will be as it should, and my chapter in the book of storm chasing will be closed.