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Reality of storm chasing

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Dayna Vettese
Meteorologist

Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 4:34 PM - You have likely seen the movie Twister. Or maybe you’re unfortunate enough to have sat through the entirety of Sharknado.


STORM HUNTERS: Storm Hunter Mark Robinson and Weather Network meteorologist Jaclyn Whittal are heading to Tornado Alley. Check back for frequent updates on their coverage in the U.S.


You’ve likely also seen documentaries and webisodes about storm chasing. Before I started storm chasing over four years ago, I thought storm chasing was a high-adrenaline, fast-paced, exciting and nerve-wracking adventure; and it is… but only sometimes.

Image from the movie Twister as the main characters try to out-maneuver an oncoming tornado.

Image from the movie Twister as the main characters try to out-maneuver an oncoming tornado.

What Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt failed to demonstrate in this late-90’s cinematic masterpiece was what really happens when you’re not actively chasing a storm or tornado.

Truth: the majority of the time spent storm chasing is actually not storm chasing. Most of the time is spent, well, driving in your vehicle. Whether you’re driving to the target, driving to the hotel, driving across several states to get to some storms, driving to grab lunch, driving to get gas… The vast majority of your time chasing is spent in the vehicle. A very small percentage of your chasing trip is actually spent chasing storms. 

Drive and forecasting. Repeat.


CANADA'S TORNADO ALLEY: Tornadoes in Canada: Everything you need to know


My colleagues and meteorologists Jaclyn Whittal and Mark Robinson with camera man Michel Millaire are headed down to Tornado Alley in the United States to capture some wild weather footage and tell stories around the events and people in that region. But what will a typical day has in store for them? Allow me to take you through what an average day of storm chasing entails when there are storms in the forecast:

7:00am (Sometimes earlier if needed, sometimes later if you’re lucky enough!)

Wake up
Get ready
Have a peak at some weather information (observations, Storm Prediction Center thunderstorm outlook, satellites, etc.)

Looking over the weather models before heading out for some breakfast.

Looking over the weather models before heading out for some breakfast.

8:00am (Sometimes earlier if needed, sometimes later if you’re lucky enough!)

Grab a quick but hefty breakfast (in the hotel/motel or at a diner)
Continue to look at weather information
Take a look at rapid refresh weather models
Decide a target location for the day.

May 12, 2010 - Grabbing breakfast at a local joint and pouring over weather models while downing copious amounts of coffee.

May 12, 2010 - Grabbing breakfast at a local joint and pouring over weather models while downing copious amounts of coffee.

9:00am (Sometimes earlier if needed, sometimes later if you’re lucky enough!)

Pack the vehicle and head out towards your target location.

Vehicle ready for packing. Yes, it all fit in the vehicle... Kind of.

Vehicle ready for packing. Yes, it all fit in the vehicle... Kind of.

11:00am

New weather model data becomes available
Reassess current weather and new forecast model data and refine target location
If target location is the same, continue route; if target location is different, adjust and head for new area.

Driving to the target, oh so much driving.

Driving to the target, oh so much driving.

12:00pm – 3:00pm

Grab some food (quickly, always quickly) and refuel vehicle (always important to keep the vehicle’s fuel tank full)
Keep refreshing current weather information (satellite, surface observations, radar, etc)
Start to take a look at what the next day’s storm potential looks like and pick a rough target location for the next day
Grab some extra food and drinks to keep in the vehicle (once you’re chasing, you won’t have time for dinner until later!)

Refining the target and picking a good route to get to where we need to be.

Refining the target and picking a good route to get to where we need to be.

Mmm, some good southern BBQ. One of the lucky days we weren't eating fast food or gas station food.

Mmm, some good southern BBQ. One of the lucky days we weren't eating fast food or gas station food.

3:00pm – 8:00pm

Magic begins! (Hopefully)
Storms begin to develop and the chase begins
Decide on place to stay for the night so you’re in good range of the next day’s target location
Find hotels in the area so you have the numbers on hand.

Tornado on the ground near Larned, Kansas on May 18, 2013.

Tornado on the ground near Larned, Kansas on May 18, 2013.

Watching the storm and taking in the beauty and danger storms have to offer.

Watching the storm and taking in the beauty and danger storms have to offer.

8:00pm – 9:00pm

Begin to lose daylight
Make sure to call the hotel to book rooms for the night (you’d be surprise when there are many chasers in the area how quickly hotel rooms book up!)
Continue to shoot video, chase and take pictures until light is lost (once it’s dark, lightning photography can be fun!)

Lightning bolt captured over a farm field as the sun set.

Lightning bolt captured over a farm field as the sun set.

9:00pm – 11:00pm

Either grab a bite to eat close to where you are or head to the town you’re spending the night in and grab a bite to eat.

11:00pm – Sleep Time

Check in to hotel and settle in for the night
Oh, don’t forget to keep checking weather data!
New weather model information starts to become available; begin to refine target location for the next day SLEEP!


GUSTNADO: What's the difference between a tornado, landspout and gustnado?


Of course this is a very typical day of storm chasing. These are rough times when things normally happen. If you’re lucky enough to have a couple or multiple chase days in roughly the same geographical location, then you have more time for sleeping and don’t need as much travel time. Storm initiation (when the storm start to form) varies from day to day. Sometimes storms start to fire off early in the afternoon, sometimes it’s late (at or after dinner time). Also, tornadoes are very rare. There are instances where you will go a whole chase trip without seeing a single tornado. Sometimes you only see one. There are the occasions where you see multiple tornadoes on the trip. But really, it only takes one to make it memorable.

So what happens when there aren’t any storms? Those days definitely happen. We sometimes refer to them as “Down Days” because you have some down time. These days are normally spent catching up on some sleep, getting some laundry done (seriously, sometimes your unmentionables count runs very low…), posting blogs, editing video and photographs or even doing a bit of sightseeing.

Taking a tourist-y photo in front of the Chase County, Nebraska sign.

Taking a tourist-y photo in front of the Chase County, Nebraska sign.

We have even gone to the movies on one of our down days. We even had the opportunity to tour the National Weather Center, home of the Storm Prediction Center and National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma. We also visited the Twister museum in Wakita, KS!

Peaking in the Twister Movie Museum in Wakita, Kansas.

Peaking in the Twister Movie Museum in Wakita, Kansas.

Sign outside the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Home of the Storm Prediction Center and the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Sign outside the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Home of the Storm Prediction Center and the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Visiting Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska.

Visiting Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska.

To reiterate: the reality of storm chasing is that there is a lot of driving and not a lot of sleep. You essentially live out of your vehicle except for the several hours spent sleeping in a hotel room. It’s nice to take advantage of free wifi and air conditioning at restaurants and even local libraries. There are a lot of kilometres put on the vehicle. One year in a three week period we managed to rack up 16, 000 km on the vehicle.


STORM CHASING ETIQUETTE: Staying alive in the high risk world of storm chasing


If you’re thinking of venturing out for storm chasing adventure for your first time, I strongly urge you to consider going with a tour group. Yup, there are storm chasing tour groups. That, or make sure you go with someone who has a lot of experience storm chasing. With modern technology it’s easy to think anyone with a cell phone and a radar app can storm chasing. But the reality is, it’s dangerous and you can't always rely on the radar. Sometimes there is no data and you need to chase visually and for someone chasing for the first time, it’s impossible to really know how to chase visually. If you go with someone with experience or a tour group, you’ve have a high chance of seeing storms (maybe even a tornado or two) and having a good time.

Staying alive in the high risk world of storm chasing
Tornadoes in Canada: Everything you need to know
Tuesday's severe storms in Ontario could have produced a gustnado
Storm chaser says his tornado experience Sunday will be his last

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