A landspoint tornado in Western Kansas, photo by Jim Reed.
You’ve watched the extreme weather reality shows on The Weather Channel and Discovery Channel, or maybe you’ve seen a tornado up close and personal, and became mezmerized by severe weather like meteorologist and storm chaser Jon Davies, who was nine years old when he witnessed a tornado traveling north of Pratt, close to his dad’s business. “I saw that from a couple miles away and watched its whole life cycle for about 10 or 15 minutes from our back yard, and after that I was really hooked.”
There’s no Storm Chaser Academy — yet — but with an investment in self-education, equipment and safety precautions you can pursue your passion for dramatic weather. Here are four steps to get you started.
1. Become a storm spotter, the National Weather Service’s eyes on the ground
Unlike storm chasers, who may drive 500 miles in search of their quarry, a storm spotter stays close to home — typically in their own county — and provides “ground truth” to the National Weather Service (NWS). This is how storm chaser Ted Thomason got his start. “Spotter network members can report to the National Weather Service and they can also put reports in online, so it shows up on a real-time map,” he explains.
The NWS network of volunteer spotters is called SkyWarn, and they give training talks for new spotters in the early spring — there are still two weeks of talks left in Sedgwick County so check out the schedule here. A single 1½-2 hour class will provide you with the information you need to become a spotter.
Do everything you can to educate yourself about severe weather and thunderstorms; one place to start is the online weather tutorials at the Skywarn Spotter Guides.
2. Log some experience through tours and ride-alongs
The next thing is to get out and try it, preferably with a veteran who knows what they’re doing. John Davies recommends signing up with a storm tour like those led by Denver-based Roger Hill, whom Jon calls “an excellent storm chaser.”
Shawna Davies, Jon’s wife and a chaser with 15 years of experience, says, “The best way to learn is to align yourself with more experienced chasers.” Which is exactly what she did after her initial spotter training. Jon agrees “Some chasers will let you go along if you pay your part of the expenses.”
For the aspiring weather photographer, Jim Reed suggests starting close to home. “Start by just watching from your front yard…try and photograph something that isn’t dangerous. Photograph the clouds; photograph a rainbow; photograph the halo around the moon and you can learn so much doing that.” For his next project Reed is considering developing an ebook on how to capture the weather in pixels.
North of Mt. Holly in summer of 2011, photo by Ted Thomason.
3. Invest in the right equipment
For aspiring storm chasers it helps to be a techhead: All of the chasers interviewed for this article travel with some combination of radar, laptops and smartphones. Storm chaser Ted Thomason, who will be streaming footage for the Supercell Hunt 2012 project produced by the Tornado Titans this season, uses professional weather software called GR2Analyst, the same software in use on The Weather Channel during live tornado updates. He also uses RadarScope, a popular smartphone app, which renders real, high-quality images — but the stellar 3D graphics are also five or six minutes old, which can be an eternity when a storm is moving at 50 mph.
Jim Reed recommends carrying an NOAA weather radio or an app that will push a warning to you. Thomason agrees, and thinks that everyone should own a weather radio, not just chasers. “Most towns have tornado sirens, however most people don't realize that they aren't specifically designed to wake you up in the middle of the night,” he says. “Weather radios can be that safety feature because they are designed to wake you up if a warning is issued for your area.”
Jon Davies travels with an internet-connected laptop so he can follow radar. He also has a satellite antennae and a software package to capture radar in rural areas where internet is spotty. He says good preparation is essential: “Unfortunately there are a lot of amateurs out there who think this is easy and can get into some real trouble…I have to emphasize that people have to have some knowledge about what they’re doing as well as good information and how to interpret it."
And don’t forget all the basics like still and video cameras, extra batteries, power adapters, GPS, atlases and a first aid kit.
4. Safety: Keep one eye on the camera, one on the road, and one on the storm.
While you’re fiddling with all your gear, Davies has another piece of advice: “In storm chasing, traffic and road issues are just as dangerous — if not more so —than the actual storm.” He’s not aware of an experienced storm chaser ever being killed by a tornado, but he tells the tragic story of Andy Gabrielson a chaser who was killed earlier this year by a drunk driver on an Oklahoma highway while returning from a chase. The sheer number of hours chasers log on the highway becomes a hazard, not to mention adverse driving conditions like lightening, hail, high winds and hydroplaning.
Jon cautions against trying to become too intimate with a tornado and says, “It used to be, like, 10 years ago you could watch a tornado from a couple miles away, take video of it and watch its life cycle and that was fine and acceptable…things have evolved here in the last 5-10 years with more equipment and more people out there chasing, and people get up closer and closer…sometimes it gives the public the idea that this stuff is easy to deal with and maybe not as dangerous as it is.”
Shawna Davies is so passionate about storm safety that she made a 30-minute movie to address all the questions and confusion she sees in the general public. Surviving the Storm: What Chasers Want You to Know answers everything from basic questions like the difference between a watch and a warning, all the way up to what to do if you’re on the road and find yourself in a face-to-face encounter with a tornado. “I even do a reenactment at the end where a family actually takes a direct hit and they apply everything that I’ve taught in this program.”
As an added step in her training Shawna became a member of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), a program under the Homeland Security umbrella. Many counties offer this 8-week disaster response program that teaches citizens how to assist storm victims and first responders when they’re first on the scene of a disaster, like properly flagging areas where professional responders are needed most.
Shawna goes out speaking across the country to teach chasers because, “you have to be prepared to see this. If you want to be a storm chaser you have to be mentally and physically prepared of what you will run into.”