Time Flies When Storm Chasing Is Fun…And A Lesson In Hard Knocks

As the old saying goes, “the older you get, the faster the time passes. “That’s certainly true in my case where the past quarter century has passed in a blizzard of frenzied contemporary life.  It’s also hard to fathom that, as of today, it’s been thirty one years ago this evening that I started storm chasing.

Unlike the storm chasers of today, the “early years” of chasing were done with a lot of basic information. I had only a local forecast, broadcasts from NOAA weather radio, and PBS’s A.M. Weather for data. My target areas were relatively close, usually no more than 100 miles away from my home, and my forecast analysis was done with colored pencils and the basic data on a home-made surface map. Incidentally, to this day I still do hand analysis to determine a target area for chasing.

The evening of 15 March, 1982 started out with a tornado watch, and the usual forecast for severe weather. Rather than listen to the scanner traffic at home, I decided to take a short trip to observe a severe thunderstorm that was moving into Washington, Co. OK. From a distance of around 25 miles,  I was fascinated to observe the storm from a totally new perspective. From the side of a narrow country road,  I set up my Canon AE-1 and snapped the photo below at approximately 7:00 pm CDT. In short order, I’d heard that a tornado warning had been issued for the storm and the most dangerous part of the mesocyclone would pass over Bartlesville, OK. Little did I realize that on my first storm chase I would witness a suprecell thunderstorm with a tornado in progress. For clarity, the view of this photo is to the north. The location of the mesocyclone and tornado would have been near the center of the photograph.

Tornadic Supercell Over Washington Co.OK at approximately 7:00 CDT on 15 March 1982

Tornadic Supercell Over Washington Co.OK at approximately 7:00 CDT on 15 March 1982

Since then, thirty-one seasons of storm chasing have passed. I’ve seen incredible displays of atmospheric phenomenon whose beauty defies description. I’ve also watch storms devastate many areas and walked through many towns where dreams and lives were ended.

It’s true that storm chasing isn’t what it used to be. A lone tornadic supercell making it’s way across the southern plains is a beacon for the sincerely motivated…and also catnip for anyone with a camcorder and a hunger for YouTube fame. Spectacle-seekers, adrenaline junkies, and fakirs (no, not the religious/cultural kind) run amok have changed the scope and public image of what once was the intellectual pursuit of citizen scientists and a handful of research meteorologists.  Taking storm chasing seriously is a very demanding challenge and should only be considered by those who are willing to take on the rigors of learning a great deal of atmospheric physics.  The most important part of storm chasing takes place in your mind…with a deep understanding of the intricate structure of the earth’s atmosphere.  Not what everyone wants to hear, is it?

I’ll be out there again this year. I’ve learned to be very selective in my decisions of chase days. Often, a moderate or even high risk doesn’t guarantee you’ll capture anything other than the QLCS from hell bearing down on your location as you sit helplessly at the end of a dirt road to nowhere. For those willing to take on the rigors of learning about our atmosphere, I wish you well, please yield to first responders and research meteorology field teams, and remember that your first duty is to public safety.  Ultimately, that’s what matters most in the end.