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Why chase storms?

Chasing storms was first done by scientists to study the thunderstorm environment. As of yet, little about the dynamics and physics of thunderstorms, as well as lightning, is well understood. Hence, from a scientific point of view (which in my opinion is most important), storm-chasing is a necessary business.

There is another group of stormchasers who chase storms for a hobby because they like storms and find them beautiful. A well-developed, severe thunderstorm is not an everyday sight and the power being displayed by lightning, downbursts and tornadoes can be truly awe-inspiring. Such people are commonly called weather watchers or storm spotters, and make up the gross of the stormchasers around.

Finally, there is a group of stormchasers who track down storms for the media, or otherwise commercial interests. This group of chasers usually takes the most risks to get as close to the storm as possible in order to get the best and most dramatic footage.

Chase equipment

If you plan to chase storms seriously there are a few things which can be handy, or are even necessary, to be successful.

  • A car or van. Obviously you will need this to chase storms because storms are usually moving. Bear in mind that you will be doing LOTS and LOTS of driving so if you want to do a lot of chasing you might like to consider buying a car with a diesel engine. Options such as cruise-control and air conditioning will also be nice to have, but to start with any old car will do. Gradually improving your equipment and knowledge from there is then the way to go.

  • A still camera and videocamera, with a set of lenses for the still camera. If you want to photograph lightning you will need a camera with manual shutter control, usually indicated by 'B'. Manual SLR cameras are best to photograph storms and lightning. If you use 35mm film format use a set of lenses ranging between 28mm and 150mm.

    The video camera is useful if you want to record the progress of a gust front, daytime lightning, moving tornado, or just simply a timelapse... the possibilities are almost endless. A videocamera really adds a lot of fun and satisfaction to the photography you do. Use a high quality videocamera, like a Hi8 or digital one.

    For the camera and videocamera, especially if you do lightning photography, a tripod or two are really mandatory. For the still camera, a cable release is also very convenient.

  • Film: use a slow, fine film like 100 ASA. Slides or print film: It's up to you to decide. Print film has a wider exposure range, quite forgiving if you have a slightly wrong aperture setting by photographing lightning; whereas with slide film you obtain higher contrast photos and the labs process slides better than prints (less chance to mess the job up). It is up to you to decide whether you like this or not.

  • A laptop computer with (optionally) a cell phone and mobile internet.This is useful to check current weather radar and sflocs (lightning strike data) on the internet while on the road. The cell phone is used either for wireless dialup to the internet or for calling a ground station to update you on the current weather.

  • A GPS receiver with route mapping software (for the laptop)to keep track of where you are. It is also very convenient to be able to know where you can or cannot go. Some route-mapping software even comes with the ability to warn you about traffic jams, road blocks etc.

  • Some paper maps in case the GPS receiver or notebook stops working. Paper maps nearly always work!

  • Miscellaneous items, like food, water, torch, and maybe some stuff to get you through the night in case the chase turns out longer than expected.

Preparations

You can chase storms in a variety of ways. You can just go out and watch a storm passing by; this is not really stormchasing, and the chance of seeing something interesting is lower, but stormchasing as a hobby usually starts this way.

However, waiting for a suitable storm chasing environment is probably the most time consuming part of the preparations you will need to make for a chase. Depending on where you are this can take quite a while! The best storms to chase, by the way, are slow moving, isolated thunderstorms, the so-called air-mass thunderstorms. If you happen to catch one of these during sunset, the sight can be truly awe-inspiring.

When the weather is looking good, make preparations by discussing where to go, and, if there is some sort of home station, who will be available to give weather updates over the cell phone. When using wireless internet, a home station is not really necessary, but then make sure everything is working and all batteries are charged. If necessary the batteries can, of course be charged in the car with the sigarette lighter, but it is nice to have everything ready at first!

Furthermore, make sure to have lots of film and video tapes ready. Nothing is more frustrating than getting a good storm and running out of photography supplies!

On the road

The best place to go depends on the situation and the type of storms being chased. When chasing supercell storms, position yourself to the (in most cases) SE of the storm (at least when in the USA), to have a clear view of the updraft core, flanking line, and anypossible wall clouds or a tornado, while at the same time being not directly in the path of the storm.

For other types of storms, it doesn't matter too much where to setup, but take care not to be in the path of it, as rain or hail will make any photography impossible, and it mightbe dangerous/destructive to you or your property.

While on the road never attempt any photography or video whilst you are physically driving since you may put your own and your passenger's personal well-being in jeopardy. Video and photography on the road should only be done by passengers and not the driver.

During a chase change drivers regularly because having to pay attention to the road and traffic as well as a spectacular storm is really hard, and unfair to the driver!!

Notes about safety

There are basically two hazards a stormchaser should be aware of:

  • traffic accidents
  • weather hazards, like lightning, hail, gusty winds and tornadoes

As far as the first danger is concerned try not to chase on your own so you can rotate driving duties. Try not to speed but if you really feel the urge than at least only do it when the roads are clear so you will only endanger yourself and not other road users. Take care to follow traffic rules when stormchasing; you don't want to have an accident or be pulled over and receive a ticket wasting money and valuable chase time. When you think it is necessary to speed, that just means you made poor decisions and nowcasts w.r.t. the storm.

Another danger on the road is hydroplaning. Because of the nature of storm chasing the risk of hydroplaning is higher than normal. Make sure you are aware of this hazard and know how to act to avoid this. Make sure you have a good set of tires to minimize the risk.

Then, take care when driving on dirt roads. These can change into mud streams very quickly and you don't want to get stuck out there in the middle of nowhere under a severe storm.

Weather hazards can be avoided by chasing in a responsible way. This means, for example, that you should not feel the urge to come as close to a tornado as possible - viewing a tornado from 1km is close enough, if not already too close. Do not try to drive through a storms downdraft; if it is severe you never know what you might encounter when reaching the other side of the downdraft - you might run into golf-ball sized hail (or bigger!); or, with a supercell storm you might even drive straight into a tornado!

There is also a chance that you, or your car, may be struck by lightning, especially on open roads. So to be safe when a storm is close sit in the car with the windows closed. Some other situations to be avoided when a storm is close are:

  • being near or under single trees
  • being near or in water
  • being on top of a tall building, hill, etc
  • being in the open field
  • being near to long metal wires or fences
  • being in a building and close to a window
  • taking a bath, washing hands
  • making phone calls

Be aware that you will usually not get any warning before lightning strikes. Sometimes people have noticed their hair standing on end before lightning strikes but you will be extremely lucky to get a warning like that so don't count on it.

A course in CPR is recommended, so you will know how to act when someone is struck by lightning. The most common cause of death by a strike is cardiac arrest, and many lives can actually be saved by acting quickly and accordingly. A book you might want to read to understand lightning better, if you're new to it, is Martin A. Uman's All about lightning (1986).