Storm chasing is a growing hobby especially here in Australia. Its a long learning curve of which Im only just at the bottom myself. I get asked many questions on chasing. So I though Id share what I've learnt in my time chasing so far. Below are some tips for chasing in general and chasing storms here in WA.
Firstly let me say that chasing tornadoes in Australia is way harder than you think. On a scale of 1-10 rate how hard you think it is, then take away 6 and thats more like it, trust me. Australia gets way more tornadoes then we know of, no doubt about it. However its not the USA and we dont get as many storms. So we cant expect to see as many tornadoes. To give you an idea of how hard it is the following is a quote from Chuck Doswell concerning the effort he puts in to see tornadoes in the best environment there is in the world for them.
"Storm chasing, for those who have not done it, is mostly frustration and failure. Although the ratio varies from person to person and year to year, a fair expectation is one tornado day (i.e., a day when you actually see one or more tornadoes) for every 5-20 chase days. In the course of a tornado day, the number of tornado minutes (a minute spent actually viewing a tornado) probably averages about 20. If you chase for 3 weeks, you might be reasonably lucky and have 3 tornado days, or about 1 hour's worth of "tornado time" in that 3-week chase (504 hours). That's a pretty good year, and you spent 0.2% of that time actually seeing tornadoes in action. In a wildly successful year, you might get up to 1% of your time viewing tornadoes ... but in some years, the tornado time is zero! Out of a three-week chase vacation, not every day actually includes a storm chase ... the atmosphere just isn't doing it anywhere close to where you are. If all that interests you is tornado time and you can't deal with that amount of failure then don't bother chasing in the first place" Chuck Doswell.
So on a good year they can expect one tornado per every 168-hrs chasing. Convert that to Australia and remember that Chuck is better at it then most of us will ever be. Plus the fact that the US would get easy 3-4 times more tornadoes we do (In May 98 they got 450 in one month) So in Australia we are looking at approx. 600-700 chasing hours to see a tornado. Also their road network is better than ours and so are their forecasting tools. Firstly youve got to pick the day, then be able to get out there, then be out there in the right spot. Its also possible to be close to a tornado and not even be able to see it. Now you'll start to get the picture about just how hard it is to see one. Now I know its easy to say all these facts and figures and there will be chasers out there who see one in their first year, others may take many years. Mother nature doesn't take too kindly to numbers either. Its merely to put it all into context that whilst we do get tornadoes this isnt America and never will be. I dont mean to discourage at all because you certainly wont see one sitting at home. Just remember its hard work but thats what makes it so rewarding when it finally does pay off. If you do your homework, get out there and stick with it, one day you will see one believe me.
Chasing Safety Tips
The best thing you can do in order to chase storms safely is to learn, learn and learn about storms. The more you know about them and the way they behave the better off youll be. Learn to recognize features of the storm so that you know what your position is in relation to which way the storm is moving. Storm chasing is a relative safe hobby for those who know what they are doing. The object is to observe without being put at threat of danger. However for those who don't know what they are doing it can be down right dangerous. At our recent severe weather seminar here in WA at the BOM Barry Hanstrum was talking about chasing in the states with Chuck Doswell and how at one point they had a HP coming in from their right with softball sized hail. They had to do 80mph down a dirt road to get ahead of the storm. Softball sized hail and being in a car moving at 80mph = bad news. Barry said, "I was genuinely scared for my life, which was interesting actually, let me say this if you want to go to the states to chase there is some psychology that youd better have worked out". Well I think the same is true here in Australia. I dont think anyone who has chased or intends to chase would intentionally underestimate the power of s supercell but until youve experienced it first hand you cannot begin to understand the power involved. Try to describe to someone the taste of chocolate, or what its like to be on a roller coaster and youll know what I mean. The atmosphere in which they form is dynamic, remember this is the weathers most powerful force. They can become supercells so fast that you may not have time to respond intelligently. People unfamiliar with severe storms simply may not be able to comprehend their danger until it is too late ... smart chasers never take stupid risks near severe storms.
1. Driving: Of the many threats you experience whilst chasing, the least likely to get you is the storm you are chasing. You are more likely to be killed in a car accident whilst chasing then any other single cause. As if the roads arent dangerous enough already chasers are usually driving on wet roads, looking at the storm and speeding. Oh yes it happens, believe me if youve just seen a tornado down about 20ks away its hard to resist the temptation of not speeding when your trying to get closer. So take care at all times whilst on the roads, I cant stress this enough. When visibility is low, drive to suit the conditions. Avoid dirt roads where you can. I know this is hard especially in WA but if there is a bitumen option thats only a bit longer use it. With most dirt roads they tend to get a thin layer of mud on top of a hard surface after a storm has been over them. The effect it has on your car is similar to that of driving on ice. Even in my 4X4 I've had some moments. It really is very very slippery. Drive with your headlights on at all times. Even if its daylight. Its always best to be seen. On the subject of hazard lights Im not actually a big fan of them because they seem to suggest that your in trouble and Ive had a few people pull over asking me just that. People stopping on wet busy highways isnt a good thing and Id hate to be responsible for an accident. Always pull right off the road, try to pick a parking bay and if thats not possible get as far of the road as you can. I have now brought an orange flashing light similar to those used by the SES and farmers. Its not an emergency light and there is no problem as only blue and red signify authority. However I must stress that these are only to be used in an absolute emergency only. I have never even turned mine on, ever. Do not use them even as a joke. I brought mine after being caught out by heavy hail whilst chasing in 1998. I made an error and didnt have time to find somewhere to stop. By the time I did stop I couldnt see the edge of the road and was forced to park side on in the left-hand lane for about 5mins. I figured that if I couldnt drive in it then no one else could either. On the other hand I have seen trucks still driving in conditions that I wont drive in. This would be the only time that I would recommend a light to show the position of your car. They are not toys and Im not 100% sure what the legal ramifications are. So if you do buy one use it responsibly.
2. Supplies: Chasing in WA youll probably end up spending more nights camping in your car then staying in motels. I stay in motels/hotels when I can but this is not always possible. So I have a smallish kit I carry with me on all chases. You dont have to have all this stuff but on long chases it helps. I keep it all in a bag I brought from target for about $15. This way its always ready to go and you dont have to pack in a hurry. In it is, spare rolls of film, a sleeping bag, change of clothes, just old trackie pants and jumper, youll need em if you ever have to change a tyre in the pouring rain, a compass, binoculars, a small first aid kit, orange emergency light, maps, I buy topographic maps of the target area, they show all smaller roads that road maps dont and cost only $7. A tube of condensed milk, small jar of coffee, small gas cooker to heat water, they cost about $10 from a camping shop and double as a light at night. Beef jerky, cause it doesnt go off and its a good source of protein. Most other food I just buy on the road. Always carry a Jerry can of fuel. Leaving home without one of these is like leaving without your camera. I carry two 10-litre cans, which gives me a good chance of getting to somewhere if I run out, which I have many times. In fact id say I use my Jerry cans at some point on more than 50% of chases into the Goldfields and wheatbelt area. Also plan for fuel stops. Once youre in the wheatbelt or goldfields area on average most fuel stops are about 150ks apart. Now if you have to back track to avoid or catch a new storm its quite easy to do 300ks (the further out you get the higher this number gets) or more without going past a fuel station. Two more good reasons for carrying extra fuel are, I was on a chase once and a storm had just passed over Merredin and cut the towns power. Thus the pumps werent working and I couldnt get fuel. The next fuel stop was 150ks away and it was pretty frustrating watching a supercell disappear over the horizon. Also most country fuel stations close at 9:00pm-10:00pmish and after dark fuel is hard to get. If I have left over fuel at the end of a chase I use it up in my car during the few days after as fuel does go stale after a while.
3. The subject of a chase partner: There are advantages and disadvantages of having a chase partner but careful consideration needs to be made. Personally unless I can chase with about 3 or 4 good friends I prefer to chase alone or with someone with little knowledge of storms. Surprisingly these people are good to chase with because they wont influence your own decisions. It helps to have them as a driver so that you can concentrate on the storms. Make sure your partner is chasing on that day for the same result as you are. I can live with myself if I make a bad call but Id be pretty pissed off if I missed a tornado because I listened to someone else. Its a personal choice really and people are always welcome to follow me in their own cars. When chasing in the same car with someone else one must consider many things. Sharing a car will reduce costs and makes observing whilst driving much safer. However what if that person has to be back in town that night but you want to stay out in the target area. This could also cause conflict. Also chasing involves a lot of time doing nothing and so youd better be very comfortable with the other person. Storm chasing is very very hard work and youve got to be prepared to drive thousands of ks and spent hundreds of hours doing nothing, make sure your partner has the same motivation factor as you do cause you dont want to be hearing Im bored etc.
4. Lightning: Aside from driving your next biggest danger from chasing is the threat of lightning. Lightning kills more people in Australia per year than any other single weather form. As chasers we are particular at danger due to the closeness that we get to storms and the fact that we often try to get to high open positions to see better, putting ourselves at risk. Lightning can travel large distances outside of a storm and just remember there is little or no warning of a strike. The first CG you see may be the one that hits you. So the best place to be is inside your car. While not 100% safe its the best place to be and you stand a way better chance then in the open. Some tips for safety are, avoid being the tallest object around, and avoid being too close to any tall objects like trees and power/phone poles and lines. Don't stand close to fences and power/phone lines that lead into areas where CG lightning is active. The wire can carry the strike to you. If you decide you're in danger and, for some reason and you can't move to a place of safety quickly, sit down on something non-conducting to reduce your chances of being struck or being affected by a nearby strike to ground. Wet ground can carry the strike to you, so you need to be isolated from the ground, if possible. Getting low is a good idea, but don't spread out prone; kneel, squat, or sit. For photographers, its personal choice but I would not advise the use of a tripod unless you can purchase a non-conductive one. They are just asking for trouble. For those of you who have seen WAs lightning photographer Mike Fewings work you may not realize that Mike doesnt ever use a tripod. He takes a lot of his pictures from inside his car and when outside he uses a soft bag as a shock absorber on top of the roof of his car to balance his camera on. His pictures prove that you dont need a tripod to get good photos and really to me its just an unnecessary risk thats not justified.
1. Avoid "core punching" storms at all cost. For those who dont know a "core punch" means going through the heavy precipitation/hail core of the storm in order to get into a better position. Having to do this is the result of being out of position. So in my opinion if you have to core punch you have already made an error. Below are some of the results of core punching.
2. You can drive into very large hail and suffer serious damage to your car.
3. You can drive out of the rain and hail right into the tornado, see picture below. Or the tornado can be rain wrapped on the edge or inside the core.
4. In the core, you can problems with visibility and slick roads. Figure below illustrating a classic Australian supercell viewed from the top. In this figure, a core punch would put the chaser right in the path of the tornado as they emerge from the rain and hail.
5. I never core punch, anymore. I have enough experience chasing now to know by the size and look of a storm roughly what power it contains. We have core punched to get hail footage but we never took the risk on a supercell only on CB's and stopped near protective sheds. Sometimes core punching is unavoidable due to road networks and if they core comes to you be ready. If I do have to drive into the core and I don't know for sure what's on the other side, I am always ready to stop and go back the way I came if I see hail larger than marble size. If you are driving in rain and you encounter hail that increases in size, stop and turn around straight away. You may be driving into a core without even knowing it. So never ever core punch supercells or severe winter storms as the tornado can be embedded in the rain and you wont even see it until it hits you.
6. Tornadoes are not the only threat from a severe storm. Avoid driving under or near rotating wall clouds. At the very least, large hail will occur soon after if you stay put. Also is the rear flank downdraft winds which average around 120-160kph in supercells, especially when combined with, say, baseball sized hail and/or debris could do you serious harm. These will be only a few minutes away if you are close to the wall cloud, even inflow winds can be very strong. Plus if it does drop a tornado you are in danger of getting hit by debris. HP supercells even when they are not tornadic are very serious storms and will do damage to property anyway.
7. This might sound stupid but at all costs avoid the tornado. How can you tell if you're in the path of a tornado? If the tornado is not moving to your right or left, but is simply getting larger and closer, then you're in the path.
8. When stopped to observe a storm, be alert. Look overhead and around you occasionally. Tornadoes and rotation can & does form in many places beside wall clouds and spin up off the rear flank downdraft. The area along flanking lines of convection attached to a main storm is a likely place for tornadoes. These will be seen as flat updraft bases ... if you don't recognize an updraft base when you see it, you shouldn't be that close.
9. If you're new to chasing, chase with someone experienced and be sensible for a while. You can learn a lot in a few chases if you find the right chase "mentor" to start with and this knowledge can keep you out of trouble.
10. Rotating or "curling up" curtains of rain within the mesocyclone often precede tornado development, so if you find yourself in or near such rain curtains (the bear's cage ... see the picture above). Unless you are pretty certain of what you are doing, your best bet is to stop and go back
11. Have the wisdom to know when you've put yourself at risk. Avoiding all risks is not consistent with chasing storms in the first place. But it only takes one to create a disaster and getting yourself killed or seriously hurt by being stupid is going to hurt chasing for all of us. What we can do without is the image that some chases in the states seem to love and that is the "yahoo" or "dickhead" as us Aussies would say. Lets not have Australia experience the problems they have in the states with this. We have the opportunity to make it different here as chasing in Australia is still in its infancy.
12. A key element in staying out of danger from a storm is having a clear idea of how it works, moves, and feeds itself. So learn all you can about them first. Supercells often change their direction of movement especially as they are forming the mesocyclone. If you don't understand storm structure try to chase with someone who does know.
13. This is a bit extreme but it can happen. If you get caught out by a tornado in your car and can't get away by driving, you should abandon your vehicle and move away from it. If your vehicle starts rolling over it could roll over you. Although vehicles are good protection against lightning, they are death traps in tornadoes. Get as low as you can, maybe lie in a small ditch or depression by the side of the road.
14. If you ever happen to chase in an area with a BOM office around, (eg: Kalgoolie, Albany, Mekatharra, Esperence to name a few) call in and tell them what a good job they do.
15. Keep your enthusiasm for storms in the proper place. Always remember that what we love does damage peoples homes and take lives. I once received this email from a person who survived the greatest out break of tornadoes in the history of man, April 3 1974 that brought 148 tornadoes in 13 states.
"We had no notice of any problem. This was way before the days of radar on television or even when an announcer would break into regularly programming to advise of weather-related problems. This was further complicated by the fact that when tornadoes hit this area, we cannot see them. We live in an area of trees and hills, which obscure long-range vision. Subsequently, we had absolutely no notice that we were even in any danger. The tornadoes hit us for two hours with full fury. My good friend was walking into his house when a tornado struck, instantly killing his wife and permanently disabling him. He was in a coma for weeks, during which time his wife was buried. A young mother and her son who lived 12 miles from me at the time saw a tornado coming and went to the southwest corner of a basement, only to have the entire house pushed down onto them, killing them instantly. Three were killed 5 miles away and two more 4 miles away. I do not mean to chastise you as chasers, but please try to put a human face on this horror. We live with tornadoes each spring, and we cannot think of them as glamorous or beautiful. If you can save anyone by your work, best of luck."
Up until this point in time John and I never really thought of it like that but ever since we have had a greater respect for people affected by tornadoes and storms. Investigating tornado tracks and damage areas here in country WA over the years we have always been compassionate to the people and have found that people are always more than happy to help out. I would be delighted to have tornadoes happen only in open country where not even crops would be damaged but the reality is that its not like that.
16. Try to get out and chase when you can but dont let chasing rule your life. You will miss great days. Its simply not possible to be able to chase 100% of the time. So learn to live with it now and be happy for those that did score the day. I figure you can chase till your 70s or so there will plenty of other days to compensate the ones you miss.
Many thanks to Chuck Doswell for the use of some of his quotes.