There are few things in life as rewarding as intercepting a beautiful tornado in an open field. Even an average thunderstorm can be an amazing experience in the right situation.
There is a point of diminishing returns when safety risk out-weights the reward. Here are a few tips to help you minimize your safety risk while chasing storms.
10. Do your research
Storm chasing is dangerous. People who research what they are getting into ahead of time are less likely to make foolish mistakes or act on a whim. All storm chasers must start somewhere, so if you are thinking about doing it for the first time make sure you accept the risks. No storm is worth risking your life for. For some chasing storms is living so figure out where you stand first before even step foot in the vehicle. Youtube is a great place to start.
9. Don't Panic
Panic is an instinctual response to an overwhelming situation. Every storm chaser will have a moment of panic and fear. There will be surprises. Don't shut down. Do your best to communicate effectively and STAY CALM. THINK.
8. Respect the lightning
Almost every hazard of a storm chase is controllable. The tornado's path can be predicted and hail cores can be avoided. Cloud to ground lightning is completely random and unpredictable. Cloud to cloud lightning is generally harmless but few storms are exclusively one or the other so be careful with your assumptions. There are a few warning signs that cloud to ground lightning might occur. The general rule of thumb is that anytime you are in the main precipitation core of a thunderstorm, you are at risk. If you experience one of the following signs you should get in your vehicle as soon as possible:
- an uncomfortable or uneasy feeling throughout your entire body (very serious situation)
- static building at the top of your head, arm hair (very serious situation)
- Cracking or sizzling powerlines (general risk, may not be imminent)
- Increasing lightning barrage while located in the inflow notch or forward flank of an approaching supercell
- History of cloud to ground lightning in this region of the storm.
7. Minimize driving after dark
Plenty of time is spent driving after dark following a storm chase and this risk will never be avoidable. This is not just because of the storm. You should always put extra emphasis on watching the road after sunset. Here are some things to watch for:
- Wildlife. Deer especially are very active at and shortly after sunset. If your target storm takes you through a wildlife reserve after 9PM, you might want to jump to a different storm or stop chasing all together. Furthermore if your post-chase route home is through a wild life reserve, consider an alternate route that might take a little longer but provides you with peace of mind.
- Line markings on wet roads are harder to see at night. Try to avoid the core. Travel on a path that was not impacted by storms.
- Storm damage becomes harder to see. A tree may have fallen from a previous storm.
- Field flooding in valleys, especially dangerous in unfamiliar country terrains. I've driven through flooded roads at 60 MPH with not enough time to stop or change course simply because I couldn't see it. My eyes are pretty good. Thankfully we didn't lose control. Flooding is a serious danger to storm chasers so avoid flash flooding zones.
- The storm itself is much harder to see. Usually frequent lightning will illuminate the cloud features enough but don't count on it. Give the storm extra room and yourself and extra escape route. After sunset is just not the time to roll the dice.
- Other drivers, because they can't see you either.
- because mountain lions and bigfoot
6. Pull way over
You don't deserve and likely won't get extra room from passing cars. You need to look for farm field entries with enough space that your ENTIRE vehicle can be off the road. This will give your fellow chasers enough room to get out of the vehicle without worrying about getting run over. Flashers are not recommended in this situation because they are more of a distraction. In some situations where no other alternative exists, pull over as far over as you can without getting stuck. Put your flashers on especially if you or part of the vehicle overhangs the road pavement surface. Be mindful of private property and don't park in someones driveway if you can help it.
5. Always have an escape route
Having an escape route is a must. Having multiple is good policy. This gets you thinking about what happens next and the thought process will help you avoid dead ends. Escape routes don't have to be chase ending either. You can escape to the east to give yourself more time or better road options. If you find yourself pinched between a tornado and the forward flank downdraft, heading into the core is the preferred escape.
4. Never cross path with a tornado
You should always be aware of where the main tornado producing region of the storm is and where it's going. If you are going to cross path's with it before the tornado occurs, be careful. Once the tornado has formed, don't try to race it. Tornadoes don't always travel in a straight line, some start heading southerly then curve north towards the end.
3. Drive defensively / Eyes on the road
The need to drive aggressively when given a rare opportunity is understandable. Some of my biggest scares have come from other drivers drifting into my lane in challenging driving conditions often found in thunderstorms, another uncontrollable element of chasing storms. Everyone makes mistakes and when you do you have to give yourself a chance to correct it. The margin for error only shrinks the faster & dumber you drive and it can have deadly consequences. Driving through a stop sign, drifting into other lanes; these things SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN! Sometimes you are better off stopping the vehicle before you think you should
2. Slow down on wet roads
The threat of hydroplaning always makes me think twice about hanging out in the core. Hydroplaning is a serious safety threat for chasers driving around, through, or behind the storm. Standing water on the roads effects everyone equally, regardless of your experience. The threat increases as speed increases, so if you do encounter standing water slow down especially on corners! Rain water often accumulations on old roads where vehicle tires have depressed the road surface over time. If hydroplaning occurs keep the steering wheel straight and stay calm. Eventually your tires will catch the raised sections of the road surface.
1. Never chase alone
It can be the toughest thing to do especially when experienced storm chasers are limited and everyone lives on different wavelengths. Having another set of eyes will make the storm chasing experience more enjoyable and much safer. The distractions to the driver decrease as the number of people in the car increase. Responsibilities such as navigating can be split among the crew so all the driver has to worry about is driving. Developing trust is very important so find people you are willing to spend time with outside of storm chasing.
Of all the storms I've seen in my life, none of them were worth risking my life for. Remember, if you can't chase safely don't chase at all! It's simply not worth it.
While this article is filled with many "Dont's", it's important to understand that there is nothing wrong with storm chasing as long as you do it a safe manner.
So get out there and have fun! Take lots of pics!