When I tell people that I'm a storm chaser, the first two questions they always ask are; Is your favorite movie twister? Have you ever been to Oklahoma?
- Justin Poublon chasing in Winnebago County last season.
For the record, my answer is no and no respectfully but I will say that Twister was a big inspiration as a kid. I always imagine myself as Bill (Bill Paxton) in the human barometer scene where he reaches down to grab the Oklahoma dirt, then lets it go letting the wind carry it away. "Going Green" he says. I don't think about it often, certainly not everyday; and usually never in the morning but every so often it really geeks me out. It's magical but sadly nothing is ever quite as ideal as depicted in the movies.
People like me seek the situations where weather is unique, meaningful, life changing, or potentially historic. Not every chaser seeks an adrenaline rush or the best photos. Some of us simply want to be apart of something important that we can experience, learn from, and pass our knowledge on to the community. It doesn't have to be a tornado. It can be massive snowstorm, ten year flood, or nearby lightning strike. Ordinary just doesn't cut it. You might say we prefer the exact opposite of "ideal".
- Justin Gloede getting a view of nearby cumulus clouds in 2013
But when I tell people that I really only chase Wisconsin, their mind goes blank. You can see the confusion in their eyes. "You love storms, why not go where all the storms are???!" I know I'm not the only Wisconsin storm chaser who has received such a reaction multiple times before. Most of the talented chasers for Wisconsin Weather will confirm it; Wisconsin is a weird animal.
Positioned at the northeastern end of tornado alley, Wisconsin averages 24 tornadoes each year according to the National Climatic Data Center. The state ranks 21st nationally in this category. What the data doesn't show is variability. Some years if a couple severe weather outbreaks occur, Wisconsin can greatly exceed the tornado average. Other years where tornado outbreaks are absent, tornado numbers are drastically lower. If regularity is what you seek, Wisconsin tornadoes are not for you.
- Hunter Anderson pointing at a real tornado
Storm chasing in Wisconsin takes experience and very few end the day with success. Storm systems move too fast in spring , too slow in summer, and are not moist enough in fall. It's the only state in tornado alley locked in by water to the north & east. There are lakes/rivers literally everywhere. The physical landscape and terrain roughness changes from one county to the next. It's not uncommon to chase a perfectly flat plateau then spend the next two hours fighting a heavily forested river valley. Did I mention one third of the state is covered in a thick forest?
Road networks are chaotic and I never assume there will be a perfect road grid to chase on. Air masses created by differing soil, elevation, vegetation, and/water interact with each other on a daily basis. The way the land interacts with the atmosphere is without question the most challenging thing to anticipate and the most disrespected aspect of Wisconsin weather. Good luck finding research papers that study the interaction of the Niagra escarpment, lake Winnebago and lake Michigan lake breeze's! Have you heard of the Wisconsin Boundary Storm Index(WBSI)? ME NEITHER!
- Chris Valley monitoring the radar trends on a tornadic storm in southern Wisconsin last June
Through experience we've learned more than a few things about Wisconsin: storms will not last long. It's typical for a thunderstorm to form on a boundary between micro-climates and stop moving, produce a brief tornado, look like a million bucks, and then disappear in less than an hours time. This difficulty is compounded by the fact most of the time we will have only one chance to get it right. Sometimes your success depends on how well you can get from one viewing location to another. Storms evolve very fast and usually only cycle once before destroying themselves. If you are looking for a quick reward, go to the plains.
So why do we chase Wisconsin?
As I begin my seventh year of storm chasing in Wisconsin, I feel like I've just started to understand what drives me to stay here. Most chasers will explain that their decision to chase dangerous and often deadly storms doesn't just come down to the weather. There are many things weather and storm chasing comes second priority to, such as our personal lives and commitments. For most it's just a matter of chance & opportunity anyway.
For us there is something special about going where nobody has gone before. We chase Wisconsin because it takes our passion to the extreme. We draw on every resource possible to get us to the right place at the right time because we know that is what it takes. It's possible for a plains storm chaser to witness five tornadoes from the same storm or one tornado from five storms, but we don't have that luxury. We take pride in understanding that we have to fight, scrape, and claw for everything and believe we can take those skills anywhere. If we were in it just for the tornado, we would be long gone by now.
- Chris Valley waiting for the storm in Wisconsin
- Hunter Anderson and Justin Poublon watching a thunderstorm in Wisconsin last summer.
- Justin Poublon watching the night sky before the Jun16 & 17 2014 southern Wisconsin tornado outbreak.
Storm chasing gives us an opportunity to test theories and predictions. The reality you see behind the television screen is very different from the one we see in person. We get a first hand look at the reality of not just tornadoes but all forms of severe weather. What severe storms actually do and how they really look. How they form, how they die. Many times we know how it will evolve, where it's going, and what it will do simply because we've seen it happen in the flesh so many times.
When we do strike gold few things in life are more rewarding or satisfying. A successful chase is one that confirms all your thoughts, feelings, and hypotheses on that day. You were at the right place at the right time but that almost never comes without consequence. Severe weather destroys property, history, families, and lives. We have a moral responsibility to pass our knowledge gained along to others so they can be prepared in the future.
As a storm chaser, how you give back to the community doesn't depend on exactly how many severe weather reports you submit. Some chasers donate to storm victims, others volunteer their time to storm clean up. Some warn of an impending storm and some raise awareness via public events. Some study the storm and give their research back to the community. The photography chasers collect teach lessons in both art, science, and geography!
- Scatter plot of Population(x) vs Tornadoes(y) for the years 1901-2015.
At Wisconsin Weather, our chasers have over 30 years combined storm chasing experience. Hunter Anderson, Chris Valley, Justin Gloede, and Joe Slotter live and chase Wisconsin storms and we don't pretend. We literally chase every storm event from stateline to stateline and we do it pretty nonchalantly. No seriously, we've got a YouTube page with over 130 videos of real Wisconsin storms! (SEE LINK) https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClIZx2ESMJVocfMIbji_ujg
We get overlooked because we are not looking for attention, we just want your respect and to know that you will come to us for weather information again. We choose to be different and unique. We don't follow conventional methods, the "norm", or the rules because our normal is probably very different from yours. We've been there, we've seen it, tasted it, felt it, and fought through it! You can't get that from watching behind a computer screen, reposting every single weather story, or reading a lot of research papers(believe me, I've tried!)!
- Storm research
Most importantly we share our knowledge and expertise through weather forecasting, severe weather awareness, reports, and research. We give back to the community by changing the way you see the storm with the hope that next time you will be more prepared.
So the next time severe weather is in the forecast, be sure to visit our website or facebook page!!
I think it's time to watch Twister!
*We do not claim to be the only "real" Wisconsin storm chasers. There are many who chase the state regularly and have done so for much longer than we have. These individuals we either do not know personally or choose to leave out.*