11 February 2011

Night time chasing: Preparation and Strategies

I posed an open forum discussion on Stormtrack for those beginners that were seeking advice on the basic aspects of weather. One of the questions posed to me were from Jeremy Perez and Jordan Hartley:

"As sunlight tapers away and afternoon/evening convection merges into an advancing MCS with possibly embedded supercells, what strategies are helpful to avoid being overrun by the worst of it? Certainly having up-to-date and reliable radar is a key to staying out of harm's way--but that can be unreliable at times. Thanks for all your helpful input!" 
"I agree with Jeremy Perez a Nighttime Escape Strategy would be helpful. 9/15/10 I ended up chasing longer than I should have. With no radar I ended up out in front of the main core at dark. My dumb*** decided bailing south as fast as I could on back country roads was a great idea instead of driving 20 miles out of my way just to get home. The core ended up taking me over and for a good 5 miles I drove through a wall of rain and golf balls. Some how I found a E/W paved road and bailed east which took me into Dexter, Ks where I parked my car underneath a gravel building made out of concrete. Got off really lucky... again. Actually getting tired of that cause one day its going to cost me. This single event has changed my view of storm chasing blind(no radar) and after sunset. Would be nice to hear some of the seasoned vets opinions on their nighttime escape strategies."

So I thought I would do a blog about night time chasing and strategies and words to the wise from some experienced chasers and through my own experiences.

To be blunt, I don't like chasing at night. I have done it, not often, but really don't feel the same when I am doing it. Would I chase again at night? Probably, but I won't be nearly as aggressive as I would during the day. There are five key points that I am going to outline here. These aren't the end all be all tips to night chasing but have really made me feel comfortable with attempting it. Obviously you don't want to chase in general with no knowledge, but you especially don't want to during the night. The five factors I want to hit on before I share a few stories from me and others are: (1) Knowing the area you are chasing in, (2) Knowing your storm you are chasing, (3) Knowing what to look for and having the proper equipment (4) Having a pre-planned escape route, and (5) Knowing how and what to report at night.

*Knowing your area:

It is always a good idea to know your area while chasing. You can be chasing anywhere from North Dakota to Texas and New England to the Rockies. Depending on what kind of chaser you are will depend on where you chase. Many like to stick 500 miles from home and stay in their area. This bodes well for you if you decide to chase at night because you don't have to worry about roads, terrain, and other things because you already know it. If I stuck to only chasing Northern Illinois I could probably find my way around blindfolded, I am THAT comfortable with the area. One thing to remember though is when you are out chasing this area you know, take into consideration the following..... Is there flooding in the area? Have there been previous storms to roll across the area? Was their damage reported? What about power lines? The last thing you want to do is become cocky with your area because every now and then you stumble across a silo or something that has been deposited on the road in front of you.

What if you are a chaser (like me) who chases your area but also goes all over the country to sample severe weather? There are certain areas like west central Oklahoma and southern Kansas that I know fairly well and have gotten accustomed too, but I would never feel 100% home with. Everyone knows about our field incident in May of last year. That was the first time I had ever been to the state of South Dakota. I loved the rolling hills and the relative lack of civilization. I also noticed the sparse road networks and the way some roads were. An example of this was on State Route 63. We had gone about 75 miles north on it from I 90. There were no access roads and barely any other roads available when we came across a road construction sign with traffic light. We thought to ourselves... out here??????? In the middle of buffalo?!?? We waited there for a good 25 minutes waiting for the light to change. We probably could have went right through it, but it was a one laned road around a river valley and 1/2 mile long bridge so it was probably better we didn't take the chance. If that wasn't bad enough we came across a road construction sign 5 minutes later. This time it was a one lane field with no traffic light. I mean field too. The pavement ended completely and the road turned into a dirt field with orange cones lining it for a good 3 miles. The absolute most awkward thing I have ever seen on a chase. If that wasn't a red flag, nothing ever will be. 6 hours later we found ourselves with another road that had been sodded over, only this time four tornadoes were looming perilously close. Whole nother story for a whole nother blog.  Point is to know your area and prepare for uncontrollable acts of Nature impeding your progress.  Situational awareness is a MUST!! Even though I know Northern Illinois like the back of my hand, that doesn't mean I am not constantly thinking about where to go if option A is declined.

Knowing your storm and what to look for: 

Okay, you are familiar with your area and have chased this beautiful supercell for 2 hours now. Light is fading and so are your chances of getting a photogenic tornado. This storm has dropped 2 tornadoes but both were brief spin ups and doesn't satisfy your thirst. SPC issues a new MD saying that the low level jet is ramping up and will increase threat for tornadoes as night wears on. By now you need a towel to wipe the drool away. However, common sense should be kicking in too. What do we know already? It is dark out. You are chasing a supercell. You may or may not know your area that you are chasing in. You know conditions are getting more favorable for tornadoes as the night wears on. How would you approach this? Personally I would pull off the side of the road and do some thinking.

* Is this storm isolated or are their other storms moving in? If the storm was isolated I think I could live with chasing it a little bit longer while keeping a close eye on my radar in case I notice other storms starting to pop. For me it is game over if I have multiple supercells ongoing in the area. To many mergers, new storm development, and flooding concerns. The last thing I want to face is another supercell coring me because I needed gas or because my road was flooded out. 

* Is this a supercell out ahead of a squall line? If you live back toward the west you are definitely in for some fun! At night I don't think I would chase a supercell away from home (in my area). My risk/reward would be slim to nil on being rewarded. I like to experience all types of nature. I don't mind core punching, I don't mind getting owned by hail, or being in extreme winds. One thing I won't do is play chicken with a night time tornado or tornadic supercell. If there is a squall line involved with this supercell odds are the storm will get absorbed sooner or later so it better put down a tornado in the next 20-30 minutes or else I just drove 50 miles I didn't need to.

* Which way is the storm moving? The supercell is moving due east and you are on US 54 in southern Kansas, the storm is about 5 miles north of the highway and paralleling it. All is going well, but the RFD wraps around the south side of the meso and you can't quite see in there anymore. What do you do? Be aggressive and floor it to get ESE of the meso? Or drop south and blast way east on another road 5 miles to the south? Day time I play cat and mouse and blast it ahead of the rfd and meso. Night time I don't. In the day you can still see the rain shield and where it is moving. If I am on 54 in the day and start to see that rfd coming at me from the north I know that the storm is possibly dropping south of east and I might be getting owned in a minute or two. At night that is going to be so much harder to tell. What happens if it does move south and you get caught on the south side of the hook and the area of rotation? Can you tell where you are without being able to see anything? Throwing GPS and radar aside.... as a chaser are you able to tell where you are in relation to the meso totally blacked out from seeing any physical features?  (read on)

* You tried to blast east on 54 ahead of the meso and found that you got yourself in a bad situation. You don't know which way to go and the nearest N-S road is still 10 miles ahead. You basically have three options. You can sit where you are, turn around and head back west, or continue to push east. If you sit still at your current position and don't have radar you could be in the path of the tornado. You are unsure how far ahead of the circulation you are, but you take your chance. So now you are sitting on 54 getting owned by strong winds. The most important thing I can tell you about any of these situations is to know which way the winds are blowing from!!!! Can not stress this enough. Winds out of the south and the east (especially east) near a circulation can spell trouble. This means on a cyclonic rotation that the storm is still inhaling inflow and that inflow could be YOU! If you get west winds out of an area of rotation or north winds it is probably safe to move back west out of its' way. Ideally you want to get south, but if that is not an option then moving west rather east would be best. Can this happen during the day? Yes, but you at night you are driving slower and more aware of the road, once you get cored at night your visibility is down to nothing. In the day time you can still make out some features along the road.  Wind can be your best friend or your worst memory. Take note of the direction it is blowing from and adjust accordingly.


As bad as this sounds, relying on your radar at night is almost a must. You are always taught not to rely on radar and to rely on the storm to give away its' features.... That isn't possible at night unless the storm is constantly spitting out lightning and illuminating everything. If you don't have GPS or mobile radar while chasing at night, my personal advise is DON'T DO IT!!!!! Plain and simple. Is risking your life or the safety of others in your car or damaging your car worth a night time tornado? Playing blind around a tornadic thunderstorm is tough enough, but add the cover of total darkness and you make a bad situation worse. While I tell you to rely on mobile radar, I say that gritting my teeth. The story with 2010 was radar data provided from whatever being slow to the receiving source. Many time the radar images would loop 30 minutes old or not update at all. Could pose major issues with you!  The situation also arises where you are letting a tornado warned squall line over take you. With radar you can definitely pick out features such as inflow notches, book end vortex, and the like. However, going visual with this is nearly impossible after dark. Most squall line tornadoes are completely wrapped in rain and impossible to see. Normally you would look for portions of the squall line that curve back in toward itself. These are common on LEWP's. A picture of a night time rain wrapped tornado can be found here.....Thank God for lightning!

Tornado near El Paso, IL Around 8:30 P.M. 6/1/99

When watching the radar at night I usually key in 4 different things:

* Base reflectivity gives you a good overview of the storm. Shows where the highest precip is being picked up and lets you see features such as boundaries and the development of other storms.

* Storm relative velocity gives you are good picture of rotation within a storm. Green and red next to each other with good G2G shear. *NOTE - NOT EVERY GREEN NEXT TO RED IS A #@&^&^@ SIGN OF ROTATION!!!!


Not Rotation
* VIL is the integration of reflectivity within a column of air. A higher VIL means there is more precipitation in a column of air. VIL does NOT tell a specific hail size. A higher VIL could be softball sized hail or a ton of dimes. Either way you probably don't want to be under either.

* Finally a tool that I really have some to utilize with success is the 1 hr and storm rainfalls. Not only will it give me an idea of where the heaviest rain has fallen, but if you loop it it gives away a little bit about where the storm itself is moving. If you can't tell simply by looking at the BREF, I always have two panels up and can get a better idea with the rainfall. So if you are toeing the line with a supercell at night and start to see the precip nearing the road, you know to back off a little bit.

Escape Route:  

Alright so you are fairly competent at knowing your area, the storm and how it is behaving, and have reliable data and a radar. You finally feel confident into getting closer to the storm. Before you decide to have dinner with the storm, make sure you have an out in case something shows up that you weren't expecting! If a tornado drops and starts heading at you, you should have at least two viable escape routes getting you out of the way. Either blast east or south. (Typically on an E or NE moving storm). If you take a jog north you aren't necessarily getting out of the path of the storm, all you are doing is exposing yourself to large hail and core. While east won't get you out of the path of the storm itself, it gives you more time to find another south option to escape.

Also make sure the type of road you are using is suitable for driving. Can you really go 60 mph down a muddy or clay road? Is that the road you are betting on when you have a tornadic circulation a few miles away coming at you? (We took that chance on 5/22 in the day time no less and got spared by the hairs of our asses). Gotta be aware of these things. Going back to knowing your area, what about flooding and lines down? At night you can see only as far as a millisecond of lightning will show you and as far as your high beams go. Please be aware of your roads, your terrain, and your situational awareness. Don't get close, playing safe and missing a tornado isn't horrible and doesn't make you a bad chaser.

Knowing what to report and how to report it:  

Alright you have weighed in a good vantage point and good escape routes. Time to look for what you have been seeking. You will quickly find out that at night EVERYTHING is a tornado. You get a couple glimpses of dark low hanging features in the distance and your brain wants you to yell tornado every time! Don't laugh, I have done it! Trees and telephone poles in the distance are excellent ways to make you feel like an idiot. Even the forward flank of gust fronts look menacing as hell at night. Scud + lightning + night time = tornado ..... at least to your brain it does. The key is to really watch that area and not take your eyes off of it. It will be hard to tell if the feature is rotating but subtle clues can really tell you for sure. For example, if you see a low hanging funnel shaped appendage hanging from a well defined wall cloud.... odds are something interesting may be going on. However if you see this feature anywhere else (core region, gust front) then it is most likely nothing. A tornado at night will be almost unmistakable. Seriously you will KNOW if you see a tornado at night. Seeing a tornado illuminated by lightning is so surreal and creepy. You may get chills up your spine. Something so sinister lurking out there under the cover of darkness. Another thing to think about is if you are thinking you are seeing a tornado and you are SE of the storm remember about the winds! SE of the cloud feature a few miles can tell you a lot. Winds blowing out of the west from your location probably means the storm is outflow dominant and has slim to no chance of producing a tornado. The key is is to note inflow. Inflow still means the storm is still breathing and inhaling warm moist air and still capable of tornado production.

What would you report on Spotter Network or to the National Weather Service? The only for sure report of a tornado that I would make would be if I am close to it and see it without a shadow of a doubt or if I am a ways away and see power flashes. If I wasn't 100% sure it was a tornado but can definitely see a wall cloud I would call it in as a wall cloud with inflow. If they ask for more say you may have a funnel cloud or a tornado but you aren't able to confirm. Like I said a well defined tornado at night is unmistakable. Power flashes under neath it are a dead give away.  You want to be extra cognizant when reporting at night. You want to get the warning out for something that's there, not something you think could be there.

Now I want to open the floor up to several other chasers out there that have experiences they have shared with me and their opinions about night chasing. You can read me ramble on for hours, so I hope having others chime in will add more substance to my posts.

Stories/Advice from other chasers:

Skip Talbot:  
May 10, '03 - My first chase was a night chase and during a large tornado outbreak. I core punched a tor warned left split near Peoria with only a wx radio for data, paper maps illuminated by the dome light, and no visual. I came away fro...m the chase shook up and and with no tornadoes. It was quite some time before I attempted another night chase.

March 12, '06 - Came up on the back of the hook of the 5 state supercell and saw a large lightning illuminated tornado west of Springfield. It was an exciting intercept and actually made the year for me. We lost our data just east of Springfield, IL and some really hairy moments with winds blasting us from different directions while we tried to figure out where the tornado is. If you chase at night, you must maintain situational awareness and have a good data source! If you don't, call the chase off.

March 28, 2007 - Encountered five tornadoes, three of them after dark including a mile wide wedge in northwest KS. Had situational awareness and data during the intercept. We followed the tornadoes from a safe distance and broke off the chase when other storms started to encroach on our position. A very rewarding and enjoyable night chase.

May 4, 2007 - Suckered north on the Greensburg, KS night, Chad Cowan and I still caught what we're fairly sure was a rope tornado. We had data and good situational awareness the entire time and never felt that we were in danger.

Chasing at night can be done effectively, enjoyably, and safely. You need to be 10x more careful and always maintain your situational awareness. That's key. When you lose your grasp on the situation, you need to break it off and escape.
Unless specifically shooting lightning or lightning illuminated storm structure, my advice for chasing at night - don't. That's actually more my opinion than anything, I just don't get anywhere near the same enjoyment seeing "something" during occasional flashes of lightning.

I won't drive more than an hour or so for one, but if it's close by, there's not much reason not to. 5/9/03, 5/12/04, 5/4/07, etc.
I would never night chase alone, period. Would have to be 3 people in the car atleast and thats still depending on the situation. Lightning becomes your friend as you know lol that inflow picking up was a definite clue while being close but wouldn't have much on an effect if your farther away. I would probably never chase at night with fast storm motions, no thanks.

Bob Hartig
Here's my writeup: http://stormhorn.com/2008/11/03/the-six-state-...supercell-part-2/

In my opinion, we took risks we shouldn't have with that storm. We'd been chasing together a long time but were still very green. We didn't have radar software, just Internet radar, and it was on that chase that we finally began to use velocity scans--and not SRV, just BV! But it was enough. I was watching the radar while Bill drove, and I could see the couplet skimming along just south of the highway and approaching it obliquely. But we couldn't make out any features. I finally had Bill pull off at an exit so we could get out and take a look. If we hadn't made that stop, we'd have driven right into the tornado as it crossed the road.

For me, the lesson is, be very careful with night chases. If you can't make out features and you don't have dependable radar, keep your distance from a tornado-warned storm or else just plain leave it alone
Be wary of flooding, that's always been my biggest concern. Try to stick to well lit/maintained roads and be especially mindful of conditions if there was already standing water in the fields and you find yourself driving under heavy rain in the typical after dark dissipation stage.

Pretty much what other mentioned above. Watch for flooding(esp in rural areas), debris and use lightning/city lights to help spotting. Also beware of idiotic chasers turning around in the middle of a major road with their lights off right ahead of you, with a line of chase behind you(6/5). Ended up with 3 night chases this past season: 5/12, 6/5, 6/21

Matt 'Captain' Fischer
My worse experience for night chasing was on May 10th, 2008. The day Stuttgart, AR got hit. Adam and I drove all night to get down to AR after i got off work Friday night. We got fooled to the storms that were blowing up just north of the... warm front and miss the Stuttgart tornado. But we split the two supercells the one that just hit Stuttgart and the one right behind it. So we race and got to Clarksville, MS. We sat and watched the storm come in. Saw a few power flashes and i want to go and turn around but my mouth and brain wasn't connecting since i have been up for about 30 hours. I will never again with out getting at least 3 to 4 hours of sleep before a chasing that day. Your brain and eyes will make you see stuff that isn't there sometimes.
Last years super low, trying to keep up with severe storms moving at 60mph is hard enough but trying to stay with them at night was something i def wont try again for a long time. Given the right circumstances (terrain, storm motion, storm speed, experience) I would again do it again. As far as learning, the main this is its not something someone as inexperiened as myself should try, especially with embedded rotation, those storms were so fast and had such high precip that it was foolish.
Never EVER underestimate a storm at night. It might look rough on radar, but they can ramp up in a split second. We got nailed by a gust nado. It almost put us in a ditch. It appeared to be strait line, until our winds did a 360 shift. It went on to flip a truck on an interstate a 1/4 mile from us.

I'd like to add wind shift, if you don't already have it. That's obviously more of sign than lightning. It can tell you what zone your at around the storm, what might be coming at you, etc.. I think a big problem is waiting to long to move. It's very easy to underestimate your position to a storm. Especially if your out taking shots of lightning, observing, or just bsing with other chasers.

Something else I wanted to add. I've noticed lightning ramps up when a storm ramps up. of course that's not always the case, but that's what I see most of the time.
Left Norman late morning (4/25/09), drove to Elk City, OK, had the ABS go out on my car, then went to Sayre, OK to get closer to the dryline, saw the storm go up near Wheeler, TX, so went after it, but wasn't impressed when I got to it, heard about the favorable conditions in NC Oklahoma that would likely develop near dark so took off to the east. Gassed up in Vici, OK and had a typical redneck experience (LOL), then went east to Seiling, OK and reassessed, considered bailing back to Norman but decided to go east as storm went up south of Enid, OK and southeast of Fairvew, OK. Wound up driving into Enid on the northwest side of the storm, in the dark, as the NWR was mentioning a tornado on the ground about three miles south of me. Suffice it to say I wound up screaming through Enid at about 60 mph in a blinding rain storm, then set up shop on the east side and saw power flashes beneath a cone funnel. When I heard the NWR message in Enid, that's my one moment in chasing where I said out loud "Oh, ****!" LOL

Lessons learned: Don't chase at night with only a weather radio and My-Cast on a flip phone. Don't intercept a monster supercell from the northwest at night unless you want to be in blinding rain with a tornado bearing down on you 
I want to thank everyone that contributed to this and that is reading this and can hopefully take a hard look at the reasons they chase at night. It is not necessarily something you want venture into. Experienced chasers and newbs alike all take caution while doing it. The question I have for you is seeing a night time tornado briefly through lightning worth risking your well being on?

No comments:

Post a Comment