Storm Chasing with the CSWR

Author's Note: Storm chasing is exciting and rewarding, but also dangerous. Tornadoes are far more unpredictable than most people give them credit for and the risk of being blindsided is quite high. Additionally, given the high number of chasers out there today, the likelihood of having a car accident or being trapped on a road is high- and increasing. Think twice and exercise caution before trying this yourself.  


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If you've ever lived on the American Plains, those two things are likely familiar to you.

From the outside, thunderstorms and tornadoes are just plain cool. Towering columns of wind and moisture, rotating at speeds which often rip houses from their foundations and toss them aside with ease. In the last 20 years, movies like Twister and numerous reality TV shows have popularized storm chasing to the point where lines of cars stretching for kilometers in either direction are not an uncommon site near thunderstorms. People flock by the hundreds or thousands to try and witness one of nature's most visually impressive events. 

But from the inside, these storms are awe inspiring in all the wrong ways.

Nearly all of us have been in a thunderstorm. Some of us have even flown through them during air travel. But few have ever had to get close enough to encounter their mean side. Personally, I loved rain and thunder for many years. I still do I suppose. The ambiance of a storm calls me, distracting my mind so that it can relax. But the last few months have changed my perspective on storms drastically. Large storms on the plains now scare me where they never would have before. Not enough to keep me away, but certainly enough to think twice when I see them. The violence of a cyclonic thunderstorm on the American Plains ais something far more visceral, alarming and unsettlingly difficult to understand than I was originally prepared for. 

But let's back up. It was by good fortune I encountered the Center for Severe Weather Research.

(How cool of a name is that?)

My college classmate and friend Traeger mentioned a few days before our mutual graduation from CU Boulder that he had been offered a position with CSWR. I naturally jumped all over this and asked him who the hell these well-named people were and what they did- before congratulating him heartily. A few days later I called their administrator and talked a bit about what they did. At that time not much was happening and I was headed to Asia for some months, so things remained nebulous. However, once I returned from my trip, I got back in touch and was given the opportunity to come along with the Center during field operations.

Which is the dreary way of talking about tornado chasing. 

The Center is known for various exploits, but the main focus is the Doppler on Wheels project, the brainchild of Dr. Josh Wurman. Seen below, it's exactly what it says it is.

Naturally, there's a lot of complex science going on here. The simply explained reason for their existence is height and angle. Doppler radar, in a weather context, measures the speed of precipitation in storms. This is really handy to detect rotation, such as tornadoes, as well as larger storm movement. The radar can also detect the level of precipitation, based on how well the radar pulse is reflected (more rain reflects better). Using this, the National Weather Service has a network of stationary Doppler radars installations around the country that monitor the weather in tandem with many other technologies and spotters.

However, traditional Doppler radars have a few issues. For instance, the curve of the earth and the nature of topography. The radars can usually only see a large distance about the ground, as hills and mountains block the radar signal. You can only put your radar to so high up. This is fine for broad observation, but prevented the collection of tornado data from ground level- which is where the damage happens. Seeing this issue, Dr. Wurman had an idea: What if we took the radar to the storm?

The Doppler On Wheels was born.

They've gone through many iterations, but the fundamental idea remains the same. Drive to storms, find tornadoes and collect as much data as you can. By doing this over the years, Dr. Wurman and his Center have revolutionized both tornado chasing and tornado science. 

The current generation of DOW is a complex mobile weather center, with a plethora of tools and computers. They are usually crewed by 4, with a driver, navigator and two meteorologists in the crowded rear. Countless computers line the workspaces, supporting live radar views, internet access, maps, data loggers, microwave instruments and more. The truck has the ability to run while moving, but also can deploy hydraulic legs for additional stability. An extendable mast mid-way down the truck houses a suite of weather sensors in addition to a microwave pulse generator. Powered by a diesel generator, the trucks are built custom from a stripped down truck and contain hundreds of gallons of fuel. With an average MPG rating of only a few miles per gallon, these massive tanks still only last a brief while.

As you would expect, there are a lot of things that could go wrong with the gear itself. While the Center does possess a dedicated Mobile Operations and Repair Center (MORC), most smaller deployments are equipped with just a basic set of tools and spare parts. The ingenuity and dedication of the repair crews are what keeps these trucks going despite the rough conditions.

One chase was nearly brought to a halt by a broken air line. Traeger and Eddie (seen here) managed to fix it in the nick of time- but it was a close call.

Like a carrier group at sea,the DOWs travel with support vehicles of various types. Aside from the aforementioned MORC, the Center has a fleet of other vehicles, although only two are commonly used. These are the Scout vehicles.

This is where the data collection gets exciting. Sometimes too exciting.

While the DOWs get to sit around the edge of the storm and peer in, the Scouts must drive into the path of a tornado and place sensor. Yes, just like Twister- although the sensors aren't as cool. Instead of futuristic radio balls, the sensors are simply heavy steel plates with a myriad of sensor attached, measuring the usual slew of barometric pressure, wind speed (both anemometric and sonic), GPS location, humidity and sometimes video. These get placed in the path an oncoming tornado and are later collected.

It's a hairy business placing these things. They weigh over a hundred pounds and must be placed in a specific orientation. On top on that, the placement and orientation of each unit must be captured on camera to verify the data. Doing all this as a tornado approaches is not easy. In addition to these probes, the Scout vehicles carry a mesonet, a mobile weather station mounted over the hood. Again recording a slew of weather data, these units provide another piece of the puzzle.

On top of these features, the Scout vehicles are equipped with a variety of other equipment inside that helps them fulfill the scouting role. This includes radios, GPS / mapping equipment, power sockets, tool chests, physical maps, cameras, mobile internet radar links and other items. They are generally crewed by 3-4 people, with a driver and navigator in the front. The remaining passengers are used wherever they are needed, often spending time just watching the sky and taking pictures. It's not a bad gig if you don't mind running from tornadoes.

It was in these Scouts that I got to ride during deployments in the last couple months.

As you might expect, there's a lot of boring parts with storm chasing. Much of the time is spent on road, driving to some nowhere town that's about to get clobbered by a storm bigger than anything you've ever seen. 

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Did I mention there's a lot of waiting around?

The crew for the CSWR is probably an even split between paid employees (scientists, a couple techs and an administrator)  and volunteers like myself. However, 'volunteer' doesn't really do justice to these folks. The volunteers come from many different walks of life, but nearly all of us have a natural science or emergency service background. More than a few, like myself, have both. Also common is an interest in photography. For several members, storm chasing is a vacation from their normal jobs as meteorologists and other scientific work.

But when we actually being moving into position and approaching the storm, the cameras generally go away. Closing on a storm requires total awareness and attention, lest the storm clobber you. Contrary to popular belief, tornadoes aren't always visible. If the humidity is low and the debris is light, a tornado can be nearly invisible. This is rare, however, when compared to the greater danger of rain-wrapped tornadoes. Many tornadoes are not clean tubes of mist dangling from the sky, but are in fact nestled deep in storms, shrouded in rain, hail and debris. It should go unsaid that this is very dangerous. Bluntly put, you likely won't see it until it's too late. Having a mobile radar helps a lot here. But, even a non-cylconic thunderstorm is terribly violent on a personal level. Looking up into storms from the skirt, I was impressed every time by just how fast the clouds move. I'd often see clouds larger than city blocks rip apart and blaze by no more than a few hundred meters from my truck. Multiply the entire storm times that, with thunder, rain and lightning. 

There's also the issue of hail. Annoying to people in most places, hail in the plains can be a deadly force. Sometimes getting up to softball size, hail can pummel cars, structures and buildings into submission with ease. On one of our trips we encountered several square kilometers that had been covered in hail 15cm deep, with pieces an 2-3cm in diameter. Not pleasant.

But sadly, we are usually in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tornadoes are awfully unpredictable, and with limited resources you can only be so many places.

Home: The CSWR is base out of a hanger in Boulder, CO. 

So, where are the tornadoes photos you say? Well, I haven't taken any myself! I never got a good view with my camera, and as I mentioned before, the mission comes first- which means the camera goes away when the tornado comes out. Luckily there are many others taking photos. I suggest you check out Ryan McGinnis.