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Storm Chasing:
What is it really like?
by Matt Ver Steeg, WeatherEdge, Inc.

Storm chasing. What's it like? Is it really like what I saw in Twister? Does a storm chaser really get to chase tornadoes 24 hours a day? Those are questions that I get asked quite frequently these days. I'll attempt to answer those interrogatives in this article.

First of all, it IS NOT like what you see portrayed on the big screen. Instead, it's filled with long hours spent on the road, with precious few minutes of action. The movie Twister gives the impression that a tornado lurks around each corner, and every second is action packed. That's bogus. Doesn't happen. Movies are not real! That movie also would lead one to believe that you can be caught by an F-5 tornado and live to tell about it. Wrong. The odds of winning the state lottery are better. Don't misunderstand...I liked Twister, it's just that when you watch the movie, you're looking at typical Hollywood hype.

Prowling the high plains in search of tornadoes can be a very enjoyable hobby, but it helps if you have a real love for weather, and don't mind seeing a lot of America in the process. The movie Twister spawned hordes of new chasers, bent on bagging the big ole F-5 at any cost. I know they were out there. I saw them lined up bumper-to-bumper on the roads, and I also saw the hail-battered shells of their vehicles after they were pounced upon by some of the monster storms of the plains. The reduction of vehicles at recent chaser convergence's is probably proof that some of those newbies decided it wasn't so cool after all.

Be prepared for long, boring drives across America. You get to see a lot of country, and, if you notice, a lot of subtle differences about how our fellow citizens live. Plan on driving hundreds, if not up to a thousand miles per day in search of tornadoes. Most storm chases will end up empty-handed, commonly called a 'bust' day.

A typical chase day begins early in the morning, analyzing weather data over the Internet. The chaser looks at the day 1 and day 2 severe weather forecasts from the Storm Prediction Center, along with surface and upper air charts. The storm chaser makes a forecast, and then embarks on his trip. After a long, boring drive, the chaser arrives at his forecasted target area, and usually sits for a couple of hours, until convection begins to initiate. Sometimes, he will get updated weather information, and modify the forecast somewhat. Others will opt to receive the latest radar images, to better examine storms.

After a storm is targeted, close attention is paid to its appearance and behavior during its development. Vital clues in the clouds give good indications about whether or not the storm has the potential to develop a tornado. As it matures, the chaser will look for a wall cloud or lowering to form at its base, and then use his judgment about how to track the storm, or to give up and head for greener pastures.

For many, the big prize is seeing a tornado. Most would agree that the average success rate is around 10%. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the storm chaser faces a long drive home, sometimes through heavy rain and vivid lightning, from the storms he pursued earlier.

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Storm chasing is dangerous. You could be hurt or killed in its pursuit, especially if you have little or no knowledge of severe storms and their environment. Chase hazards include but are not limited to heavy rain, flash flooding, lightning, high winds, large hail, tornadoes, and flying debris. Hydroplaning on the road and traffic accidents also occur. If you desire to chase, get informed and educated about weather. Contact your local National Weather Service Office, and enroll in a SKYWARN training class. Read and view all of the published information regarding severe weather, thunderstorms, and tornadoes that you can. You are responsible for educating yourself. Next, contact an experienced chaser in your area, and arrange to travel with them, until you've gained sufficient experience to go it alone. Even at that, veteran chasers get caught in harm's way from time to time. Play it safe. This page is for informational and educational use, and the authors disavow any responsibility for actions you may take.

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