Storm Chasing Interview

by Roger Edwards

I have received numerous e-mails -- both at home and at work -- from students assigned to do an interview of a storm chaser for a project. Sometimes, a member of the print media will request quotes as well. I like to help, but sometimes I can't. Because of the number of these requests, the time constraints imposed by my active work and family life, and the fact that many of the same basic questions show up repeatedly, I offer instead an online interview which will answer the most common questions. Any of these answers may be excerpted and quoted in print, with proper attribution, as long as the wording is not changed. There are also several links to more detailed information about storm chasing in general, or about my passion for severe storms, if you require more insight. Thanks!
    ===== Roger =====

If a person wants to begin storm chasing, what should they learn or do and what should they expect?

    At a minimum, prospective storm chasers should learn to forecast severe storms independently, to drive safely in extreme wind and rain conditions, and to properly interpret and document what they see in the sky for others' benefit. Those are not trivial things that can be done in just a year or two! Storm-spotter training from the local National Weather Service is just a start in a lifelong quest to safely observe, appreciate and report storms.

What influenced you to make you want to chase?

    I have always been intensely interested in violent weather -- especially tornadoes and lightning -- ever since earliest childhood. There's an essay on my childhood fascination with severe storms at . I can't remember ever not wanting to witness severe weather -- every waking minute if it were possible! The only impediments were a lack of meteorological knowledge and a lack of a vehicle. I began driving out to observe storms from a safe distance as soon as I could, while reading everything I could get my hands on regarding severe storms. Then came the formal schooling at OU and student storm intercept work at NSSL, and all the great experiences and learning which resulted from that.

What excites you the most when chasing?

    Believe it or not, the answer is not tornadoes, or even large hail and spectacular storm structure. Those are fine, of course. But I am most excited on a storm intercept trip on those occasions when I see the big convective towers explode right in my forecast target area. There is no satisfaction quite like seeing a difficult severe weather forecast come true right before one's eyes -- for example, driving westward and seeing that anvil burst forth ahead of me then start spreading across the sky overhead. That's the moment I think, "My forecast worked! Now it's just me and this storm." That's the moment I no longer worry about whether the storms will form; and I can then just concentrate on the best intercept strategy for watching the storm grow and evolve.

When do you start planning for a chase and what steps do you take to plan out where your target will be for severe weather?

    That depends on the weather pattern and my work and family situation. I forecast a general target area that narrows down the closer the event is, based on my skills as a severe-storms scientist and longtime forecaster. Meanwhile I get necessary supplies ready. For example, if I am on leave and it appears the pattern may set up favorably for storm intercept several days in a row, I need to do preparations for an extended road trip: gather batteries and chargers, test and clean cameras, gather memory cards, do critical car maintenance (oil changes, tune up, belts & hoses, etc.), gather state road atlases (I still use paper maps), pack a suitcase or overnight bag, and so forth.

    As a professional severe storms specialist, I work rotating shifts -- with different hours and different days off every week. If I am working a day shift and there are storms in the area, I have (hopefully) anticipated the possibility the day before and brought my necessary storm intercept gear to work so I can get on the road fast when my shift is over. I was able to do this with great success on 25 May 1997, one of those few occasions when the atmosphere has cooperated in close range.

    If I am coming off a night shift, I must get several hours of sleep in order to drive safely and think clearly in the field. I am almost always the driver for my chase crews, so I have a serious responsibility to get enough rest. How much? As long as I had good sleep the day before, 5-6 hours will work, but only for one day. Then I can wake up in early afternoon, quickly peruse short-fuse forecasting information I already have bookmarked on the Internet, gather equipment, meet crew, and hit the road. On 3 May 1999, 4 Oct 1998 and 9 May 2016 -- three very successful tornado-intercept days, this worked splendidly.

    If I am off on the severe weather day but have to work a shift the next day, I need to plan the trip around not only the severe weather forecast, but the greatest reasonable distance I can travel to get back to Norman in time for either the shift (if a night shift), or several hours' sleep that night (if a day shift).

    This all assumes, of course, that I do not have a family commitment that precludes a chase altogether.

    The point is that each weather situation presents the storm observer with a different preparation need. One must be flexible enough to adapt, in order to concentrate on the forecast and intercept strategy with minimal distraction.

What is the most dangerous thing you have had to deal with in storm chasing?

    For me, this one is no contest: wet roads. I have also come close to being struck by lightning a few times; but the odds of hydroplaning into a serious wreck are even greater. Even at speeds that are normally safe, a sudden or unexpected curve in a wet road is potentially deadly. I have hydroplaned on several occasions; and it is a horrible, helpless feeling. Driving very slowly around wet road curves is better than going off into a ditch or median, ending the chase and damaging either the vehicle or myself. Stay safe as possible out there and control what you can, which is your own behavior. There will always be another storm.

Who do you take on chases?

    My most long-lasting and knowledgeable storm intercept partner since the '80s has been former college roommate and fellow severe-storms specialist Rich Thompson. If Rich is available to chase when I am, his place is reserved. My wife Elke is also an experienced storm observer and highly talented nature photographer, and travels with me every chance possible. We make one vacation every year a storm-observing trip up and down the Great Plains for just the two of us. Otherwise, I prefer to take people whom I trust to be able to handle the monotony of road travel, who have excellent map reading, direction-finding and navigational skill, who are keenly intelligent with the ability to make sensible decisions in furious situations, and who possess an intense interest in learning about severe storms. I prefer to get to know someone fairly well before he or she spends many hours in a car with me; so I don't take people with whom I am not familiar.

What equipment do you use to chase?

    I will not get too detailed here, because this is a public forum and not the place to give car thieves and burglars such information. However, I do carry a minimum of electronic equipment relative to most chasers, for simplicity, efficiency and minimizing distractions. I prefer instead to rely on my forecasting and visual observation skills. My vehicle is not festooned with radio antennae and unused weather instruments like those of many others. I have some very basic electronic gear for documentation and communications, a phone with radar-display and Internet capabilities, a good assortment of paper maps, auto maintenance and repair materials, and of course plenty of storage for photography.

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