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Storm Chasing - A Beginner's Thoughts


AudMun

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Posted
  • Location: Northampton, UK
  • Location: Northampton, UK

    Storm Chase 2007

    I’d never even heard of stormchasing until I met Áine (Pale Blue Sky) several years ago. It was something she had always warned me she wanted to do for her 30th birthday, and I never really gave it any thought. So when the opportunity arose earlier this year, to go on the NetWeather 2007 StormChase, Áine wanted to go, and wanted me to go along with her, I thought “Why not?”.

    Now, having been on the trip, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts with others who might be considering embarking on such an escapade...

    Accommodation

    The general rule of thumb is that the motels you stay are about the same level as ‘Travel Inn’ in this country. That said it isn’t quite that simple. Whilst the hotels within that particular chain are all of fairly similar standard this isn’t the case over the pond. It is rare to get a motel that leaves a lot to hope for but they do exist. Don’t worry about it too much as you shouldn’t be staying anywhere that the termites have taken over but the quality does vary.

    Transport

    This year we had a Dodge Durango which held the 6 of us plus several weeks luggage for each and all the technology each carried. In this situation it was imperative that we got on and didn’t mind lacking personal space. However we did manage absolutely fine each day. Getting in and out could be a little fun at times as the person in the very back relied on the seat in front being dropped so they could get out. We tended to run a system with 3 of us rotating the seat at the back and this worked. Getting back in could be fun sometimes and would take time as people manipulated themselves in the area beside the luggage. Strangely though, the 2 occasions when we were chasing and we had dismounted only for lightning, or something equally concerning, to drop way too close that Paul would suddenly ‘suggest’ that we should get back in, we managed to do it in record time!  It isn’t hard to get used to being on the wrong side of the road. What is difficult is their seeming insistence on creating daft rules, which make no sense to anyone, for their box junctions and traffic lights.

    Technology

    I shall group what Áine and I took as we obviously looked at it that we could share most of the stuff.

    Camera – Very important, I bought a Canon 400D just before we left. The last time I used a SLR was at school so I was very worried about not being able to use it properly. This was totally unfounded as the automatic settings on the camera more than sufficed. I will however be making every attempt to.... refresh my photography skills. The other thing I would recommend, if you are using a SLR, is to take a polarising filter as this will improve the quality of the photos. If you are looking to get some serious photos or even considering some lightning photography you must get a tripod. I only bought one when I arrived in the US and found that I got a better quality one for half the money that I would have paid over here.

    Laptop – We bought a laptop just before we left and found it to be very useful. We used it to back up any photos taken each day as well as browsing and posting on the web. Battery life is very important as you really are using it in the fashion it was designed for. On the road. Whilst you can take spare batteries you really will find it to be hassle that you could do without as you try to locate where you put the spare amongst everything else. Whatever else you do you must ensure that the laptop has Wi-Fi. Each hotel you stay in, as well as many other places you visit has free net access and a lot of the time they don’t provide a wired point to connect to.

    MP3 Player – We both took one of these thinking that it would be well used. In fact I never used mine and Áine only ever used hers for short periods of time late at night in the motels.

    Mobile Phone – We both took ours and both are quad band on Orange. Unfortunately due to technical difficulties with both phones, which we didn’t solve until the penultimate day, we weren’t able to get signal at all. I would still take mine with me as it did give me that security in case I needed it for some reason.

    Wish List – Looking at the chase there is only really one gadget that I would love to have and that is a DV camera. Whilst there are many things that look extremely impressive with good quality still camera you just can’t capture the atmosphere in the way that you can with a video camera. I would love to get a HD one but somehow don’t think the pennies will reach quite that far.

    Knowledge

    Being a total newcomer to the whole storm-chasing situation, actually I was totally new to weather watching as a whole. I tried to arm myself with some background knowledge before I went by purchasing a couple of books. The parallel I would draw is that it was something like nails down a blackboard. All these did was to confuse me even further and make me equally determined that there was no way I would get a handle on what was going on. In fact I had visions of me sitting in the car for 2 weeks with everyone around me going mad over what they were seeing whilst I just sat there with a blank look getting increasingly more and more bored.

    Not long before we left Nick posted a short guide to supercells and tornadoes which actually gave me some hope. This guide gave me exactly what I had been looking for in so much as it was what seemed to be fairly complex information presented in such a way that a layman could understand what was happening, at least to some degree. I read this guide and it did help but I still had visions of being the one straight man amongst a car full of weather geeks.

    The short answer to this is that there is no way that this situation ever presented itself at any time. Nick, Paul and Nathan were bombarded with a seemingly endless set of questions from the 3 of us. At no point did they ever come across that they had answered enough and each time would willingly try to help you understand what was going on and the implications.

    Chasing

    Before I went on this holiday I did try to find out some information on what it was like to chase. Information on what it is like is either a little scarce or I just couldn’t find it but I really didn’t feel I was any better informed than when I first started to look.

    Chasing really is spending a lot of time on the road. We only covered 3 states during our 10 days chasing but what you must remember is how big everything is. Texas on its own is a third bigger than Great Britain! So much time is spent travelling from one point to the next setting you up for where the storms are likely to develop during the day? Once you actually latch onto a storm really the mileage becomes immaterial as you are so engrossed in what is going on you pay little heed to the road going by. (My experiences from this holiday are that the chase can go on for several hours so these counts for a large percentage of the time spent travelling.)It is also really good to see what is completely different geography, culture and people with an unexpected and different attitude and so for me the travelling wasn’t a problem.

    Once a chase is under way it becomes a situation where everyone is straining trying to understand what is going on. See where we are going and spot all around for ‘things of interest’. When the chase is under way the storm will be put to one side. At this point everybody becomes involved. Those that know what they are looking at spot, and the less experienced learn from what they see.

    Food

    Fast food is a staple food for chasers it seems. Fast food for breakfast, fast food for lunch and something unhealthy usually fills in the middle part. This may sound terrible but it isn’t really all that bad. Fast food is totally different quality, it actually tasted half decent. One thing that you do have to remember though and that’s portion sizes. A medium over there is approximately equivalent to this country’s large. The large........ well I’m sure you get the idea but needless to say, you need to be hungry!

    The evening meal is almost always a proper meal. The hotels don’t have bars or restaurants connected so travelling is usually necessary. Saying this, travel is not usually far as you’re in the centre of a town. In all bar one of the places that we went the meat was outstanding quality. The beef is of a quality that you wouldn’t believe but, whatever you do, don’t expect vegetables of any quality. They don’t know how to cook them and it seems to only be an after-thought anyway. Beef and chicken are what they do, and they do it well! Again, portions are huge.

    Another thing you won’t get and that is a proper bitter. Ask for a ‘proper’ beer and you will get a blank look. Ask for a beer and you will get light beer so be specific if you want full strength. Spirits are in the same generous quantities as the food so if you like spirits this is very welcome.

    When it comes to the prices the easiest way to explain this is to look at our meal on the last night. We ate at a small restaurant just outside of Decatur which we had seen on the first day. It was a small, personal place where the service was great. There were starters, mains, pudding for some and drinks and the whole bill came to £110. As a meal for 6 people it worked out to be less than £20 per head. For the same quality of the food and service in this country you would pay a small fortune.

    It wouldn’t be fair to talk about the food on a chasing holiday without making mention of the Big Texan. (www.bigtexan.com) This place is just the way that Paul describes. It is full of character, with live music and the food is awesome. There is no doubt that the beef is fresh and you watch them cook it on the coals. Beer is huge with the smallest size being the equal of 2 pints and the spirits come in equally generous measures. It should give you some idea of the sizes when you remember that these are the ones who offer the 72oz steak!

    All in all, as one who enjoys their food I think I sampled most of the fast food delights the area had to offer. (Didn’t manage ‘Dairy Queen’ but it is on my ‘must visits’) In the 11 days we were out there I did manage to put a wee bit of weight on, well........ maybe just a little bit more than a little. :rofl:

    p.s. - One piece of advice I will offer is to never, ever have the ‘Chicken Fried Steak’. Don’t ask, just trust me.

    Team

    This is probably the single most important part of the chase in my opinion. If there’s no bad weather you can do other things and you deal with it. If you have a long day and are tired you can deal with it. If you are stuck in a car for 2 weeks with someone who you detest and hate, life can become really difficult.

    When the team first got together I was a little unsure how things would be. After the first problem of how on earth to get 6 peoples luggage into the boot without the need to strap one of the team to the roof we slowly started to get to know one another. Throughout the next few days we gelled better and better and the time passed quicker. I think it helped that we were able to have a laugh and a joke and stopped time dragging.

    Conclusion

    As I mentioned at the beginning, I first heard about storm chasing when I met Áine. I thought weather was staid, lifeless and unmoving. I agreed to go on the holiday for the chance to go somewhere I wanted to and to be able to share in and recall the experience with Áine in the future. As I have mentioned, I had many concerns about the holiday and really felt unsure about the whether it would be a relief to get back to work in some ways.

    The American people that we came into contact with were never anything other than courteous. I was concerned that we were chasing these storms for ‘fun’ and because storms cause so much destruction the greeting would be less than friendly. In this, I am glad to say, I was totally and utterly wrong. The people we met were so welcoming and in so many cases seemed surprised to know where we had come from and what we were doing.

    As I have mentioned the help that came from the knowledgeable members of the team was above and beyond. I learnt so much on this trip I feel that I started to understand what was going on and therefore this enriched the experience. I now see beauty and wonder where before it didn’t exist. Please don’t misunderstand my feelings about storm chasing. This would certainly not be what most people would call a ‘holiday’. Sometimes days lasted up to 18 hours with 6 hours sleep and then it all started again. You don’t have to keep hours like this but there was nearly always something to watch. As Nick has mentioned, there were times when I was a little nervous as we settled into a motel, in harms way, and a tornado warning was issued for the very town we were in. Paul moved us down the road to a safe point and we watched the storm until it moved through but it is still a ‘strange’ feeling. There were other moments of ‘concern’ but at no point did I feel that we were taking an uncalculated and highly dangerous risk. Storm chasing isn’t a ‘safe bet’ holiday or a particularly healthy one either. However, if you are looking for one of the most awesome and unbelievable experiences, without having to do the whole guru/walking on coals thing, then I really can’t recommend this enough. Personally, I am saving as hard as I can now with a view to going back out as soon as I can afford it next.

    Take a risk and do it. You can’t guarantee anything in life but I think this is a really good bet.

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    Posted
  • Location: Swallownest, Sheffield 83m ASL
  • Location: Swallownest, Sheffield 83m ASL

    Interesting read there Stewart. Thanks for taking the time to write your thoughts down... :lol:

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    Posted
  • Location: just south of Doncaster, Sth Yorks
  • Location: just south of Doncaster, Sth Yorks

    what a great read AM, and I'm sure it will be bookmarked by a lot who may think of going. Lots of useful and constructive comments and advice there.

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    Posted
  • Location: Caterham-on-the-hill, Surrey, 190m asl (home), Heathrow (work)
  • Location: Caterham-on-the-hill, Surrey, 190m asl (home), Heathrow (work)

    Thanks for your honest opinion Stewart on how the tour went in your eyes, it is great to get some feedback so that others who are tempted to come out next year can see what they are in for and what to expect.

    I'm glad the chase tour has influenced you as a complete novice enough for you to want come back out for more sometime in the next few years hopefully.

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    Posted
  • Location: South Shields Tyne & Wear half mile from the coast.
  • Location: South Shields Tyne & Wear half mile from the coast.

    Highly enjoyable as well as informative read there Stewart, particulary the bit about people who love their food..!! lol

    As for stormchasing/holiday, for me perfect combination, admittedly if storms were far and few i'd be a little disponded but beats Magaluf at the side of the pool anyday.. Everytime ive been on holiday i'd go off exploring with my daughter leave the wife by the pool (guess thats why i'm divorced now) lol ..!!

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    Posted
  • Location: Broadstone, Poole
  • Location: Broadstone, Poole

    I really enjoyed reading about your experience Stewart. I love storms so much that like Aine, I dream to go on a storm chasing trip for my 40th (4 years to go). Hubby is quite happy for me to go off and do this, but he'd have to stay home and look after our daughter and to be honest, he wouldn't be interested in coming anyway - just not his thing. The only thing I'm not so sure about is 'going alone' so I think it's great that Aine had you to go along with her and that she's now got you hooked too! After reading your thoughts (before and after) you have certainly put my mind at rest with regards to 'how much you knew before you went'. I am a total novice and felt that my lack of experience may be irritating to other team members, but you have put my mind at rest with that little worry. Perhaps it is time I started to save my pennies.

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    Posted
  • Location: Newbury Berkshire
  • Location: Newbury Berkshire

    Hi Stewart,

    thanks for taking the time out to construct a great post on your experiences!

    Regards

    Ian

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    Posted
  • Location: Barnet, North London
  • Location: Barnet, North London

    Hi Audmun,

    What a terrific write-up. Having put my name down for next year already, it was great to get such an insight into storm-chasing from a layman's point of view.

    Like you, the prospect of the American heartland, and some of those less touristy parts of the States, has a lot of appeal for me. To be honest, if I see little more than a few thunderstorms, I will have had a good trip just touring around. I think your appraisal is a good template for coping with expectations!

    Glad you had such a great time. Here's to hoping I win the lottery and get the time and money to go back out there on a whim, just because the models are looking favourable...! Paul S, you have a very understanding bank manager/wife/son/daughter/boss...........

    smich

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    Posted
  • Location: Leigh On Sea - Essex & Tornado Alley
  • Location: Leigh On Sea - Essex & Tornado Alley
    Hi Audmun,

    What a terrific write-up. Having put my name down for next year already, it was great to get such an insight into storm-chasing from a layman's point of view.

    Like you, the prospect of the American heartland, and some of those less touristy parts of the States, has a lot of appeal for me. To be honest, if I see little more than a few thunderstorms, I will have had a good trip just touring around. I think your appraisal is a good template for coping with expectations!

    Glad you had such a great time. Here's to hoping I win the lottery and get the time and money to go back out there on a whim, just because the models are looking favourable...! Paul S, you have a very understanding bank manager/wife/son/daughter/boss...........

    smich

    All of the above Steve :wallbash: The wife is the most understanding though thank god. A very good write up from Stewart. He was worried sick before he went but I urged him not to be, on your first trip (Like Mine) you will learn soooo much from just being there and firing questions at us, Storm Chasing in May is a totally different animal to the rest of the calender months, you "CAN" Find storms even if the pattern is ridged out, and even with High pressure everywhere the Storms tend to be amazingly severe. I will quote Stewart with this "I have seen more bolts of Lightning in 10 days than in 30 years of Life in the Uk" I just enjoy sharing with others what I have been seeing since 2004, the expereince will blow your mind, seeing a Supercell for the 1st time in your life is almost surreal. The guys this year got to see some great storms but there is still so much more to see and different types of Storms as well, we got plagued by Squall lines from hell this year, on other years squalls are not as common and Structure is abundant. Lightning photography is usually great but this year was not, so its swings and roundabouts but the landscape from Dirt roads and farm tracks in Kansas & Nebraska to the Foothills of Colorado and New Mexico (6,000 feet asl) to the Texas Panhandle escarpment and the Texas Hill country to the Swamps of Eastern Oklahoma brings such a variety, the people you meet out there are also some of the nicest you could ever meet anywhere in the world, 10 months until the next one but that will tick by oh so quickly.

    Paul Sherman

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    Posted
  • Location: Norwich
  • Location: Norwich

    Hi Stewart, you know how much I wanted to be out there with you and and my sister but it just wasnt ment to be, yet!! Hopefully one day we can all make it out there and experience the hole thing, that would be great! I look forward to seeing all the great photos you managed to take while out there and exchange stories about the locals that we found out there. See you soon.

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    • 9 months later...
    Posted
  • Location: south east London
  • Location: south east London

    I great read for all the new chasers coming out this year it really gives you an insight to what to expect and will give you some handy tips I thought it was right on the money

    Ian

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