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Wait here, we need to move this tornado along
April 19, 2012 11:32 AM   Subscribe

On April 14th, a series of tornados swept through Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma (as discussed here in the blue). The exceptionally long lead-time for the forecast combined with a weekend date to bring a huge number of storm chasers out to the plains. In the last few days, several spectacular videos have been released, showing dramatic views from outside the tornado. Then, there's this chase team who captured a different perspective from both their in-car cam (blurry video, but includes chaser commentary -- encounter starts just past the 29 minute mark) and an on-car GoPro (clear video, no commentary, encounter starts around 7 minutes in).

A couple points to note: one of the chasers reports a barometer reading of 984mb about a minute after the worst has passed. This is equivalent to a Cat 1 hurricane. Also, remember that almost all tornadoes in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise, so if you see debris zipping from right to left, you're either in straight line inflow/outflow, or inside the circulation looking out. The debate over whether this chase team was foolish or just unlucky will no doubt continue.
posted by penguinicity (21 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I experienced a tornado once (called "tatsumaki" in Japanese). Although the tornado itself touched down about a kilometer away, I recall there being clouds the colour of soot swirling around the outside of the building I was in - I thought the building was on fire, because the next thing I knew it was as though someone had aimed a water cannon at the windows. Amazing. I came home to find a flatbed truck deposited in the rice field next to our house.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:44 AM on April 19, 2012


I'm starting to wonder what you have to do to a GoPro to break it.
posted by fshgrl at 11:54 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never understood storm chasers. "A bunch of people got killed, but I totally scored some awesome pics!"
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:08 PM on April 19, 2012


i watched a tornado flatten a house of a buddy of mine in jr high. he lived a country block away (so, i dunno, 1/2 a mile? i could see his house from my front porch). it barely blew up our garden. i've lived in tornado alley for a significant portion of my life. i have found few things more mundane and horrifying than tornado season.

as to storm chasers - one of the reasons we were able to predict these storms is on the backs of storm chasers. yes they're adrenaline junkies and sometimes have more grit than good sense - but the work they're doing is important and it saves lives. they're also very important during a storm - especially in the wide open spaces that fill much of tornado alley - they're how we know how the twisters are forming and moving. it's not a job or a hobby i'd want, but i'd never mock those who do it.
posted by nadawi at 12:16 PM on April 19, 2012 [13 favorites]


I was driving north from Kansas City to Omaha when the radio announced that Thurman, Iowa, had just been destroyed by a tornado. I look at a my map and was headed straight for Thurman. I was terrified.

I calmed down a bit when I got within a few miles of Thurman. It was dark and road work signs were out. In the distance I saw dozens of flashing yellow lights that were surely the crews out working. Couldn't possibly be that bad, right?

But the lights weren't crews. The lights were approximately a dozen 18-wheelers that were tossed around the interstate like children's toys. The earth around the highway was gouged, and some of the trucks looked like comets that had cratered the earth.

I have never been more frightened that a tornado would kill me.
posted by jefficator at 12:18 PM on April 19, 2012 [12 favorites]


I've never understood storm chasers. "A bunch of people got killed, but I totally scored some awesome pics!"

You could really say the same about anyone who documents any natural or manmade disaster. I think there is value in such endeavours. Especially in natural disasters, the Earth is endlessly fascinating and it can be far more intersting seeing it in action, up close, as opposed to the dry pages of a book or website.
posted by IvoShandor at 12:31 PM on April 19, 2012


The Card Cheat: I've never understood storm chasers. "A bunch of people got killed, but I totally scored some awesome pics!"

Well, the one's in my county are usually some combination of thrill chasers, weather junkies, and good samaritans. They're nearly all amateur radio enthusiasts, as well. (The local amateur radio club gives weather spotter classes for NOAA.) When a dangerous storm comes through, they spread out over the county and report weather formations and extreme developments via radio to a coordinator, who uses them to advise local emergency personnel. A lot of our early warnings are triggered or supplemented by their reports.

I'm not sure if any or our locals record or post to YouTube, which can seem a bit self-interested... but by and large, weather spotters, storm chasers, or what have you offer a pretty valuable service as their hobby.
posted by gilrain at 12:33 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


A coworker's flickr set from stormchasing that day. They watched a big funnel hop right over Salina, KS, which is the nearest "big" town to where some of my extended family still live.
posted by brennen at 12:59 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The "in-car cam" video link I was watching that feed live as it happened, it was amazing.
posted by stbalbach at 1:07 PM on April 19, 2012



as to storm chasers - one of the reasons we were able to predict these storms is on the backs of storm chasers. yes they're adrenaline junkies and sometimes have more grit than good sense - but the work they're doing is important and it saves lives.

Skywarn is NOAA's volunteer effort to that end. A 2 hour class and a HAM license.

Skywarn isn't storm chasing per se - usually local people reporting conditions - but it's a similar function.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:16 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Storm chasers - the good ones - contribute to what used to be a tiny body of knowledge about how tornadoes work. I grew up at the ass end of Tornado Alley, and what we knew about them when I was a kid was practically mythology compared to what we know now - and that information improves warnings and saves lives.

It's often the chasers who tell local emergency services what's coming and which way to go to get their vehicles out of the path, which is critical to providing the best possible response in the aftermath. Plus, it's not like the chasers are choosing to watch rather than stop the tornado.

I have never been through a direct hit, but I have been close enough to feel the pressure change inside the house, and both our cars still have golf-ball dents from the scariest afternoon of my life. From inside the system, even if you're only close, it's a total information blackout: you're in an interior hallway, the hail and wind and rain get too loud to hear the sirens or your radio (or, until the last second, the tornado). Or you're in your car, and you can't see the end of your own hood (much less brake lights in front of you) for the rain and hail, and you can't hear sirens over it.

It's nearly impossible, even professionally, to collect data from the inside, so those people on the outside are doing a useful thing.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:25 PM on April 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


If I was those people in the first video, at the very least I'd have my car ready pointing away from the huge tornado.
posted by alby at 1:31 PM on April 19, 2012


A word on storm chasers, as a scientist who does research on severe weather and tornadoes. I was on VORTEX2 (and saw about a dozen tornadoes, and ended up nearly inside five of them).

I think many of them are extremely helpful for tracking the storms. The operational meteorologists have to more or less guess whether or not a storm is producing a tornado. Having a set of eyes on the storm is essential. These people save lives, and we need them.

There are other chasers, though, who like to outfit their vehicles with ridiculous lights genuine meteorological instruments and pretend to collect data. They seem to me to be mostly interested in getting attention; no one will ever use the "data" they collect. Some of them will even put blue flashers on their cars, in order to get people to pull over and let them through.

Also, chasing in Oklahoma is something I will never do recreationally. Almost every storm we were on in Oklahoma was surrounded by a traffic jam. Literally hundreds of cars are on the road surrounding tornadoes. It impeded our ability to collect data on the storms, and put us in dangerous situations. I still remember the first time I was stuck under a low-level circulation, with lowering, spinning clouds, and couldn't get out from underneath it because too many other vehicles were on the road.

That said, I love me some good tornado porn, and I'm glad it's available :)
posted by arhantrain at 3:26 PM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Pogo_Fuzzybutt: "Skywarn is NOAA's volunteer effort to that end. A 2 hour class and a HAM license."

Actually, if you're interested in storm spotting for the NWS you don't even need a HAM license to be a Skywarn spotter. You find the two hour training in your area through your local Skywarn group, complete the training, then you can sign up to submit reports online via eSpotter. You can also just call them in to NWS directly.

Spotter Network is another option for submitting; they have a separate training you have to complete before you can submit reports.

There is a difference between storm spotting and storm chasing. While (I would hope) all storm chasers are trained storm spotters, not all storm spotters are storm chasers. The spotter training places a very heavy priority in ensuring your own safety before observing and reporting, and although storm chasers (in theory) should be following similar basic safety principles (ACES - awareness, communication, escape routes, safe zones), the spotter training makes it clear that you don't, e.g, hang out next to your windows to watch the hailstorm and lightning outside just so you can gather data to report - shelter first, then report what you can safely observe.

Another important role storm spotters play is providing damage reports to NWS. One thing people don't necessarily think about are the dangers and obstacles of trying to get home AFTER damage has occurred - this is critical information to be able to get out to help coordinate EMS response so personnel to be able to reroute people away from downed trees, power lines, and other hazards.
posted by Dr. Zira at 3:29 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, remember that almost all tornadoes in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise...

Could someone provide a citation? That sounds strange, the scales involved (both time and space) don't seem to be large enough for Coriolis effect from the Earth's rotation to make a contribution. For example, draining water from a tank will induce a vortex, but the Coriolis forces are so small that they won't determine the direction of rotation except under carefully controlled conditions.
posted by indubitable at 3:30 PM on April 19, 2012


That sounds strange, the scales involved (both time and space) don't seem to be large enough for Coriolis effect from the Earth's rotation to make a contribution.

It's not the Coriolis force; it's the vortex lines lifted from the cold pool. The colder outflow with the storm causes there to be a density gradient along the downdrafts. This density gradient generates horizontal vorticity--the fluid gains angular momentum as it moves along the gradient. When it encounters the updraft, that vorticity is then tilted into the vertical. Without getting deeper into technical details, this is basically why most tornadoes spin counterclockwise.

What you end up with, is these vortex arches. They show up as couplets in high-resolution dual-Doppler radar. Associated with a tornado, there's another, clockwise circulation, usually to the south or southeast. If the vorticity associated with this clockwise circulation gets stretched, say, by a new updraft growing on top of it, you can end up with a clockwise tornado.
posted by arhantrain at 3:40 PM on April 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Paul Markowski's talk, "How to make a tornado," gives an excellent introduction: You can find the powerpoints at http://www.meteo.psu.edu/~marko/Site/Recent_Talks.html
posted by arhantrain at 3:42 PM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


arhantrain: "Almost every storm we were on in Oklahoma was surrounded by a traffic jam."

Last Friday's EF1 that hit Norman was the first time I've ever been caught on the road in the middle of a severe weather outbreak (as opposed to in front of a television with meteorologists tracking the storm), and it is not an experience I care to repeat. I had left work early to pick up my son from school and was stuck in traffic; that storm moved in and spun up so quickly that I had no idea there was a tornado on the ground just a couple of blocks away until I'd ran into the building to pick up my son and was told we needed to take shelter immediately. Had I been any later, I would have been right in the path of the tornado and falling trees and power lines. In that case, I doubt the traffic was caused by storm chasers, so much as people just trying to get to safety, or others like me who weren't aware that there was a tornado on the ground, but until that incident, I'd never really thought about traffic being a hazard during a storm. It freaked me out enough that I decided to go ahead and do spotter training because I never want to be in that situation again.
posted by Dr. Zira at 3:51 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


as to storm chasers - one of the reasons we were able to predict these storms is on the backs of storm chasers. yes they're adrenaline junkies and sometimes have more grit than good sense - but the work they're doing is important and it saves lives.

I cannot favorite this enough. In my small (300 person town) in tornado alley the storm spotters serve the same function as tornado chasers, and some people do both (not just watch for the storms, but chase after them). They are mostly the same people who are our volunteer fire fighters. Among them is my father. Most of them I actually wouldn't call adrenaline junkies, but in areas like ours there are a limited supply of people to do the job and so those that can do it regardless of how much they get out of it. I'm more the adrenaline junkie type, but even when I went to the training and went out with my father once I got older it was for the purpose of notifying the surrounding towns. Is it going to hit Homer? Sidell? Sidney? You chase the storm sometimes because you want an accurate picture of where it's going. You chase it because you have family and friends out there.

The videos of the guys who got hit, they were updating the national weather service the entire way. They were doing an important job. I'm glad they're alright.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 5:43 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Card Cheat writes "I've never understood storm chasers. 'A bunch of people got killed, but I totally scored some awesome pics!'"

To add to the points above; it's not like the chasers (with the exception of the occasional traffic accident) are responsible for the deaths.

I've done quite a bit of chasing; mostly in Alberta which never gets the magnitude of storms that happen in tornado alley but some down in the states and it is quite thrilling. Both in a edging up to danger sense and also in an awe of nature sense. Watching a cloud break cap and bubble tens of thousands of feet into the air is pretty well the most awesome thing I've ever seen.

Also because even on projected heavy storm periods not much of significance happens most places (IE: a chase is more often a bust than even a minor event) you get to do a lot of driving mostly off the beaten track which provides plenty of opportunity to interact with people and places you wouldn't otherwise and also to see lots of nature.

Finally because success in chasing generally requires success in forecasting (and little in the way of people skills) there is a lot of obsessive nerd appeal to the hobby. And it intersects with other nerdy hobbies like photography, HAM Radio, Geo-tracking, navigating and electronics.
posted by Mitheral at 6:16 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


They watched a big funnel hop right over Salina, KS, which is the nearest "big" town to where some of my extended family still live.

As a former resident, I was wondering what happened there, so, thank you for the link.
posted by y2karl at 9:20 AM on April 20, 2012


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