Mount Everest is a little over 29,000 feet tall. The supercell thunderstorms I’m chasing for the next 10 days in the great plains can be almost twice as tall. Seeing one of these things from a distance can be amazing and even beautiful--the secrets of the atmosphere are revealed, especially if you have studied the science of the clouds. But getting closer to one of these storms, as I wrote last year in my blog entry, “Out Here in the Middle”, can be truly awe inspiring, or even scary--especially when the storm is producing a tornado. I’ve done a lot of things with a lot of potential risk, but I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I’m happiest when I manage the edge can rather than plunging over it.
Storm chasing is an expensive and sometimes tedious undertaking; you have to figure out where and when storms are going to be, drive (typically 100’s of miles a day--last year I drove about 6000 miles in 9 days) to get in position in time, wait for storms to fire, race and towards the storms as fast as possible down roads you’ve never seen before. If you’re lucky enough to get on a storm you have to keep on top of the storm's dynamics, monitor the positions and activities of other chasers (not all of whom exhibit good judgement), and try and shoot photos while maintaining a workable escape route at all times in a location to which you’ve never been before. And then you have to find a place to sleep, and start thinking about what tomorrow will bring. Chasers nomadically live by the rhythm of nature, and chasing through the wide open spaces of the plains the beauty and silence of the sky is clearly evident.
This endeavor is also incredibly engrossing, and when on the hunt, I'm typically in a constant state of "flow". In one of my first-ever Midwest chases, I got in front of a beast of a (non-tornadic) storm, and shot the photo above. By sunset, I was really exhausted and and then eventually got stuck in a bad location with sideways rain (and fortunately no hail). I realized at that point my thinking was kind of cloudy because I hadn’t eaten anything in about 8 hours. Anyone who knows me knows that that is a rare occurrence for me.
Another really satisfying part of chasing for me has been learning the sky. With these tiny (by global standards) storms, even the best forecast just gets you in the general area where storms might initiate--after that you're on your own with the sky (and the radar), because weather science is pretty good at telling us that the sky is going to boil with storms but it’s not good enough yet to predict where the first bubble will be. I spotted the storm that produced the storm below before it even showed up on radar, and then stayed on it for several hours.