Storm Chase Photo Highlights

As I wrote, last week I was out in the plains storm chasing.  I landed in Denver on May 23 (the day after my classes ended), drove south to Pueblo, and then the next day got on beautiful storms near Carlsbad, New Mexico (lightning photos below).  Scott Fisher joined me on May 25, and after driving around in the fog under a tornado watch all morning I'm glad he got to see the big mushroom-cloud looking supercell you see below.  The 26 I was with every other chaser on three tornado-warned storms in a row near Garden City Texas.  I ended up in the hail core of one (see the video) and got some shots of the other storms, and ended up in San Angelo, which got pounded (see flooding photo from the next morning).  Things died down for a couple days after that so I headed north and stumbled across the abandoned Baker hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas. I stayed in Wichita Falls, Texas and the next morning saw the the devastation brought about by a five-year drought.  Lake Arrowhead, Wichita Falls' drinking water supply, was at around 25% and where I was shooting photos I should have been under about 10 feet of water. I headed up north through Oklahoma City, where I stopped in to see the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and also visited the site in El Reno where, tragically, three storm chasers were killed a year ago. I drove up through beautiful stretch of western Kansas and Nebraska, and visited Toadstool Geologic Park.  I then did a bit of sight seeing in the beautiful Black Hills, where I saw both Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. I visited Devil's Tower and then the weather fired up again and I got on some crazy-looking storms near Gillette, Wyoming. I chased one last day in Kansas (last two storm photos and rainbow) and then headed back to Denver (mountain sunset photo) and flew home Monday. 

Here's a few photo highlights (click on any thumbnail to enlarge); I have many more on my Google photo pages.

Update June 6, 2014--Video Highlights below.

Out Here In The Middle--Why I Storm Chase

dsc_1237-2.jpg

This week I’m “out here in the middle*”, in the Great Plains storm chasing. I've loved and been fascinated by thunderstorms and severe weather my whole life; I chased hurricanes in the 80’s on Long Island, and was hooked on the idea of seeing a tornado, of course, after seeing Twister in the 1990’s. In more recent years, wireless internet became affordable, and I've had some flexibility in my schedule, and that’s allowed me to get out here more frequently (and I finally got my first tornado last year). Of course, my goal while out is to find and photograph another tornado, but there’s something beyond that that makes me want to get “out there” when I’m at home in NYC.

I turned 50 this year, and I've experienced a lot in my life. But there’s few things I've encountered in the world as truly awesome (in the true sense of the word) as a supercell thunderstorm.  From a distance, to the untrained eye (I took a Penn State meteorology course and lots of spotter training before chasing), these storms can just look like pretty, puffy clouds. But if you know what’s going, you can actually see the dynamics of the storm at work, and the atmosphere gives up its otherwise invisible secrets. Closer, some of the power of the storm becomes evident, and being near the updraft of the storm can be truly awe-inspiring. In person, a tornado—a rare phenomenon on the earth—is really beyond description. And the potential for a few minutes exposure to nature’s power in its raw, unabashed glory is what compels storm chasers to drive hundreds of miles a day to maybe—possibly--see something. Or, sit all day under a tornado watch in Nebraska and see nothing but the sun (as I have done), with the only guarantee being endless fast food meals, and the entertainment of the day being a truck stop gift shop.

But there’s other reasons to be out here. Having grown up in the east, the expanse of the plains is hard to even comprehend. I remember the first time I saw flat prairie land to the horizon; I was at a meeting in Kansas City and I just drove west in Kansas until an hour after I didn't see any more trees. It’s like the first time you see the Grand Canyon or the Everglades; even after seeing photos your whole life, and having a clear mental image, it just doesn't seem real. 

And then there’s the sky, and the light. At home in New York, you often have to make an effort to see the sky. Here, it’s relentless and unavoidable, ever-changing, and endlessly fascinating. You can feel like you’re floating in it, like you’re drawn into it, a part of it. As a photographer, I’m always chasing the “golden hour”—the hour or so before sunset when the light rakes the landscape from a low angle, and out here, with so few obstructions, you get the full, beautiful benefit of that time.

At home, I pack my schedule down to the minute, optimizing everything I can to give me as much time to cram as many interesting things into my life as possible. Here, I turn my schedule over to nature. I wake up in the morning, check the forecast, and then finalize on a decision where to go that day. When I leave, I generally have no idea where I’ll be staying that night.  As good as our forecast models are now, chasers still end up following the winds out here.

By NYC standards, there’s not much culture out here in “fly over” country—there’s more people just in my home city than the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas combined. No people means not much going on.  By 8 pm, when many go out to dinner at home, everything’s closed in most of these small towns. But the connection to the land has always been important to me. I grew up surrounded by corn fields and a river in rural Maryland, and being in these small towns always feels like a visit home in some way. 

So I’ll be out here this week, even though I might not see much severe weather, since I had to book this trip months ago and there’s not much in the forecast. But the atmosphere is always changing, and one supercell out in open country would make all the hassles worth it; a tornado out in a field would be icing on the cake. 

But the plains on their own will be their own consolation prize if nothing else happens.

* "Out here in the middle" is a great song by James McMurty, who for me is the voice of the plains.  Other great songs include "Levelland" (My current chase target for today), "No More Buffalo", and the great "Choctaw Bingo".

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA): A Great New Weather Tool For Show Crews

It's spring, and that means the start of severe weather season, and also the time when many of us in show business start working on outdoor shows. I've done a lot of outdoor sound systems and I'm also a storm chaser and weather geek, so when I'm on an outdoor show site, I'm often running real-time radar on my laptop in addition to my sound system alignment software. While I'm monitoring approaching storms out of curiosity, I'm not a meteorologist, and I strongly believe that event producers need to hire professionals to make decisions related to audience and crew safety. But--as show crews--the decision to hire a meteorologist is often out of our control, and while safety is our employer's legal responsibility, it's obviously strongly in our interest to make sure we do everything we can to ensure a safe workplace, especially in light of the spate of recent weather-related show disasters (about which I've written extensively).

In this spirit, in early 2012 I wrote an article (download a copy here) called Weather Resources for Show Crews for PLASA's Protocol magazine, which outlines the process I use to monitor the weather when working outdoors. In April 2012, after the publication of that article, a new form of emergency alert based on the position of your cell phone started becoming available; the system is called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), or, more commonly, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Distribution of these alerts is handled by cell carriers and has been rolling out across the country; last year, many friends were surprised with an alert like this on their phone when there was a severe weather event in their area:

Courtesy Ready.gov

Courtesy Ready.gov

The alerts are accompanied by a sound like the one in the Youtube video below.

There are three types of alerts: Presidential, Imminent Threat, and Amber.  Imminent threats include weather warnings issued by the National Weather Service (NWS), all of which most certainly could be an imminent threat to a show site:

  • Tornado Warnings
  • Flash Flood Warnings
  • Hurricane and Typhoon Warnings
  • Extreme Wind Warnings
  • Dust Storm Warnings

The alerts are special messages that are broadcast from cell towers to nearby phones, and they go through even when there is heavy voice or text network usage (like at a large event). Since the messages are broadcast, the issuer of the alert does not know your cell phone number--the alerts are just issued to every cell phone on a certain carrier in a specific area.  All of this is a great thing for those of us who work (or play) outdoors, because it now means that--wherever you are in the country--you can be warned of imminent weather hazards automatically and immediately. This is a functionality formerly only offered by paid apps that could increase your data bill or drain your battery.  

Carriers are required to issue the alerts in affected counties, but it's also possible (preferable) that they will target an alert to a tighter geographic area This is great news, since (as I discuss in the article), the NWS issues many warnings onto geographic polygons. For example, here's a tornado-warned storm I was chasing:

Transient

The purple box is the extent of the tornado warning; if you are outside that box, then the NWS does not consider that storm to be a threat to you (at that moment, anyway).

My carrier is Verizon, and it seems like they do issue on the warning polygons rather than on a county basis: "Authorized Senders determine which locations will receive a specific alert based on the area defined by the geographical latitude and longitude of the emergency. As circumstances dictate, Authorized Senders will identify  targeted areas for each specific alert. Devices compatible with Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) that are operating within the area targeted will receive the WEA. Those devices operating in areas not targeted by Authorized Senders will not receive the alert."  This is a good thing, especially if you happen to be on tour somewhere where the counties are enormous, and you might get a severe thunderstorm warning alert while you are many miles away under sunny skies.

The service is "opt out", meaning if your phone has the feature, it will be enabled by default.  You can turn off all but the Presidential Alerts; I would recommend keeping your imminent threat alerts turned on.  On my Android phone on Verizon, there's an app called "Emergency Alerts", and you can configure your alert reception and notification there:

And of course, as I detailed in the article, the time to make an emergency plan is long before one of these alerts is issued for your show site.  Let's keep safe out there!

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