Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Thoughts about "SPC Chasers" and Forecasting Severe Weather

Today is one of the first "big" days of the 2014 chase season.  Many chasers are on the road in Oklahoma into Texas.  A system is moving through bringing severe weather to the Southern states and yet ANOTHER winter storm/ heavy snowfall to the Northern states (lucky us in Minnesota!!!).

As the season takes off I keep reading comments about "SPC Chasers" as if they aren't "good enough" as compared to the "experts" that use model data to do their own forecasting.  For those of you newbies, SPC is the "Storm Prediction Center".  This topic keeps popping up in various places, including a photo on Facebook I just saw posted of a dog at the computer and saying "I have no idea what to do"...representing "SPC Chasers" if the SPC website was unavailable.
SPC 1630 Convective Outlook for today
I wanted to make a few comments about this.  First of all, let's NOT look down upon chasers who happen to use SPC products as the main resource for their chase forecasts (outlooks, mesoanalysis, etc).  These tools are actually VERY useful.  SPC happens to be staffed with some of the top forecasters who specialize in forecasting severe weather.  They are behind the desk analyzing data 24/7 to come up with the best, most accurate severe weather forecast possible.  I am VERY grateful for the work they do.  And Yes, I do use their products often!  That's why they are there, to provide us high quality storm forecasts.  So, why not use them?  And if someone chooses only to use SPC for their forecast, who cares?  They may not be able to choose a specific target days or hours before the storms fire, but at least they are using professional guidance on where to be.  And if the SPC website does go down...well they might be out of luck (but can probably find many posts on Facebook from other chasers to figure out a little about where to go).

BUT, I do think it is necessary to be able to interpret radar and UNDERSTAND the storm structure and what is happening in the sky when storms do fire.  This is critical in staying safe and chasing smart.  So, if you are relying on SPC for your forecasts and targeting, please at least learn about the storm and what you are looking at (beyond the tornado!).  Take a Skywarn class, complete some online training, read books, and most importantly...go chasing with experienced, knowledgeable chasers who will be willing to help you learn.  I did.  My first chasing was with experts in the field.  And even though I already took the classes and understood the graphics, the structure, the features, the models, the radar, was a completely different experience being in the field.  I was grateful for being out in the field with true experts and I learned so much. 

Just so you know where I'm coming from...I have a B.S. Degree in Chemistry and Biomedical Science.  I also took several college Meteorology courses, including forecasting...along with a couple extra specialized severe storm forecasting workshops/ classes....from Tim Vasquez and College of DuPage for example.  And it all makes sense to me.  In my forecasting class with Bob Weisman we had to hand plot the weather maps, surface obs, boundaries, etc.  He worked us hard and it was fun!  I loved it all. 

So, yes, I can and do sometimes do my own forecasting using the various models available on the internet (GFS, NAM, RAP, HRRR, etc).  Usually I just look at a few key parameters and determine whether I think the coming day(s) are looking good enough to chase.  But this is usually just a validation of what SPC is already saying.  So, honestly, I usually just rely on what SPC has to say for the coming few days....until the DAY OF....then it's time to do some real-time data analysis.

Real-time surface observations today in the slight risk area.
As far as forecasting goes, I do think it is important for a serious chaser to have some training and knowledge about models AND more importantly about what makes severe weather.  What is happening in the atmosphere at the surface and above?  It's important to understand the "why" and is key in being able to understand the "where"...where to plan your chase for the day....where is YOUR target?

If SPC has a slight risk that covers 11 states (yes, 11!), as they do today (see map at the top...even though some of those 11 states are only little portions of the state), how do you decide where to target if you don't know much about the science and how to read model data?  Ok, yes, SPC does specify what areas have a higher probability of tornadoes in their discussion and even more specifically in an MD.  But, this can still cover hundreds of miles of territory.  To increase your odds of intercepting the best storms of the day it is important to do some of your own data analysis.  Even if you decide to only use the SPC Mesoscale Analysis page, you will need to understand the graphics, what parameters to look at and what to look for.

Personally, on the BIG day, the CHASE day, I use 3 main things: 
1. Real time data (surface obs, soundings, satellite, radar, etc).
2. HRRR model runs (where is the model initiating convection?)
3. SPC outlooks, mesoscale discussions, and watches

I personally don't use SPC Mesoscale Analysis graphics very often, but I do sometimes.  If you do, be careful of "targets" on some of the composite graphics, such as the Supercell Composite.  These are useful in some regards as they are combining many parameters to show where conditions are coming together best for supercells, BUT there are other factors to consider.  The target on the graphic may be quite a bit East of where the actual convective initiation will take place....or it may be highest where the CAP is also strongest so nothing will actually fire there.  Again, it's about understanding the science of what is happening and how to use the model data and graphics you are looking at in order to pick the most accurate target (which can still be wrong...because there's always a factor of luck and timing involved!). 

Hey, if you're an "SPC Chaser" I still love you, you're still awesome, we share a passion for crazy weather!  I love SPC and I use their tools all the time.  Please just be sure you understand the sky, what you're looking at, the dynamics and structure of the storms (particularly supercells!) and how to navigate safely around them.  If you're new and want to learn please reach out to us or other chasers.  We are happy to help! 

See you under the meso!

~Melanie Metz

Image copyright Melanie Metz/

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Storm Chase #1 of 2014 in SW MN! March 31st, Low Topped Supercells

Southwest Minnesota = Torando!  Northwest Minnestoa = Blizzard! 
Crazy day on March 31st, 2014...bringing tornadoes to Minnesota before many of the typical "tornado alley" states to the south this year.  I am used to seeing this type of system in the early spring...a Low pressure bringing a Blizzard to the North and tornadic storms near the Low in the warm/moist air.. (Of course, there's much more behind the science of it).  But to see it ALL happen in Minnesota this time of year is a little out of character. 

On Saturday, after presenting with Peggy at the Saline County Severe Weather Symposium in Nebraska (great fun!  awesome people!), I heard there was a Blizzard coming to MN Monday....but nothing about tornadoes.  I had a long drive ahead of me to get back to Elk River, MN so I decided to leave early Sunday and beat the blizzard.  Sunday night I noticed the Low pressure was projected to move across SW MN up toward Minneapolis.  Anytime I see a LOW coming through in the Spring/Summer I get a little excited...this means potential for storms!  It still seemed a little cold and dry for good tornadic storms to develop though.  But, my gut said "HMMM...maybe some good storms near that Low tomorrow (not to the North in the blizzard of course...). 

Developing low topped supercell East of Marshall, MN
Monday morning I decided to surf the web looking for interesting jobs...maybe something weather related?  Then I saw a post that SPC put up a 2% Tornado risk for SW MN in a small area (but no slight risk) the Low moved over the area.  Hmmm....just as I was thinking...  So I started looking at data (before seeing this, I didn't bother).  Time to check out surface obs and some HRRR model runs.  Hmm...looking ok!  Dewpoints are getting to be on the verge of just enough for some severe (just over 50 in a couple spots in SW MN).  A little sun and warming bringing a narrow corridor of instability to the area.  Conditions looking decent for Low Topped Supercells and possible brief tornadoes.  YES, DO IT!  I didn't pour over the numbers too long before my gut said YES!  And this wasn't about SDS or the long, cold, icy, snowy winter we've endured (ok, maybe a little).

I grabbed the cameras, chargers, inverter and extension cord and hit the road by 1:00pm.  I left the laptop at home for this one.  I relied on the good ol' smartphone.  Yep, I love the smartphone apps.  I can easily see radar and my blip (look, there I am!) on the map without setting up the clunky laptop.  Besides, the cameras took up the passenger seat. 

I cruised out towards the Marshall area.  The 20Z SPC outlook maintained the 2% TOR risk.  HRRR runs were consistent.  I was pretty sure I was going to see something interesting.  And yes, 3:45ish CDT a TCu (towering Cumulus) appeared just East of Marshall.  It quickly took on a nice look...with fairly low base (considering the limited moisture) and nice anvil.  Initiation!! I debated whether to stay and watch or move further East to the mature storm (more intense on radar) just West of Marshall.  I decided to stay and watch.  And I don't regret it!  Although, I did miss the brief tornado near St. Leo on the other storm (unfortunately caused some damage to farm properties, no injuries though).  But I liked my storm...yes, I'm calling it "my storm", LOL!  It was cute and packed a punch for a little thing.  Nice structure, strong inflow winds, a brief funnel overhead and even some mushy hail.  I didn't get the hail on video but I did drive through it :-)

A brief funnel forms under the base, note the "clear slot"
A funnel descends briefly overhead as the storm moves North.
After "my storm" seemed to weaken as it was getting wrapped up into the Low, into the colder air to the North, I intercepted the still Tornado warned cell near Montevideo.  Tornado sirens were blaring as I entered the town but the storm looked a little unraveled, messy, not so organized anymore...for it too was moving North...into the Blizzard!  A funnel was reported by law enforcement just North of the Montevideo area but I didn't see anything...contrast was low.  I quickly decided it was time to end the chase and head East back towards home.  Along the way I was happy to have more photo ops with the setting sun.  The sun lit the towering Cu/ storms out to the East very nicely and reflected beautifully off a frozen lake as two geese wandered around wondering where the water was.  They were re-considering their decision to migrate back to MN this early.  Don't you know?  It doesn't really warm up here until late May (if we're lucky!). 

Just south of the meso on the TOR warned storm...that is falling apart as it moves North.

Towering Cu/ Storms to the East near Litchfield, MN.

So, it's official, the storm chase season of 2014 has begun for the Twister Sisters!  Looking forward to an exciting season.  Have fun, live for what you love and stay safe!  The video from this chase is at the bottom of the blog...just a couple minutes...a little taste of bigger weather to come!
~Melanie Metz

"What?  The lake is STILL frozen??  Time to go back down south..."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Severe Weather Coming Soon!

It's March 4th.  It's been a COLD, LONG winter for many in the United States (ya, you know!).  And we are TIRED of it!!  Spring is just around the corner (or so we hope).  That means severe weather is also just around the corner.  This is exciting for some and scary for others.  Personally, I'm excited!  But I'm also aware.  Stay aware when you chase or are hanging out at home or the park on a warm spring day.  Pay attention to the forecast in your area.  If there is a chance of Severe storms, keep your weather radio on.  If you are chasing the storms, keep a safe distance from the "meso" and don't get in the path of the tornado.  Stay back, stay alive.

Last year was a tragic year for the storm chasing community.  We lost top notch researchers and very kind, respected men in the field; Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young.  They were taken in an instant in the May 31st historic El Reno, OK tornado.  It was a somber reminder of what power these storms have and how we must treat them with respect. 

While researchers may have specific tasks to perform, like deploying probes in the path of a tornado, most chasers do not have any reason to be in the path of the tornado.  Please remember that.  To be honest, there is something more majestic and beautiful about a storm when viewed from a few miles away (see image below), where you can see the dynamics at play.  It can be magical.  Ok, yes, sometimes it's exciting to be a little closer and feel the inflow at your back as the tornado crosses the field in front of you....  But, I've never been one who wants to see how close I can get or drive into the vortex to get the most dramatic shot or see debris fly in front of me.  I have never understood why some think they can drive into a tornado for the ultimate shot.  Deploying a camera probe in the path makes sense, yes, that's ok...but driving INTO it while in the vehicle (whether or not it's a "tank")?  No Thank You!  Not for me! 

As the 2014 season approaches we are charging our cameras and laptops, awaiting the rush of the wind, the magic of the sky and the power of the storm.  Maybe this year we will see a set of sister twisters. 

Here's to riding the winds of life!

Photograph from Ada, OK in 2011.  Copyright Melanie Metz,