Storm Chasing: Do's and Don'ts

Unlike most organized sports, there is really no official start to the storm-chasing season. Here in Indiana it can kick off as early as the first week of March or not really get under way until the middle of May, depending on the year. Other parts of the country probably have similarly variable trends with the waxing and waning of severe weather. But I think it’s fair to say that for most of us storm addicts, the end of another dreary winter is well within sight, and before we know it, we’ll once again be eagerly checking the SPC outlook several times a day, dusting off cameras, buying fresh packs of batteries, and gassing up vehicles for the inaugural chase of a brand-new 2015 storm season. With that in mind, I’d like to share Six quick lessons I’ve learned over my three previous years of storm-chasing that will hopefully make this new season even more special and enjoyable for you.

1) DON'T try this at home.

Storm chasing is not something to run out and try on your own. This can get you in big trouble very quickly. The best way to get started is to ride along with a seasoned chaser who is willing to help you learn how to do it safely. There are several great tour companies that will take you out for a week or more of storm chasing. We offer a Storm Chase Ride Along program that is perfect for those wanting to get into storm chasing, or those that just want to witness mother nature first had. Severe storm near Crawfordsville, IN on what I thought would be a non-chase day.

2) DON'T ever judge a potential chase day until the day itself arrives.

This works both ways. Last summer on at least a couple of occasions I got all worked up days in advance of a predicted severe-weather event, only to have it fizzle out or shift much further away at the last minute. This resulted in a lot of miles driven and sleep lost all for naught, as well as some frustration and disappointment. But some other days I woke up fully expecting boring weather conditions, and then on checking the SPC discovered that atmospheric conditions had changed overnight and severe storms were in the works for my area after all. Either way, you have to remember that even with all our scientific knowledge, Mr. Weather still likes to pull some fast tricks and flexibility is an absolute must if you’re going to stick with chasing long-term.

3) DON'T set your heart on one specific goal to accomplish during a chase. Success comes in many different forms.

On a chase last May, I set out in hopes of catching some cold-air funnels since conditions were very favorable for their development that day. I never saw any but instead photographed a gorgeous supernumerary rainbow in a very scenic part of Western Indiana. Another day in the fall, a 10% risk of tornados was forecast just south of where I live. Despite having to get up early for work the next day, I set out late that afternoon on a two-hour trip to Terre Haute, IN, bound and determined to intercept my first-ever twister. I had been glued to the radar all day and gambled that the tornado-producing storms would roll into Southern Indiana well before nightfall. But I lost that gamble. It was well after sunset when the line of storms finally approached my destination, and after stopping for only 20 minutes to film a few lightning strikes, I endured a long, lonely and soggy drive all the way back to West Lafayette, with only a few hours of sleep time left by the time I made it home. I labeled the chase an epic bust and forgot about it. But when I took a perfunctory look at my video footage the next weekend, I discovered that I’d unexpectedly captured some of the best lightning stills of my life so far. The disappointment of not seeing a tornado evaporated, and I was once again reminded of why I love to chase, even when it can feel like a foolish waste of time and money.

Warren County, IN rainbow.

4) DON'T limit yourself by location.

Rural landscapes are usually thought of as the only acceptable location for severe weather photography, and with good reason since they are usually wide-open, unpopulated, and beautiful. But be willing to think outside the box. On a chase early in the spring of last year, I struck out to Central Illinois to meet an incoming squall line. I mistakenly timed it so that I ran into the squall line right in the middle of downtown Bloomington, instead of in the country as I had expected. At first I thought this might mean a failed chase. But I found an open city park with a large fishing pond that in a way made for just as scenic and interesting of a backdrop to the storm as an open field could have. Also, don’t feel like you even have to leave your house every time there’s severe weather in the area. Even though Indiana endured a tediously quiet tornado season last year, I watched and photographed two well-defined, rotating wall clouds from the comfort of my own front yard. Why go through the risk, hassle, and expense of a long-distance chase when the severe storms are kind enough to pay you a personal visit instead?

Wall Cloud passing near my house in West Lafayette, IN

5) DO play around with editing and enhancing your photographs, at least occasionally.

I’m not much of an expert at all with the fine-art aspects of severe weather photography. But I used to feel like it was somehow “cheating” to mess with the lighting, contrast, or colors of a weather picture after taking it, because it might be making it look different from the way it actually appeared in real life. But eventually I learned that quite often, much of the original quality and richness of a storm scene gets lost in the photography process, and rather than trying to “improve” on nature’s beauty, editing a picture is just a way to restore some of that subtle quality. Also, it can be fun to add a human touch to severe weather photography by transforming a picture to black-and-white or making some other more obvious edits, as long as you’re honest about them. Do keep in mind, though, that no photograph or video can ever hold a candle to the splendor of witnessing Nature’s power and beauty in person!

Derecho (a long-lived line of damaging severe storms) rolls over Northwest Indiana at twilight.

6) DO remember to have fun.

Don’t get me wrong. Storm chasing is an intense and dangerous activity that should be taken seriously. But if you’re not getting at least some fun out of the experience, you’re doing it all wrong. Savor the freedom of the road. Find a radio station that plays your favorite music and crank it way up. Enjoy the beauty of the countryside around you, even in the absence of storms. Relish the chance to meet new people and see places that you might never have got to see otherwise. Don’t take it too hard if you have a busted chase or miss a big-time storm because you planned things wrong. I’ve been there plenty of times and can assure you that sooner or later, another special opportunity will come your way that will make up for the missed one. Expect the unexpected. Keep your eyes on the sky. Drive safe and watch out for the “other guy” (or maybe more to the point, don’t be that “other guy” yourself!). Respect your neighbors and fellow chasers. And for Mike’s sake, remember to HAVE FUN!!! See y’all out on the chasing field, friends!