Find out what it’s really like to storm chase across the Great Plains

Published: Jun. 16, 2022 at 5:47 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2022 at 6:37 PM EDT
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When you think of summer vacation, you might be thinking of the beach, an exotic trip or visiting family. Chief Meteorologist Aubrey Urbanowicz well, she decided to take a week of vacation and storm chase. Yes, like in the movie Twister but no not like in the movie Twister. Here’s what it’s really like to storm chase:

I decided to fly into Omaha, Nebraska, and I met up with the team I was chasing with. Fun fact, I have actually never met anyone on our chase team in person before but I know all of the Meteorologists via the Weather Brains podcast I used to be a part of. In fact, this was a vacation or as we call, ‘chase-cation’ that was supposed to take place in 2020. Because of well, you know, things had to be adjusted. So two years later, here we are.

Supercell thunderstorms, these are the most violent of all thunderstorms

Yet these powerful storms attract hundreds of storm chasers each year. Chasers are typically weather enthusiasts, photographers, researchers, Meteorology students, Meteorologists, and there are storm chasing tour groups.

This photo is an example of the storm spotters and chasers on May 4th of this year. Each red dot represents a storm chaser or spotter.

But is storm chasing as glamorous as it may look? Here’s what it’s really like.

We have a team of 6, and all are Meteorologists.

Jeremy and Chantelli are experienced chasers and photographers and storm chasing is a hobby. Bob, Tina and Julie are all National Weather Service Meteorologists and then myself, the broadcaster.

Why did I want to storm chase? I’m always in the studio and at work when we have a lot of our local storms. I wanted to see these storms better. To understand the supercell structure in person. To see the individual cells to make myself a better Meteorologists, as well as to communicate these storm threats better.

The night before a chase, you need to figure out where your target area is the next day. Timing the storms would form and how much driving will you have to do to reach that target area.

Storm chasing is often long days in the car, driving hundreds of miles and not always capturing the storm.

Your lunch and dinner may be gas station food. We would typically start on a storm between 3-5pm and stay with the storms through dark. At the end of the day as it gets dark, the nearest town may be an hour away and we often ran into the issue of food places closing before 10pm. This is why dinner was often at midnight, from a gas station.

You aren’t chasing 4-6 storms a day. You work all day to see a storm. If you chase 2-3 storms that’s a good day. Sometimes you drive all day just to capture the images of one supercell. If your target area is wrong, you may have to rush to where the nearest storm is forming, which could be 1-2 hours away. We had to do this one day, we set our target area too far south and had to rush back to the north. We were rewarded though with the funnel cloud in Lamar Colorado that night.

Each day you’re looking at the atmosphere, satellite and the surface analysis to see where the storms may form for that day. Where are the best ingredients, instability, moisture and wind shear? Those decisions can be challenging.

You’re not just looking for storms. You’re looking for where the individual cells will be but you also have to be mindful of the road network. There are a lot of dirt and country roads that will turn incredibly muddy after any rain. You don’t want to get stuck on a dirt road with a tornado heading toward you, or 4″ hail.

So your day starts, driving for hours before the storms even fire up. We’re constantly checking the National Weather Service forecast discussions for each office in our target area, satellite and radar as well as surface observations.

We’re also traveling through small towns across America which is one o f the coolest things. You’re driving through towns you’ve never heard of and would never typically travel to.

Some days there may be just enough time for a little sightseeing.

This is western Kansas! Elevation about 2,800′ which is higher than the Shenandoah Valley. If you’re in western Kansas, look up the Little Jerusalem Badlands and Monument Rocks.

It’s common to even change your target area as storms start to develop so that’s why you’re constantly monitoring current conditions.

Of course, more driving until you feel you’re in a good spot, and then you wait for the storm. That can sometimes take hours.

Once you have the storm target in sight, it may intensify right in front of your eyes. We had originally chased a storm around Cheyenne Wells, Colorado and the storm just didn’t strengthen. The view wasn’t very good. However there was a second storm that was slightly more to the west so we waited and were treated with this beautiful supercell that intensified quickly. The structure of this cell went from good to amazing within maybe 15 minutes. This was easily the best structure we saw on the trip. This was a rotating storm, that’s what a supercell was but there was no tornado.

If the storm gets too close, it’s time to reposition. We had to do that with a storm around Atwood, Kansas. In fact with this storm we ended up waiting to reposition a little too long and had to rush ahead of the storm. It did get scary because the road we turned on turned to a dirt road and it was the only way to move away from the storm.

It was a little closer than I wanted to be to a storm but we stayed on the road, tried to stay calm and eventually got a safe distance away. We had a visual on the storm. There was no tornado but we were also trying not to get hit by large hail. We did have a nice treat with this barn on the dirt road, and it made for a very good photo.

We were lucky enough to see supercells every day but one. On the ‘down day’ there were no storms, we spotted the rare horseshoe vortex over a lake in New Mexico!

Since this was also a down day we went sightseeing to the Capulin Volcano in New Mexico and saw dinosaur tracks around Clayton Lake, also in New Mexico.

In one week. we traveled 2,500 miles through seven states. That may sound like a lot but that’s tame. I was mentally prepared to travel about 4,000 miles. We were lucky that the storms were in generally the same region and we didn’t have to travel from lets say Dallas, to Rapid City back to Colorado Springs.

Just like snowflakes, every supercell is unique and slightly different. That was one of the biggest realizations on this trip.

All of these storms were rotating, some even had a tornado warning on them. The mesocyclone was rotating but no tornado touched down. That’s still one of the puzzles with tornadogenesis (how tornadoes form). Why do some supercells produce tornadoes and others don’t?

We did capture a needle funnel near Amherst, Nebraska.

Near Amherst, Nebraska on Sunday, June 5, 2022
Near Amherst, Nebraska on Sunday, June 5, 2022(Aubrey Urbanowicz)

And we did see this funnel near Lamar, Colorado.

Tornado warned storm

But no tornado, meaning no touch down. That can be frustrating, but to see the structure of these supercells is truly an experience.

And at the end of the day as it gets dark, you may be treated with mammatus clouds or a truly spectacular lightning show.

So would I do it again? Absolutely. I think it betters myself as a Meteorologist. It’s a challenge and I can geek out with other Meteorologists.

Here are a few of my favorite photos:

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