Lightning dances across the sky in the Texas Panhandle, seen after an observation period in the Plains Elevated Convection at Night (PECAN) field campaign. (Erin Dougherty)

Guest essay

In recent days, stunning images and videos have circulated of tornadoes in Wray, Colo., Katie, Okla., and Mayfield, Ky.

As an atmospheric science graduate student, seeing news of any severe weather always quickens my pulse, as the fascination and desire to understand these phenomena is what got me into this field in the first place.

After my first intense experience of chasing storms last summer during the Plains Elevation Convection at Night (PECAN) field campaign, a research endeavor that studied nighttime thunderstorms, I was provided insight into the realities of chasing storms.

What I learned last summer is that storm chasing is not all it appears to be — specifically these four aspects:

1. It is not always exciting. Actually, 80 percent of storm chasing can be tedious.

The majority of the public perceives storm chasing to be like the Hollywood portrayal, filled with adrenaline and constant drama. While this is true at times, most of storm chasing is rather tedious; once last summer, my research team and I drove nearly 11 hours straight from Indiana to western Kansas, just to catch the “perfect” storm (luckily, we got there in the nick of time to collect measurements). Often, the entire mobile crew of researchers waited in blistering Walmart parking lots for hours until we received further direction about where to best position ourselves for the storms.

Needless to say, storm chasing involves a lot of waiting.

2. Weather, especially severe weather, always has an element of surprise.

Weather does not always play by the rules.

For example, tornadoes initiated during the daytime do not usually last until 9 at night, but they did during an observation period near Springfield, Mo., last year in PECAN, which quickly complicated our plans to set up ground-based instruments.

Even the most skillful meteorologists, who have spent their lives dedicated to this pursuit, can be caught in dangerous situations while storm chasing due to the many associated hazards. This was the heartbreaking case of Tim Samaras, a well-known meteorologist and storm chaser, who lost his life in the deadly El Reno tornado.

3. It involves A LOT of planning.

Before even stepping foot into our truck to observe storms, my research team and the many others involved in PECAN would spend hours analyzing forecasts and poring over weather maps to figure out the best location to position ourselves. Once we were on the road and ready to deploy instruments into a storm, one person assessed the best place to put our instruments, one person monitored radar, another person communicated with other researchers, and one person drove through intense wind and rain.

When you storm-chase, you are continually assessing and reassessing the situation as the forecast and weather changes.

Storm chasing is not just spotting a storm and deciding to follow it.

4. Safety is the biggest priority for most experienced chasers.

While the purpose of storm chasing for researchers and hobbyists alike is to observe and capture data or images of a storm, the sole priority is safety. If there were tornadoes or flooding nearby during PECAN, my research team and I quickly left the area, knowing that safety is more important than any perfect dataset.

Severe weather is a massive hazard, as captivating as it is, and many experienced chasers respect this by staying a safe distance away from storms.

Some advice …

Since tornado season is upon us, chasing on a whim is never a good idea, given the potentially disastrous consequences.

I recommend (and prefer) “cloud-chasing” for hobbyists, i.e., following the storm on its backside to capture pretty pictures of cloud formations from far away. But for those who do chase (safely, of course), I think we can agree that witnessing the fascinating fury of weather unleashed in a storm is a humbling experience that makes you fully appreciate the force of nature.

A bolt of lightning illuminates a thunderstorm cloud near Indianapolis, Indiana during the Plains Elevated Convection at Night (PECAN) field campaign. (Erin Dougherty)

Erin Dougherty is a an atmospheric science graduate student at State University of New York at Albany studying hurricane intensity changes using flight-level data. She is fascinated by high-impact weather events and has been involved in a variety of research projects investigating hurricanes, thunderstorms and heavy precipitation events.