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What it takes to chase the world’s most violent storms

Storm chasing is part science and part art. Planning, patience and luck are required.

A rotating thunderstorm churns south of Childress, Tex., shortly before producing a tornado on Friday. (Matthew Cappucci/The Washington Post)

Few hobbies are more extreme than storm chasing. It’s a seemingly crazy endeavor that pays off with a chance to bask in the raw power of the most powerful and violent storms on Earth.

Successful storm chasing demands hardcore data analysis and the wisdom to know what risks to take. Doing it well can yield a chance to experience something magnificent, whether a tornado flanked by a rainbow, or a towering supercell storm that resembles a flying saucer. Slipping up can mean missing the storm or, more seriously, putting yourself in danger.

A tornado and a rainbow appeared simultaneously near one Texas town on Friday

At its root, storm chasing is as much an art as it is a science, requiring a skill set that gets honed only after years of experience. It blends forecasting and interpretation of the sky with the need for expert navigation. It’s a test of endurance and temptation. You want to get close — but not too close.

Behind every successful (or unsuccessful) storm chase comes days of planning built on years of past instances of trial and error. For many, seeing a tornado is the ultimate prize, but sculpted clouds, vivid lightning and curtains of rain can also provide quite a show.

Here’s a timeline of what a “typical” chase looks like and entails — though in the world of storm chasing, there’s no such thing as typical.

One week out

Nobody can produce a confident thunderstorm forecast a week in advance. But at the time frame of roughly seven to 10 days in advance of the storm, meteorologists can identify a broad weather pattern more conducive to severe weather and tornadoes.

Usually that means a dip in the jet stream, banking cold air and low pressure over the western United States, while warmth and moisture pools east. That provides the necessary fuel for storms, while occasional pieces of energy eject from the low-pressure system out of the Rockies, triggering rounds of storms over the Plains.

A change of wind speed and/or direction with height, which usually accompanies a nearby jet stream, is also instrumental in brewing rotating storms.

Around the seven-to-10-day time frame, storm chasers not native to the Plains might begin looking at plane tickets and rental cars, or making plans to get their vehicles to the central United States. You might find yourself comparing places such as Oklahoma City, Dallas or Wichita to see which has the cheapest airfare.

Three to five days out

Several days out, it’s possible to begin keying in on the positions of synoptic, or larger-scale, features that are important to the forecast. Will the warm front, which generates the juice for vigorous storms, pass through during the morning or evening? How far north does it get? How sharp might the dryline — the boundary between dry air west and humid air east along which storms may initiate ― get? When will the cold front, another trigger for storms, sweep through?

It’s the time frame at which you may begin plotting a tentative target, but it’s tough to get more specific than an area several hundred miles across. “Western Oklahoma” or “the Panhandles” or “Central Kansas” are all examples of what might be a target area a few days out. Then it’s all about waiting.

One to two days out

At 48 hours out, high-resolution weather models, which are “convective allowing,” or adequate at simulating thunderstorms, will begin depicting possible scenarios for the chase. These models do a decent job of helping chasers hone their target a bit more.

Targets might now be narrowed down to “the Highway 283 corridor in Oklahoma” or “the East Texas Panhandle” or “Trego, Ellis, Rush or Ness counties, Kansas.”

It’s at this time that you might have to make a tough call: Do you play the triple point, where warm/moist air, dry air and cold air all meet at the center of low pressure — or farther south along the cold front or dry line? Wind dynamics are usually stronger and foster a greater tornado risk near the triple point, but storms sometimes congeal and become messy. Farther south, a layer of warm air at the mid levels of the atmosphere — the “cap” — can suppress storm growth, making for a tricky guess as to where storms will bloom.

Sometimes, as was the case Friday, the convective-allowing models are no use at all. That’s when forecasting becomes old school and requires a more fundamental understanding of the active weather features.

The morning of

This is the most stressful time. You’re meticulously crafting a forecast, reviewing weather balloon data, looking at weather models and monitoring current conditions for more localized or “mesoscale” trends. Your cameras are all charged up, and you’re comparing your forecast against that of the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

You might step outside and smell the air — does it smell like tornado weather? The best storm chasers become intimate with the weather in a sense, learning to read it in a way that no radar or satellite can. Then it’s time to hit the road.

Your initial target is probably two or three hours away. You chose a town where two highways intersect, offering north, south, east and west options. There’s a gas station that you’ll fuel up at, and maybe a Dairy Queen.

90 minutes before

An hour and a half before your intercept, you’re probably in a parking lot chatting with other storm chasers. The sun may have poked out from behind morning cloud cover. It’s heating the ground. The atmosphere is a powder keg.

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center issues a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch. You queue up satellite imagery, searching for the first hints of towering, puffy clouds.

45 minutes before

The first blips of rain appear on radar. You flip over to “storm tops” to see which are tallest — the one in Hays, Kan., is already at 37,000 feet. You decide to wait it out for one or two more radar frames — then it’s go time. You’ve decided on a storm. Now you lock in and drop into position.

15 minutes before

The storm has the classic kidney-bean “hook echo” shape on radar, which reveals it’s rotating. A rain-free base looms south of curtains of rain and hail, some rugged tendril-like protrusions reaching down. They slowly orbit around as you hustle south to position in the “inflow notch,” or the rain-free conveyor belt of warm air feeding into the storm east of the circulation. This time, you’re lucky. Often they’re rain-wrapped and impossible to see.

Occasional baseball-sized hailstones litter the road. You just missed the hail. Your windshield thanks you.

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10 minutes before

If you’re lucky, you might settle on the perfect spot 10 minutes before tornado touchdown. You glance at the eerie center of circulation to the southwest. A funnel appears, the sky behind it taking on a filtered amber glow.

Tornadoes, hail and stunning skies make for unforgettable Texas storm chase

The funnel dips and bobs back upward, teasing you. It finally drops and grows, beginning to kick up dust as the cameras roll. You count down the minutes until you reposition. Your day is just getting started.

Reality check

Of course, a timeline like this is rare. Most storm chases aren’t nearly as fruitful — or convenient.

Storm chasing is humbling. Just when you think you’re a good forecaster, Mother Nature throws you a curveball. And right when you’re tired, exasperated and ready to throw in the towel, the atmosphere finds a way to amaze.

Storm chasing is exhausting. The highs are high, but the lows are painfully low. It takes endless hours of driving, thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of miles on your vehicle and days or sometimes weeks off work, all for a few chances to roll the dice and gamble on a good storm.

It’s not glamorous. Even the best chasers can be snarled by poor road networks, dropped cell service or dangerous storm chaser traffic jams known as “chaser convergence.” Time spent away from family can be hard. The greasy gas station food gets old fast.

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But when it goes right, there’s no feeling in life that compares. And if you don’t want to miss anything, you have to chase everything.