A novel worth chasing

Looking for a convective literary morsel to test out that new e-reader you got for Christma-solsti-festi-kwanz-ukah? Here’s a suggestion: Supercell by H. W. “Buzz” Bernard.

You need only read the capsule summary to know that it ain’t great literature. It’s a thriller, and it doesn’t purport to be anything more.

What impressed me about this book was how much it got right about chasing. The torment of being torn between two equally favorable (and mutually exclusive) chase targets. Second-guessing yourself when you see other chasers streaming toward the target you rejected. The wisecracking, know-it-all ride-along who regards meteorology as little more than charlatanism, and who relishes rubbing it in your face when you get it wrong. The slow-rolling Christmas tree of modern chaser convergence. The frustrating ennui of the down days. The best setup tantalizing you from the progs, one day after the end of chase-cation. The descriptions of the interplay between different entities pertinent to storm chasing (NWS, SPC, the media, and various different flavors of storm chasers) is more or less correct. The author clearly did his homework, and he acknowledges contributions from some well-known chasers and meteorologists at the end of the book.

I can’t say I was very impressed with the characters, who are mostly cut whole from cultural stereotypes. But, I still enjoyed this read. If you’re suffering from SDS, Supercell might just be the shot in the arm you need to get you to next chase season.

A bouquet of chase history

My friend Blake Naftel recently stopped in Norman to shoot a plethora of interviews for his upcoming film, Storm Chasing: The Anthology. In the decade-and-change that I’ve known Blake, this carrot-topped Michigander unfailingly talked up a film that he dreamed of making someday. In it, he would combine the mountains of VHS and DVD storm footage he had fanatically accumulated since childhood with one-on-one interviews with the individuals who created “storm chasing culture.” The film would cover half a century, from the days before the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, to the bristling, flashing parade of chasers that seems to materialize under every supercell east of the Rockies today.

Between interviews with old school and new school personalities throughout Norman, Blake stopped by to interview me and my husband. (I guess you could consider us “middle school” or “Twister generation” chasers – although our interest in storm chasing predated Twister by nearly a decade. But I digress.) In the interest of full disclosure, I “kicked in” a little money to Blake’s project back in July, when he publicly crowd-sourced the funding. I’d like to think that my contribution has nothing to do with my being selected to interview alongside the likes of Lou Wicker, Chuck Doswell, and Howie Bluestein, even though my chase catalog isn’t nearly as extensive as either of theirs.

During my two hours in front of Blake’s lights and lens, we focused how storm chasing has changed in the decade-plus that I actively chased. We talked about the growing crowds, the rise of mobile internet, the decline of the nowcaster, the impact of the film Twister and various televised depictions of storm chasers, and changes in storm science, among other things. I speculated on why so many storm chasers hail from Minnesota. (IMHO, it’s because Minnesota experiences all four seasons in their mercurial splendor. Weatherwisdom is simply in our blood.)

Both interviewer and interviewee were rather sleep-deprived, and at one point we both burst out laughing because the dullness of a Q-and-A exchange made it painfully obvious. When I was finished core-dumping my story, I swapped the lavalier mic for my rambuctious 15-month-old son, and Dan took his turn in front of the camera. While Dan spun his own tales, I kept Danny from absconding with Blake’s tapes and equipment. A celebratory pint of dunkelweizen at Das Boot Camp capped off our afternoon. Blake later gave us a shout-out on his project blog.

I look forward to seeing the film Blake will create, which is slated for completion about a year from now. I can’t even imagine the magnitude of the task he has in front of him. To me, it sounds like a Ph.D.-level project – sifting through days of footage, cataloging, transcribing, categorizing, matching spoken narrative with archival footage, and ultimately weaving all the material into a “matrix of stories” (as he put it). But, at the same time, I’m certain that he has the skills and maturity to pull it off. In any event, the hours of interviews he has filmed thus far constitute a treasure trove for future historians interested in our once-obscure and esoteric pursuit. The original definition of the word “anthology” was “a gathering of flowers,” and Blake has gathered quite an immense bouquet.

“Weather Caught On Camera” dust devil segment

Just a quick note that my husband Dan and I will be appearing this Sunday, Sept. 29th at 8E/7C on The Weather Channel’s “Weather Caught On Camera,” talking about dust devils! They contacted us earlier this summer after seeing some of our dust devil footage on YouTube. We filmed a segment with them near Tuttle back in mid-July, and it will air this weekend!

Dan interviews with Weather Caught On Camera about dust devil chasing.

Dan interviews with Weather Caught On Camera about dust devil chasing.

The storm as a national park

Much has been written over the last week about different storm chaser types. Of course, there are as many reasons for storm chasing as there are storm chasers, so trying to categorize them is tricky business. Distinctions like “amateur” and “professional” – often cited by the media in their coverage – don’t make much sense and can vary daily. I wanted to offer up a metaphor that I find useful when I try to explain the myriad reasons for chasing to non-chasers.

Tourists watch Beehive Geyser erupt

Tourists watch Beehive Geyser erupt in Yellowstone National Park in August 2011. All of them had different reasons for being there.

If you’ve seen any of my public talks in the last few years, you might remember that I open by asking the audience whether they’ve ever been to Yellowstone National Park. (Usually, about two-thirds have.) I then ask, “What if Yellowstone National Park only existed for 4-6 hours, and was moving at 15-60 miles per hour the entire time you were there?” Any national park would work, but I use Yellowstone because it’s one of the most popular, and, at about 9,000 km2, it has roughly the same areal footprint as a supercell. If you want to see Old Faithful Geyser (or better yet, Beehive Geyser, right) erupt, you’d better be able to forecast where Yellowstone will materialize next, know where your target is within the park, and be able to get there quickly.

National parks are public, and open to all (as long as you pay the entrance fee!). Storm chasing occurs at the intersections of two inherently public things: weather and roadways. Therefore, anyone who holds a valid driver’s license is potentially a storm chaser. Some people go out with no intention of storm chasing, but are drawn into the hobby in the moment. To me, proposing to legislate or license storm chasing is about as nonsensical as restricting Yellowstone to only geographers and biologists.

Storm chasers admiring and documenting the 28 March 2007 South Brice, Texas tornado.

Storm chasers admiring and documenting the 28 March 2007 South Brice, Texas tornado.

People visit national parks for all kinds of reasons: to enjoy nature, for recreation, for photography, for scientific research, to seek thrills, or to spend quality time with their families and friends, to name just a few. Those same motivations apply to people who chase storms. My own motivations vary from day to day – some days I am out to collect scientific data (as with a radar truck), other days, I am out there just to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of a storm, test my forecasting skills with my friends, and maybe bring back images or video clips as a souvenir. I can’t claim that my motivations for storm chasing are entirely unselfish. After an encounter with a storm, I often feel invigorated. That motivates me to continue chasing even more than the promise of prestige or monetary compensation.

National parks can be dangerous. Yellowstone in particular has a diverse collection of hazards – scalding hot springs, bears, bison, steep cliffs, avalanches, rapids, etc. (Incidentally, the book Death in Yellowstone offers a fascinating, if morbid, glimpse at those who have perished within the park’s borders, and how they met their ends.) A thunderstorm, too, can imperil the lives of whose who venture within its domain, deserving or not. People can choose whether to educate themselves about the hazards they will encounter in an effort to minimize their risk. As we saw a week ago, however, Mother Nature always gets the last word, and any sense of control that we have over the situation is illusory. Even the most experienced take their lives into their own hands in an encounter with a storm, or a bear. (There’s a reason we call the area beneath the meso “the bear’s cage“!)

It’s not a perfect analog, but it goes a long way towards explaining to non-storm chasers the complexities inherent in trying to categorize storm chasers. Some are there for the storm, some are there for themselves, and others chase for a spectrum of reasons in between. The only thing we have in common is that we are there because the storm is there. Storm chasing is, was, and will continue to be, what we make it.

On the passing of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young

Very early this morning, I was jarred awake by a rumor that Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and fellow storm chaser Carl Young passed away in the El Reno, OK tornado on Friday. I was unable to independently confirm the rumor, but it originated from a reliable source. The more I thought about it, the more the puzzle pieces fit together: Seven in-vehicle fatalities were confirmed in Friday’s El Reno tornado (which my husband and I witnessed from the vicinity of Union City, OK), of which four had been either publicly identified or described, leaving three people undescribed and unidentified. Tim Samaras’ Facebook and Twitter feeds had both been ominously silent since mid-Friday afternoon. This morning, our worst fears were confirmed by Tim’s brother Jim.

I will admit that I did not know Paul Samaras and Carl Young very well, but likely rubbed elbows with them at chaser conventions, picnics, and meetings. Tim Samaras can introduce himself to you in this “About Me” video on his web site.

I first met Tim in the field in 2004, on a storm chase near the Kansas-Nebraska border. I don’t recall the exact date, but it was one of the first times I had gone chasing in the UMass W-band radar as its primary operator. We found Tim and his TWISTEX crew waiting for CI just north of (I think) Beloit, Kansas. Howie Bluestein (my graduate adviser) introduced me to Tim, and Tim asked if I would be willing to collect W-band radar data over his probes if he had a successful deployment that day. He talked directly to me, not to Howie. Here I was, still relatively new in the field and wet behind the ears, and Tim was inviting me to collaborate! If memory serves, that day was a bust – the cumuli bubbled, but tornadic storms were not to be had.

Tim’s primary instruments in the early 2000s were a set of probes called Hardened In Situ Temperature and Pressure Recorders (HITPRs). A HITPR was about the same size and shape as an Asian conical straw hat, and painted bright orange to make it easy to find if it was moved or covered in debris. The HITPR was basically a miniaturized version of the TOTO probe that was used in early 1980s tornado intercepts, with the distinct advantage of having multiple copies. This 4-minute video from National Geographic shows how Tim used the HITPRs to collect measurements in the 2003 Manchester, South Dakota tornado. These and other measurements confirmed some of our conceptual models about pressure fields in tornadoes.

Tim also built a larger probe, containing seven video cameras, to record a tornado’s passage at close range for photogrammetric analysis. All seven cameras had to begin recording with the flip of a single switch – no easy engineering feat. His probe designs were frequently imitated, but never replicated. The video he took in the 2004 Storm Lake, Iowa tornado is on his jaw-dropping Driven by Passion DVD, which occupies a high spot on my chase DVD shelf and which I still use instructionally to demonstrate the perils associated with flying debris. (A sample can be seen at about 2:40, here.)

Tim’s deployment strategy involved getting very close to tornadoes, but he was NOT one of the debris-kissing yahoos. He had genuine intellectual curiosity and the skills to build instruments needed to address crucial scientific questions. He presented his results eloquently at scientific conferences and submitted them for peer-reviewed publication. He was also a multimedia wizard, perfectly synchronizing side-by-side video and measurement traces. And finally, he was a solid media personality, appearing for several years in National Geographic specials and a season or two on the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers with his TWISTEX program. Whenever Tim was on the screen, you knew there would be minimum drama and maximum science.

Tim Samaras’ loss leaves a raw and painful void in tornado research. There is literally no one else in my field who possesses the multifaceted portfolio of expertise in engineering, science, writing, videography, and entertainment that he did. I am still gobsmacked at the news of his passing, and stunned to hear that it occurred so close to us. But the grief of the severe weather research and storm chaser communities can only pale in comparison to the grief endured by their families and friends. My deepest sympathies go out to the Samaras and Young families. They can take comfort in knowing that Tim Samaras and his crew were a class act, universally well-respected, and represented the best of our community.

Update, 7:51 p.m. CDT: My former graduate adviser Howie Bluestein (whom I mentioned above) gave me permission to re-post his tribute to Tim, which was sent out in his daily status message to his colleagues:

Hi all: I am sad and shocked to tell those of you who have not already heard that Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young died while chasing the El Reno tornado on Friday. While I have been receiving unconfirmed reports of this since early this morning, the most recent, from Channel 7 in Denver (via Lou Wicker), seems to confirm this tragic news. I have known Tim for many years as someone who shared our enthusiasm for severe weather. He designed some of the early miniature instruments deployed in the paths of tornadoes, particularly those with video cameras and temperature and pressure sensors. His work has been showcased and supported in part by the National Geographic Society, and displayed at the Denver Science Museum. More recently he has been working with high-speed lightning cameras. We have in the past, for a number of years, shared our groups’ status-update messages. He and Roger Hill ran the very successful National Tornado Chasers’ Convention in Denver each February. He was always a gentleman and shared his enthusiasm with the community. While not an academic or a member of a meteorological research laboratory, he has had a profound influence on all of us, and in particular through publications of the analyses of his data from TWISTEX.

Minnesota Skywarn Workshop recap

It’s been a busy month! Immediately after the VORTEX2 science workshop, I traveled north to deliver a keynote talk at the 7th Annual Minnesota Skywarn Workshop. What a difference 15 degrees of latitude makes! Minnesota greeted me with a refrigerator chill. I reverted from a summer dress I wore in Texas back to a winter coat and gloves. No great surprise there – when I was growing up in St. Paul, I remember slushing it to the bus stop as late as the first week of May in some years.

The workshop’s organizer, John Wetter (Skywarn coordinator at NWS Chanhassen) had contacted me about a month earlier to ask if I would be interested in speaking. I jumped at the chance to reconnect with the weather community in Minnesota. And yes, I’ll admit to wanting to visit home for myriad personal reasons. They got a keynote speaker, and I got a trip back home. It was a win-win.

John Wetter (in red) introduces me at the afternoon session of the 2013 Minnesota Skywarn Workshop.

John Wetter (in red) introduces me at the afternoon session of the 2013 Minnesota Skywarn Workshop. Thanks, Dad, for the picture!

The workshop featured a nicely balanced cross-section of stakeholders: professional meteorologists (mostly op-mets from the NWS-Chanhassen and Duluth offices), EMs, members of the media, and educators. The audience members ranged widely in age, and all were keenly interested in all the talks. For my part, I spoke about the use of mobile radar in scientific storm chasing, and how it was about more than just pretty-looking data. I covered topics like dual-Doppler, EnKF, and GBVTD analyses, and of course, fresh results straight outta da VORTEX science workshop from which I’d just come. I worked in some networking between sessions. Near the end of the day, the speakers participated in a panel about social media and other factors influencing the future of Skywarn. I was impressed with the workshop organization; everything went smoothly as silk.

My talk was sourced mostly from my own work, but also from a large number of contributors. Here I credit several people who sent me slides, including Howie Bluestein, Jeff Snyder, Jana Houser, Mike French, and Vivek Mahale. I also knew I needed to include some mobile radar data collected in Minnesota in order make the talk locally relevant. (Our observations tend to be Great Plains-centric, just because of fuel costs.) Mike Biggerstaff, Gordon Carrie, and Kyle Pennington generously shared their results from SMART-R observations of the 17 June 2010 Albert Lea, MN tornado (collected during the VORTEX2 “epilogue” period). Thanks, guys!

The organizers were even kind enough to waive the registration fees for a few of my family members, so they got to enjoy the day’s program and learn useful skills like dual-pol radar interpretation. I’m particularly glad my uncle (former EM for Winona County) and aunt made the two-hour drive up to the University of St. Thomas, even though one of their horses was about to give birth. (Incidentally, the foal – a filly – was born the very next morning.)

I spent the balance of the weekend visiting friends and family. I returned to Norman both professionally and personally satisfied. Thanks, John Wetter, for giving me the opportunity to speak at this well-run venue and make a long-overdue visit home!

VORTEX2 science workshop recap

It’s been nearly three years since the field phase of VORTEX2 ended. Two weeks ago, a group of about 30 PIs and scientists reunited at a retreat near Austin, Texas. I was asked to send a few tweets from the workshop since the V2 media liason wasn’t in attendance.

VORTEX2 science workshop group photo

VORTEX2 science workshop group photo


At the end of the field phase, the PIs divided up case studies and initiated collaborations. Over the three-and-a-half days of the workshop, participants updated the group on their most recent findings, including low-reflectivity ribbons (a feature whose significance is still not completely clear), an apparent case of bottom-up tornadogenesis, an uber-composite supercell environment generated from over 700 rawinsonde launches, and UAV transects across multiple gust fronts. There were also discussions about lessons learned (particularly from the UAV group), new tools (EnKF analyses have proven to be a popular tool for filling in the spatiotemporal gaps between observations), and directions for the future.

In the past three years, life has changed for many of the participants. Some have changed jobs or institutions, graduated (waves), or had families. In spite of all this mobility, electronic collaborations and conferences have enabled quick dissemination of results. (It took 10 years for some results from the original VORTEX to see print.) Josh Wurman aggregated a list of all the peer-reviewed VORTEX2-related manuscripts published so far: the paper count currently stands at 14, with 9 more either accepted or in press. It was decided that the group will shift focus in the next few years towards synthesis studies rather than individual case studies.

It wasn’t all work, of course. There was time for some fun, including a zip line ride across Lake Ted!

Minnesota Skywarn Workshop

Just a heads up that I will be giving a keynote talk at the 2013 Minnesota Skywarn Workshop on Saturday, 13 April 2013. As many of you know, I grew up in the Twin Cities, so this venue is a perfect fit for me. I’m looking forward to the chance to visit my old stomping grounds and reconnect with the spotter community up north. Minnesota weather weenies (and yes, I still count myself among them) are a very special breed!
2013 Minnesota Skywarn Workshop

Heads up, Madison!

I’ll be back in my undergrad stomping grounds to give a talk entitled “Unraveling tornadoes with mobile Doppler radar: Scientific storm chasing on the Great Plains” to the Madison, Wisconsin IEEE section on Friday, 16 November 2012. (The section is generously sponsoring my travel. Thanks, guys!) Here’s their announcement for the talk.

In other news: I’ve got a new job! As of today, I have transitioned to an NRC postdoctoral fellowship at the National Severe Storms Laboratory. I will be working with Dr. Pam Heinselman analyzing phased-array radar data. I’m excited to join her and the Radar Research and Development Division (R2D2)!

Last but not least, please enjoy this sunrise time-lapse I shot from the south rim of the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago on my vacation.

Originally, I uploaded sans audio, but YouTube suggested Carly Comando’s pleasant piano piece “Everyday,” and I decided it was a good fit.

Review: And Hell Followed With It by Bonar Menninger

And Hell Followed With It by Bonar MenningerIt should come as no surprise to anyone that books about historic tornadoes often pop up on my Amazon recommendations. I’ve probably read two dozen of them. They’ve ranged from drama-rich to science-poor to saltine-dry, with the occasional pompous self-promotion (usually written by a television celebrity) thrown in for good measure. So when Bonar Menninger’s And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado (2010), about the 1966 Topeka, Kansas F-5, surfaced in my recommendations, I held off on it for a few months. I finally bought it to read on my recent trip to France. I’m pleased to say it was a solid investment that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I offer the following review with the caveats that (1) I read the Kindle edition, and (2) I have no immediate mechanism for evaluating the accuracy of many of the anecdotes. I assume implicitly (and perhaps naively) that the stories have been recorded and conveyed faithfully. However, the extensive list of references (more than 100 of them) at the end of the book gives me some confidence that the author did his homework.

It’s rare that an author comes along who is capable of weaving together a comprehensive narrative of natural calamity in a manner that doesn’t reduce the victims to near-anonymous disaster fodder (and the scientists studying the event to bookish fools, for that matter). From page one, each person who experienced the tornado is incarnated for the reader – usually via an anecdote not involving the tornado, and more often than not a humorous one. We learn about the fiery Mexican housewife, the Depression survivor caring for his disabled children, the up-and-coming disc jockey, and the 8-year-old boy frantically bicycling to a nearby store to run an errand as the tornado bears down. Details as seemingly mundane as what songs or news stories played on the radio, or what TV programs people planned to watch that night (Lost in Space, anyone?) serve to ferry the reader’s imagination back to 1966. The people described could just as easily have been a reader’s (grand)parents, relatives, friends, or neighbors.

Though the stories jump back and forth in time, Menninger masterfully braids them together to provide context for the disaster while describing the disaster itself. (The book contains a handy index at the end, enabling the reader to cross-reference each person, place, and concept.) We learn the history underlying the Burnett’s Mound myth, and about Richard Garrett’s tireless crusade to leverage the pre-existing Cold War knowledge and infrastructure (read: sirens) to prepare Topeka’s citizens for a tornado that he was sure would come someday. Garrett’s efforts in particular are credited with holding the number of tornado fatalities in his state’s capitol down to just over a dozen, for which he received an Exceptional Service Award from the U.S. Weather Bureau.

There’s also the saga of John P. Finley’s 1880s tornado research, the Weather Bureau’s subsequent ban on the use of the word “tornado” in its products, and the redemption provided by the 1948 Fawbush and Miller tornado forecast. Despite the book jacket’s claim that the above story is “virtually unknown,” it’s old yarn to me. That’s not just because I’m a severe weather researcher, but because that story is inevitably retold in just about every contemporary tornado book I’ve read! But that’s a minor gripe about the promotion, not the writing.

Accounts of the tornado’s destruction – chapter by chapter, block by block – never become repetitive. The stories are still just as compelling, and the dread just as fresh and palpable, in Chapter 15 as in Chapter 1. The last couple of chapters deal with the aftermath on scales ranging from personal to national. We learn the fates of the survivors, some of whom had to deal with the physical and mental trauma, in some form or another, for the rest of their lives. Some even report bits of debris still emerging from their skin 20 years later!

From a meteorologists’ perspective, I could not find much to complain about. The highway overpass myth is firmly dispelled at several different points in the book, including the forward. (Several victims encountered the tornado along I-70.) Menninger does a decent job of articulating the state of severe weather science in 1966, and how newer insights have helped to illuminate the events described. However, many of the meteorologists profiled are now deceased, and I did not have the pleasure of meeting them. Perhaps some of my readers can offer their insights as to the accuracy of their stories.

Topeka tornado mural

This mural, “Tragic Prelude,” inside the Topeka state capitol rotunda, vividly depicts the tornado as a metaphor for Kansas’ turbulent history. (This is not the actual mural, which was closed for cleaning when I visited, but a photograph of it.)

What really impressed me about And Hell Followed With It was the quality of the writing. The tornado is variously described as an “enormous, whitish-gray basket,” a giant “broadcast spreader” or “lawn mower,” “boiling, gray lava,” “an ancient, crooked finger,” “coiled like a snake” (during its rope-out phase), and so on. The book reads like a work of fiction, so fast and thick do the metaphors come, and so vividly are the people portrayed. Alas, the Topeka tornado was very real, and as I found out on my visits to Topeka during VORTEX2, the city is loathe to forget.

Lay readers, disaster buffs, and professional meteorologists alike should find something to appreciate in And Hell Followed With It. The author has done a remarkable job of aggregating a colossal amount of information about the Topeka tornado and conveying it in a narrative that is digestible, compelling, and sometimes even funny. And Hell Followed With It should set a standard against which other comprehensive tornado histories can be judged.