Storm Chasing with Weather Dan: 2012 Chase Preview

I’m getting ready to head out with the Virginia Tech storm chase crew for another trip to the Great Plains. We’re back looking for more supercell thunderstorms, and hopefully a tornado or two along the way.

This is part of Weather Dan’s ongoing 2012 storm chasing series. For a couple of weeks he’ll be running around the middle part of America looking for the meanest storms in the name of SCIENCE. Follow the action here.

Top: National Weather Service meteorologist and VT chase crew member Robert Stonefield (foreground) helps rig up one of the mobile mesonet units. Veteran chaser Chris White (left rear) does the same.

BLACKSBURG, Va. – The time has come. As I’ve mentioned, the Virginia Tech Hokie Storm Chase crew is getting ready to hit the road again.

We had initially planned to leave on Sunday, but a quiet weather pattern across the Great Plains, coupled with budgetary concerns, mean we had to delay departure until Tuesday morning. We wanted to get the most bang for our buck, so to speak. I’m going along this year as an experienced chaser and teaching assistant, helping this year’s first

Our goal: drive west for two days, and then spend the next week hunting thunderstorms. We’re looking for supercells — large, rotating thunderstorms capable of producing gigantic hail, torrential rainfall, and tornadoes. Our 2011 chase was frustrating at times, as we started the trip with three days of “busts.”

We finally caught a tornado on the next to last day of chasing. Our success was overshadowed by another tornado that same day that leveled the town of Joplin, Missouri, claiming more than a hundred lives.

This year is similar in some respects. The outlook for the upcoming week isn’t very favorable for a big tornado outbreak. Despite the obvious negatives, there are some positive aspects to this “problem.” While we have to work harder to forecast each day, many times these “quiet” periods also keep some of the other storm chasers away. The concept of chaser convergence – where a large number of storm chasers all attempt to follow the same storm, clogging roadways making travel in hazardous conditions even more dangerous. Crowds in some towns have become so large that they have interfered with emergency responders, drawing the ire of one Kansas sheriff.

It doesn’t take much more than a smartphone and a working car to enable many people to chase. We’re certainly not amateurs, and so while we do everything we can to stay safe during a thunderstorm, there are times when predicting the weather is easier than predicting what others will do on the road.

While we’re watching for storms and watching for other chasers, our eyes will also be fixed upon May 22, a date that has traditionally held lots of success for the Hokie chase crew.

We’ve been doing some preliminary forecasting for about a week now, trying to understand the general atmospheric flow over the next week or so, and getting an idea of where our chase might start out this year. While we started out last year in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, this year we’re going to aim north – much farther north. Nebraska and the Dakotas are our initial targets this year, and we can’t rule out an excursion into Wyoming or Colorado, or maybe even Minnesota.

I’m not sure what the next ten days are going to hold, other than many long hours and many miles on the road. I’m looking forward to getting some beautiful pictures, hopefully some tornado video, and spending time bonding with my car-mates. With any luck, the car-mounted mesonet probes we’re taking out will take some useful data as well.

I’m not going to be writing daily updates like last year; however, I will have several updates throughout the trip. If you’re looking for more in the meantime, make sure to check out the Hokie Storm Chase blog, along with our Facebook and Twitter accounts. Roanoke Times weather columnist and chase co-instructor Kevin Myatt will be offering updates from the road as well. Wondering where we are? Track our latest location.

So long, Virginia; I’ll see you next weekend.

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Weather Dan

Dan Goff is now a two-time former Richmonder, having departed the River City yet again in favor of southwest Virginia, where he is working on degrees in geography and meteorology at Virginia Tech. Have a question about the weather or weather-related phenomena?

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