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Global Warming and Storm Chasing

Global Warming is a reality, and whilst most of us are focusing on the ecological concerns. Some folk are taking the opportunity to study the effects first hand...Be afraid...the Storm Chasers are coming...

by Adam Carter

"There's no question that greenhouse gasses are there - that they are going to increase… They have a residence time of about 300 years in the atmosphere, so it's going to take a long time. We really have to do two things. One is we're going to have to learn to live with a world that has a different climate than it has today, and we're going to have to learn how to be more energy efficient."
James Baker, Ph.D., Administrator NOAA

Over the past several decades there has been an active international debate over the cause of global warming. The question is whether the recently recorded increase in extreme and unpredictable weather worldwide is due to natural variations in weather cycles, or whether it results from global warming brought about by burning fossil fuels.

However over the past few years, the evidence increasingly points to the fact that these changes are occurring as a result of man's activities on the planet. According to Eco-Economy Update, the preliminary global temperature data for 2001 indicates that it was the second warmest year since record keeping began in 1867. Six of the 10 warmest years ever recorded were in the 1990s - the other four happened in the 1980s .

There is now a growing consensus amongst both scientists and politicians that global warming is a man-made effect - and that it will get worse before the world's climate stabilises. As far back as 1990, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) published its first assessment report and announced that the world's most senior meteorologists agreed that the earth's climate was warming - with potentially disastrous consequences .

'We can no longer say we are still unsure whether extreme weather events are caused by global warming or not,' says Dr Mike Hulme of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University . 'When we look at the Mozambique floods, at the storms that hit France, at the absence of winters in Britain over the past few years, at the avalanches in the Alps, we are witnessing events that are now clearly tainted by human actions.'

The effects of storms can be catastrophic

The consequences of global warming could become catastrophic and it is already becoming a serious global economic and human problem. The escalation in extreme weather conditions over the past two decades has led to an increase in the frequency and intensity of storm conditions . Even as 2002 dawned, high temperatures and strong winds were fuelling intense fires across south-eastern Australia. Flames as high as 20-metres (60-feet) raced through open bush within 16 kilometres (10 miles) of the centre of Sydney.

Temperatures in the region have soared to over 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) and up to 20,000 fire fighters - mostly volunteers - battled more than 100 blazes that overcame firebreaks and containment lines across New South Wales .

The cause of these fires was a summer drought in Australia - as in other parts of the world - emergency rescue crews, meteorologists, scientists and storm chasers followed quickly onto the scene.

An Introduction to Storm Chasing

In a whirl with the Storm Chasers

In this midst of all this ecological upheaval are the Storm Chasers who follow at the heels of climactic change. Storm chasing is the observation or infiltration of any kind of storm system for scientific research, media reporting (television and radio), personal interest (such as photography), or even for recreational purposes.

Anyone who can drive a car, has a thorough knowledge of the type of storm likely to be encountered and understands the principles of storm chasing can be involved. You do not need a special license or training to do it.

If the chaser understands what they are doing and is aware of what they are dealing with, then storm chasing is not considered dangerous - although storms do deserve respect. Alarmingly, it is usually unsuspecting people who become the victims of storms, not the people who chase them.

Conditions will vary according to the type of storm experienced and the severity of the event, but you can generally expect high winds, heavy rain with the possibility of flooding, very large hailstones, lightning and poor or zero visibility.

The minimum equipment required for storm chasing is protective weather clothing and a means of transport - namely a vehicle or an aircraft. For obvious reasons, aircraft tend to be used for professional storm research. There are several different kinds of chasing activity which can be broadly categorised according to the kind of storm system being tracked.

Satellite image showing wildfires in Mexico due to a long draught

Storm chasers define several different types of chasing activity. In practice, any type of storm or weather anomaly can be followed, tracked, and observed and different approaches can be taken.

Storms can be directly penetrated or 'core punched'. Core punching is when the chaser passes through the centre of the storm.

For hurricane research, this could be important but is potentially dangerous. This technique, however, is too dangerous with a tornado. Storms can also be observed indirectly, where the chaser passes close to the storm centre, but not actually through it. This method is best for tornado observation. The method to choose depends on thorough knowledge of the storm involved, safety constraints, the type and speed of your vehicle, and most of all, the type and nature of the storm involved.

Examples of Types of Storms encountered by Storm Chasers

Extra-tropical Cyclones

These are very large-scale systems and often only sections of the system are chased at any one time. The cold front associated with these storms is studied for thunderstorm and tornado development, whilst the backside of winter storms are chased for snow reports. The chase usually involves a long drive to the region of the storm and many hours will be spent waiting, so patience is a virtue, a trait that all storm chasers need to develop.

Tropical Cyclones

Although smaller than their extra-tropical cousins, these tropical cyclones are also large scale. This category includes both tropical storms and hurricanes - which are systems associated with extremely dangerous winds and high rainfall. The core of these systems can be penetrated directly as long as the winds and rain do not present an unacceptable danger to the chaser.

Chasers have driven their vehicles into and out of the eye of hurricanes, but reliable vehicles are essential in these circumstances. Strong hurricanes are not usually penetrated directly by land and a chaser or chase team will usually position themselves in the path of the storm and wait for it to come past. Under these conditions, a vehicle could be anchored to protect against extreme winds. Storm surges and flooding can also cause major problems in low-lying areas.


Storm chasers report hailstones up to a diameter of 15 centimetres

These are small-scale convective storms and can be directly penetrated, indirectly penetrated or externally observed. Direct penetration or 'core punching' can be dangerous with thunderstorms, as the chaser has to cope with flooding, slippery roads and sometimes zero visibility - at the very least.

In more severe storms, you can also encounter strong winds, lightning and large hail. Since thunderstorms occasionally produce tornadoes, the threat to a core-punching chaser can be even more serious. Even though a chaser does not go through the main core, this approach is still potentially dangerous due to strong winds, lightning and heavy precipitation.


Wind directions around a typical tornado

These are the smallest scale rotary storms - but also the most violent. They contain huge amounts of kinetic energy concentrated in a very small area. These storms should always be observed externally from a safe distance. They are usually observed on the backside (upwind) side of a very organised thunderstorm, such as a super-cell.

This 'safe' position should have a clear view of the tornado-producing part of the storm, as well as good visibility. In the northern hemisphere, this is usually 2-3 kilometres southeast of a storm moving towards the northeast. This is also a safe place because you stay out of the tornadoes path. If the thunderstorm is directly penetrated and the chaser emerges out of the core into the backside of the storm, there is the possibility of finding a tornado directly in front of the vehicle!


It is clear that a diverse range of people from amateurs to professionals operate in extreme weather conditions, and that as Global Warming accelerates there will be an increasing need for Storm Chasers that follow at the back of storms to understand how they operate. Global warming may be a reality, but so are the chasers; and where the weather goes they will follow.

Adam Carter is a freelance car designer who has made a special study of vehicle design specifically for Storm Chasing. This is an extract used with permission of Adam from his Masters Thesis. To contact him, visit http://www.cardesignnews.com/site/designers/portfolios/display/store5/item34482/

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First Science 2014