Storm Chasing, Chaos and Climate

FIgure of a Lightning strike near house in Oklahoma. Photo credit: Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

Lightning strike near house in Oklahoma. Photo credit: Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

Tom Windsor,
WindPhoto weather website
Damascus, Maryland

 

Introduction

Fifteen years ago, I started storm chasing. The usual anticipation builds as I get ready for a new chase season. Yet, I do have some mixed feelings.

First, there is the “I Brake for Extreme Weather” side of me. On the other hand, there is the concerned citizen within, already acquainted with severe weather threats to life and property. Years of getting to know the weather up close and personal (sometimes a little too close ) has produced a greater sensitivity.

As I continue investigating (as a non-scientist) trying to sift through the complexities of weather forecasting and public misconceptions, another change in my understanding has been brought forth. I’m becoming ever more concerned about the future effects of global climate change.

The dramatic skies

Nowadays, storm chasing “reality” TV shows tend to emphasize the adrenaline aspect of it, at the risk of underestimating the dangers. It’s very important for people to realize that storm chasing can be a very dangerous endeavor and should only be done responsibly and with the necessary training. It’s not an extreme sport.

Dramatic pursuit is just a small part of the spectrum as to why people pursue storms. Storm chasing as part of academic research efforts has greatly improved our forecasting of tornadic storm formation. One example of this has been the recent Vortex2 experiment, funded by the National Science Foundation. There also has been a large increase in the participation of National Weather Service Skywarn storm spotter program, which helps forecasters and emergency management officials.

When I began chasing, I suppose like others, I was seeking the drama of it. But, I also wanted to witness the incredible wonder of nature in all its grandeur and beauty. The dynamic of the atmosphere can produce at times an artistry in the sky, in all its various never to be repeated colors and forms. Of course, extreme weather has its awesome fury as well.

figure of An Oklahoma supercell. Photo credit: Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

An Oklahoma supercell. Photo credit: Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

Experiencing weather firsthand

 

Experiencing extreme weather during storm chasing can be desensitizing. The storm interceptor routinely plans for and seeks out the times and places of greatest instability in the atmosphere. That’s an inherently dangerous endeavor. Yet, there is an exhilaration in witnessing the immense power of the wind. I’ve had some close calls, but obviously I’ve survived the occasional harrowing experiences in chasing.

It is a strange feeling being in a van as it starts to move sideways. For a microsecond, I ponder the physics of airfoils, as air rapidly rumbles across the roof of my van, thus creating some lift. As my chase vehicle gets “lighter and lighter,” the thought “I really shouldn’t be here” gets heavier and heavier in the pit of my stomach. It’s one of those experiences in life I haven’t forgotten.

It is quite a sight to behold bright white supercell thunderstorms. These are the largest thunderstorms on Earth. They appear as marching cumulous giants seen towering above the horizon.

I’ve watched as this storm cloud takes on the shape of an anvil, as the air is being spread out and pulled by a fast-moving jet stream. The storm builds as I and many other interceptors rendezvous from many locations.

Finally, after hours of hurried driving, I’m standing on the side of the interstate ramp. I watch a large dark rotating tornado dwarf the largest buildings. It lowers its black appendage, and the tornado traces a meandering path making the cityscape look small. The concrete structures are rigid and static, whereas the storm is an everchanging tumultuous mobile dynamic.

During this moment, the storm becomes the overwhelming focal point in that city’s life for a short time. It cannot be ignored. The weather becomes the major event in many people’s day. All other plans were interrupted, coming to a halt as sirens wail and emergency vehicles race. The phones ring, the fearful and the wise go into their shelters. The weather cams record as TV forecasters plead and text messages stream.

image of A severe thunderstorm over Maryland. Photo credit: Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

A severe thunderstorm over Maryland. Photo credit: Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

Then it’s over just as quickly as it approached. A cool breeze pulled in by a retreating air mass gives a sigh of relief to those who sweated it out in the shelters. I take it all in as another chase day in Tornado Alley winds down.

 

Negative impacts

As each year goes by, I see more and more the negative impact of weather. I’ve driven along the highway viewing damaged farms and mile after mile of flooded businesses. Or I think of the time a mesocylone was approaching our home as my wife left an anxious phone message in a bad visibility situation.

Another true reality moment for me was years ago, when I made a visit to the Philippines. I shook my head as I saw shanty towns built near a large storm drainage canal.

As my guide explained, it was almost certain a future typhoon would devastate that camp (as it had done in the past). These were people truly living on the edge of the whims and unpredictability of weather.

These and other experiences have brought forth a greater awareness in me. In those moments I go from a weather chasing observer to a person thinking of family safety and our future. It’s two different perspectives.
Mankind for millennia has been constantly struggling with the effects of daily weather. Now a new chapter unfolds as we start to grapple with how we are affecting long-term patterns in weather: climate change .

How could things change that drastically?

Many of my storm rendezvous adventures begin days before the actual event. Once, I was looking three to four days out in the Storm Prediction Center‘s posts, trying to predict a storm that hadn’t even formed yet. Even the “ingredients” hadn’t yet converged.

It is important to get it right, as it’s a long 1,200-mile drive from the eastern shore to the Midwest. I have literally sat out in the middle of nowhere on the side of a highway days later lamenting: “Wow! How could things change that drastically?”

image of Blizzard in the Washington, D.C., area. Photo credit: Tom Windsor/Windphoto.com

Blizzard in the Washington, D.C., area. Photo credit: Tom Windsor/Windphoto.com

When I started to delve into the question of why forecasts are filled with unpredictability and uncertainty, I discovered some things. There are many variables which can have a wide range of effects on the outcome: Pressure, temperature, wind speed, relative humidity, topography, solar heating, friction, etc. Practically everything affects every other thing. It is such a sensitive system that even the smallest changes can affect the larger future outcome, even just a few days out. Living on the east coast, many times one small change in temperature or the track of a winter snowstorm can mean a major difference between crippling our town, or dealing with just the nuisance of wet slush.

 

Chaos Theory, feedback loops, and tipping points

During a long stretch of down time during a chase, I began reading the book Chaos [1] on the subject of Chaos Theory. It spoke of how small changes in initial states or conditions of a system (such as the atmosphere) add up, producing very different outcomes in the long-term. There are also small differences between the data points of weather station locations. On a chase day, sometimes just a little more solar heating can be make all the difference to allow convection to break the cap. This can be the tipping point between a good tan day and the impetus leading to a major storm.

Image of a boy and a moth

Photo credit: Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

I remember hearing as a boy (back in the 1970s) something in the news: If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, it can set off a future tornado in Texas. “Wow, how can that be?” I thought.

 

This is but one of the headwinds flying in the face of forecasting longer range weather.

The book I was reading also referenced the principle of feedback loops. I also came across this when looking into severe thunderstorm formation. The supercell has a self-perpetuating dynamic.

“Once a supercell has started cooking, it often fuels itself to even more magnificent heights in a positive feedback loop. The mesocyclone pulls in increasing amounts of air, which intensifies its rotation. This in turn causes it to extend downward, which then makes it contract. Contracting causes it to rotate more quickly, which further leads to an increase in airflow…” [2]

It can literally become a deadly vicious cycle, a massive high-powered vacuum cleaner indiscriminant to humanity or vegetation. It’s analogous to a heated argument. A few small terse comments cause an escalation and another overreaction, stirring up a chain reaction until it spirals out of control.

Also, when looking into the ingredients for major storm outbreaks, it caused a far greater appreciation in me for the interconnectedness of the Earth’s global atmospheres, oceans, etc. Arctic air pushes down from Canada, warm air moves northward from the Gulf of Mexico, a low pressure system from the Pacific tracks east, all converging to create a large severe weather event over the heartland of America.

Then, riding on the jet stream, perhaps a few days later, a “daughter” storm system is swirling over to Europe. The more I have learned, the more I realize just how complex this ocean of air is above us. A paradigm shift occurred when I considered the larger picture of the climate.

image of a Oklahoma  Mesocyclone   Photo credit : Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

Oklahoma Mesocyclone Photo credit : Tom Windsor /Windphoto.com

As I sat reading a climate change book titled With Speed and Violence, [3] I had an epiphany moment — a convergence of thoughts. Then I started considering changes in the ocean currents and melting ice sheets. When this melting occurs, less solar radiation is reflected by ice, thus raising temperatures, which leads to more ice melting. Or with the melting of permafrost, methane is released further, (which is far more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas), which contributes to more melting It has been projected this could set off an exponential effect contributing to rising climate temperature and change.

 

Summary

So we aren’t just talking about the effects of a butterfly flapping its wings, but an unprecedented release of carbon, upsetting Earth’s sensitive climate of long-term weather patterns. These changes are contributing to more extreme fluctuations from the norm and greater occurrences of extreme weather.

The fundamental issues of interconnectedness, greater sensitivity, chaos theory and dangerous feedback loops, helped shift my view of the Earth’s climate. It was a personal “tipping point.” It helped me to get beyond the fog of misperceptions and the politically charged atmosphere surrounding climate change, in order to obtain a more objective view. Hopefully, workable solutions can come out of the heated debate and not spiral out of control into unproductive feedback loops.
I now view myself as an ex-climate change agnostic. Ironically, my own study of uncertainty in weather forecasting led me to more certainty that the Earth is indeed entering into a phase of dramatic climate change.

[1] James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, New York: Penguin, 1988.

[2] Discovery.com, What’s a Supercell ?, [Online]. Available http://dsc.discovery.com

[3] Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence:Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points In Climate Change, Boston:Beacon Press, 2007

Author

G. Thomas Windsor is a storm chaser, has a severe weather website at WindPhoto.com, and is the author of “Life is like a Weather Forecast” : A Storm Chaser Looks at Life’s Storms.

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