HOW TO CHASE STORMS – For Photography & Spotting


Hank’s storm footage currently airs worldwide in productions from BBC Earth, National Geographic, The Weather Channel and many more You can also see Hank’s lightning captures in Motion pictures “The Last Witch Hunter” and Netflix original “TAU.” The Pecos Hank YouTube channel features educational and cinematic delivery of severe weather as well as frequent encounters with with wild animals and interesting people he meets. while living on the road day to day. He is going to talk about anticipating storm development & transitions for optimal viewing and I think this is going to be some optimal viewing for us. Come on up. Guys thank you so much for having me out here. The welcome has been so warm which is nice considering how cold it is. The commute, I gotta tell you, it wasn’t the smoothest. I flew up from Houston last night And I’m sitting on the plane and next to me there’s a woman and her four year old girl It was the first time she’d ever been on an airplane. And so she kind of had this look of… I’m kinda nervous and I’m excited And we were trying to say this is going to be safe and fun. and the little girl looks out the window and she says… “Wing!” And I said “Yeah, that’s a wing.” And the plane started to back up and she goes… “We’re Flying!” And her Mom goes “We’re not flying yet” And the plane started to move forward and she goes “We’re flying!” Mom said “No, we’re not flying yet” And then the plane gets o the runway and takes off and she sinks back in her seat. Her eyes are the size of small goldfish bowls And here face was teetering o the edge of astonishment and panic. Kind of like that child that’s running… And it falls and hits the ground and you don’t know if it’s gonna laugh or cry. And so you immediately go into preventative maintenance. So we’re taking off and I said “Look at all there sparkly lights!” and she starts to get a smile on one end of her face. And then her mom goes. “Look at the pretty clouds!” It’s working. She’s starting to feel good… And she’s smiling and I’m looking at this child looking out the window seeing the miracle of flight for the first time. And then her smile starts to go away. She reaches up for her head And I thing, Oh no! The change in pressure is starting to effect her. And so I go, “Can you yawn?” And she goes “What?” And I go “can you yawn?” and she goes “What?” And I go, “Go like this.” and she started SCREAMING AND CRYING and backed away from me. Her mom looked at me like, What are you doing? And then it was awkward for a couple hours after that. It doesn’t get any better… So I get to the hotel. It’s about 1AM. And I’m walking into the hotel. And I meet the really nice desk clerk at the beautiful Inn at Waters Edge. He says. “Here’s your clicker. Use this to get in the elevator. It won’t work unless you use the clicker. I said OK. He said use the same clicker to get in your room. I said OK and then walked into the elevator. I hit the button. It starts going up and I’m standing there. We get to level three and the door doesn’t open. I’m thinking Okay… SoIi hit number 3 again. I can kind of hear this whirring. I’m deaf in my right ear so I can hear sounds but I can’t place sounds. I kinda hear this whirring noise. It stops and I’m thinking okay great. I’m stuck in the elevator. So I hit the door open button. And it makes a noise. I’m thinking what do I do? So I start pulling on the door and that didn’t work at all. And I see the emergency ring button and I though… Let me go down and I’ll let them know it’s not working maybe So I hit level 1 and as I’m getting out a woman is walking in. And I said excuse me I done think the elevator is working. and she goes… Really what’s wrong? I said the door’s not opening. and she said “I just took it. It’s fine.” I said Okay. (huh, we’ll see about that!) So I go back up with her. I’m sitting there waiting. I hit 3. I made sure I used my clip. We get to the third level and the door doesn’t open. And so I turned around like “uh huh!” And I look and she’s walking out the door that’s opening behind me. I didn’t know what to say so I just said “I’ll be speaking at the weather seminar tomorrow.” I wanted to talk to you guys about anticipating storm development & transitions for optimal viewing. I’ve been chasing for over 2 decades Over the years I’ve seen some patterns and I’ve learned a few things. And I wanted to share them with you guys. And uh… Some of it might even be accurate. I’m going to take you guys on a hypothetical storm chase. It’s not one of those chases where there’s tomatoes the whole time. Theres going to be a lot of transitioning and a lot of development that we’re going to anticipate. I’ve got a mosaic of radar grabs and different storms This talk is geared more towards photographers and chasers But I think there’s going to be a lot here for spotters as well. A little bit for everybody. Maybe not for little 4 year old girls. If you’ll notice the SPC says “Perhaps supercells initially but with a rapid upscale growth into cell clusters or an MCS So what that means for us burrito aficionados is We want to get on these cells early right? For most of us, it’s probably tomatoes that got us out of bed at 2am. Made us leave our families. Driving all night long drinking truck stop what-not. Some of us lied to our bosses. Some of you bailed on your mom on Mother’s day. So it’s probably tornadoes that are getting us out. We want to see those and monitor those. So we want to get on these cells really easy and really fast. Before the cluster or get messy or become more of a linear mode. And so they’re off. We’ve got discrete cells. Remember how I said we want to be on them, but we’re way back here because We were craving a grand slam. we wanted a hot meal. We’re tired of bananas and gas station sandwiches. So this is where we’d really like to be We’ve got a well developed supercell. A hooking appendage. It’s already severe warned. They surprised us a little early, however this might work in our favor. We’ve got another cell that’s developing down here. It’s heading in our general direction and we can head it off at the pass So this might actually work in our favor. Let’s go see what that cell looks like hypothetically. So here we are underneath the base It’s still got kind of a bow-ish look to it… A heavy downdraft behind it But it’s developing nicely. We’ve got a mean storm so that’s a good thing. Let’s sit and watch it and see where it goes from here. Now we’ve got a pretty good wall cloud right? We’ve got a tail cloud here. The rain-cooled air is condensing sooner. It’s streaming up here. So we know there’s a motion of wind going up through here. We kind of see some spokes here maybe suggesting some inflow coming in up here. And right here the end of that wall cloud has a rounded edge. And up here we can see the towing cumulus towers At our back the inflow is just gushing into the storm We put all this together and we can pretty much calculate this thing is rotating. And here’s our next slide. The same storm maybe 5 or 10 minutes later. And something has happened to it that if we’re hoping to see a tornado we don’t really like. Notice the wall cloud has been kind of blasted in half. It’s no longer got that rounded nub up here. It’s almost starting to look like curtains in your house are blowing outward. This storm is being undercut by cold outflow. Our storm, I think we can anticipate it’s becoming outflow dominant. We all know an outflow dominant storm is less likely to produce a potato. We’ve got kind of a shelf cloud forming here, but notice underneath right here we do have a spin-up. This particular scenario is burrito warned right now We’ve got this rotation here and we’ve all invested a lot into seeing tomatoes We tweeted our forecasts coincidentally 45 minutes after the SPC gave their outlook. So we really want that to be a tornado so that we have something to write home But we know that is a gustnado. Even though it’s underneath the storm still. It’s an easy pick when its pushed out in front of the storm and somebody might argue They’re saying “No, i saw circulation directly above this.” You guys have seen these storms. There’s turbulence everywhere. It’s going to be really hard to not find some kind of rotation above. But in their defense. You can see how it can be an easy mistake. That dust, debris cloud has a very similar appearance. But obviously we’ve got a funnel cloud above that. That’s obviously a potato. What about this one? This is actually a tornado. There’s clear rotation co-located directly above that. So gustnadoes and tornadoes can be a little tricky to decipher. We look back at our storm now and it’s clearly an outflow dominant storm. At this point we’ve got a lot of options. Let’s look at some of those options of what we might want to do in order to, or anticipate with this storm. A lot of people go home at this point they say “Eh, I’m done.” So we’re right here. One of our options is to back up. A lot of times when you have these lines forming you back up, roll the time lapse and get these beautiful structures Of storms approaching. And it might look something like that. Notice we can see the lightning. We got a shelf cloud forming here. Or it might look something like that. I’m going to come to this monitor and give this monitor some attention. So that’s one of our options. But a lot of us have seen that so we might want to do something different. So let’s go back to our radar. Ok, we could let the storm overrun us and that could be really neat. You get up in that and its really eerie. So that’s another thing we can anticipate to see when that shelf cloud overtakes you… Is to see the “whales mouth.” Now notice that we’ve got several tornado warnings on this mosaic that I put together here. We could come up here to this QLCS or this tornado warning right there. But generally as you guys know the odds of seeing that tornado are really slim. There’s probably going to be a slim window of there even being a tornado. And that can be a wild goose chase. However if we were there, It might look something like that. They’re generally not these beautiful amazing burritos. They tend to be weaker, but not always. Another option. We could come up here. It looks like we’ve got a supercell embedded along this line. That can happen in kinks sometimes. Other times it was perhaps that other supercell that we initially wanted to be on and as the line came, the supercell was so powerful that it was able to retain its identity. So we could go up there and see that. I generally don’t mess with those unless there’s nothing else. It might look something like that. They generally for me in my cases they tend to be more high precipitation The odds of seeing a tornado in that are really slim. And it can be really dangerous as well. Maybe we’d get lucky and see something like that. Obviously I think we all know what we should do. We want to go down here to Tail-End-Charlie, the tail end of the line. That’s probably going to be a better place to see Just have more visibility and it’s the more likely place i think to see a photogenic tornado. And if we were right there looking at the storm, it might look something like that. You can see it’s multicellular. There’s a couple cells. The second cell actually has a pretty good wall cloud directly underneath the updraft here So let’s drive up close to that and lets keep a better eye on that. Now we’re underneath the base and it’s looking a bit meaner than the first cell we were on. It’s a little more rounded. It’s not so bow-ish looking. It feels meaner. It looks meaner. It’s starting to look more like a mesocyclone. I like the words “supercell structures.” They’re kind of hybrids between not a supercell and a supercell. We’re going to watch this one and see what happens. One thing we’ve all noticed is sometimes you see this uptick in cloud-to-ground lightning frequency. Generally we associate that with storm strengthening. Sometimes, about once a year I’ll run into one of these storms and the cloud-to-ground lightning activity is so intense. Every two to three seconds BAM! Thousand-one, thousand-two BAM! Thousand-one, thousand-two BAM! I’m probably exaggerating a little bit It’s really amazing to see this. You can feel the energy in the atmosphere. So sometimes with this frequent cloud-to-ground lightning activity we can anticipate generally storm strengthening. At least I do. Here’s another cloud-to-ground lightning strike Now the base is kind of getting over us. On this day the cells are moving really slow. We feel kind of confident we can be underneath the base a little bit. It’s still not looking that tornado-ish yet. But notice the two little trees right here… That’s foreshadowing. Here’s another strike. Here’s our two little trees here. This storm was really amazing. It took me a lot of discipline to not use the word “insane” just now. Just in my field of view, I got multiple CGs crashing right in front of me. I’m not even getting the ones that are here or behind me. And then here’s our next shot. POW! Nails the tree. And this is probably not the brightest thing… to do! You can see we’re kind of elevated. Lightning is striking and getting closer and closer. This strike caught the tree on fire. And then right after that, Boom! Another one. I thought it hit the tree again but it was actually about 20-30 yards behind the tree. Behind that tree there’s some kind of structure. A metal phone booth… With an antenna and gears I call it the port-o-potty from space. But it nailed that. Ok at this point it’s time to do like they do on Holy Grail and runaway! Runaway! Ok, Skip has some really compelling theories about tornadogenesis and I have some too I want to share with you guys. Like his, it’s widely debated. But I have found out, and have multiple occasions to back this up… That if you look at a storm and you say “Eh, you’re kind of wimpy” And if you turn your back on it, it makes a tornado. I’m just going to throw that out there. I heard somebody say it’s true. Who said that? Yep! Alright, our storm is mean now. We got a mesocyclone. We got a fat tail cloud. We got a funnel cloud there. It’s probably a tornado. But notice our storm is starting to fill up with rain. And we get kind of an ugly tornado that’s rain-wrapped. This burrito was very transient. And then our storm… lets say it goes outflow dominant. A lot of times when you go on these storm chases, it’s not drive to one cell, and you follow that cell like Skip got to do on his last chase. That generally doesn’t happen. There’s a lot of transitions. You go to your first cell early in the day. that cell isn’t in quite the right environment. So you run over here and get on that cell and it doesn’t quite do the right thing. So the typical storm chase, storm chasers are bouncing around a lot waiting for their right cell. On thing I want to point out, another amazing phenomenon that you can see… We’re going to call this a typical negative cloud-to-ground lightning strike. We’re calling it that because it had several flickers. it was a DUDUDUDU! Now watch this next lightning strike. It’s got a different look to it right? It’s got this smooth channel. There’s no branching on it. And generally we call these positive lightning strikes. Positive lightning sticks really do well with video. Even if you have a camera with a rolling shutter. They nail the ground. the pulse is long. Just one good BANG! It really registers well. So these are really neat, these smooth channel positive lightning strikes. Here’s another one here. Same storm. Here’s another one here. They have this crazy bending. Who here has seen these before? A guy Sam here gave me his calendar earlier. Man, you have a great one by the way. In that calendar you have one of these and what I like about your picture Sometimes we call these branchless lightning, but i assure you there’s branches it’s just aloft. In your picture, the clouds open up aloft and your seeing the recoil leaders up above And then below the base in the boundary layer you’re seeing the smooth channel. So it’s a really great picture. I wish I had it to show these guys. Ok here are some more of them. This is a stacked image. But look how straight that lightning channel is. So that’s something I think is really neat and I wanted to share with you guys. Ok we’re looking back at our storm. It’s clearly outflow dominant again. It’s starting to get a shelf-ie cloud look to it. It’s still gnarly under here. But again our storm went outflow dominant. So I think it’s time to go back to the radar and asses the situation. So if you look here there’s no more burrito warnings. And that doesn’t look like a supercell at the tail end of that, however… Something has happened. When you see these lines like this. This happens many times. That’s part of the initial wave but a lot of storm chasers are biding our time. We’re waiting for a cell to fire up prefrontal line in that warm sector. When that happens on some of these volatile days, We’re like… Alright, it’s business time. Right there. We’ve got a cell. If we turned around it might look something like this. It’s already got a good velocity couplet. The cell on this day is moving really slow. We’re up here but we’re confident we can go in front of this cell. We’ve got plenty of time. We’ve calculated it. So we’re going to anticipate this storm moving right up here right where the NWS says it’s going to. And we’re going to drive right in front of it And it might look something like that. So we’ve got our base here. We can see the anvil cloud. It’s blossoming over us. At this point all we gotta do is let it come to us. But let’s drive south a little more and maybe we have something like that. So we’ve got an LP supercell forming. We’ve got a clear mesocyclone and we’re standing there. Warm air is blasting at our back. Our tripod sometimes flies off and we look really silly. But guys, I’ve got to do the disclaimer. I gotta say it. I don’t know the politically correct words to emphasize safety and then show you what I do. It’s a contradiction. So I’m going to go with my disclaimer and that’s, I’m a professional guys. Please don’t try this at home… Because you’re probably going to have to wait a long, long time. You gotta drive to Oklahoma. (crickets) For those of you that are watching at home… Nobody laughed at that last joke. And there is is. There’s the classic shot that we love. The supercell structure. We’ve got the tail cloud. We’ve got the tornado. Oh man, I want to get a little closer and get a good shot of that. I definitely think that is too close. We should probably turn around. Oops You didn’t see that one slide. Ok so now our storm has a long track (tornado). It’s been on the ground 30 minutes. More and more rain is starting to fill up that updraft. It’s getting more and more dangerous by the second. This particular one was on the ground 90 minutes. EF4… The longer it’s on the ground the more it tends to get rainier and rainier. And then the bear’s cage turns into a bomb. It’s high precipitation. There’s still a burrito on the ground in there. We’re probably not going to mess with that. It’s getting dark. And then our storm… Let’s say, again it goes outflow dominant. There might be a surging cold front that finally caught up. But whatever reason, the whole storm is becoming a line again with really pretty structure. and now it’s time to go back to the drawing board. What do we want to do here? This is a time that I really love. Lets say the tomato threat has been mitigated. Maybe we wan to shoot into some of that orange and get some lightning strikes with the orange. That’s always nice. But I want to be on the other side of this storm right here. Here’s why. So we look at our GOES image… and out here to the west there’s nothing. Nothing but sunlight. Once that sunlight gets underneath that anvil, magic is about to happen. Another cool thing is we might have some above anvil cirrus plumes right here.. If you haven’t heard about above anvil cirrus plumes yet, you will. Ok we’re driving. We turn around and look back. the sunlight is getting underneath it. So we’re getting this really pretty red turbulence. We’re not worried about potatoes. Pretty spectacular sight if you’ve never seen that. Now we’re on the other side. There’s no more rain. And this is kind of what we wanted to see right here. This is what we anticipated. Was… that. We’ve got the sunlight… That beautiful magic hour look and we’ve got this short window where sunlight got below the anvil. Before it goes down we’re going to get those bright reds And pretty lightning. Let’s turn our heads. What’s to the right? Awesome! Rainbow and lightning. The red goes away. Another thing we want to see. What’s to the north of us? That’s what we wanted to see. Who doesn’t love looking at mammatus clouds? It’s getting darker and darker now. More and more lightning activity is becoming visible. This storm is highly electric! Now it’s completely dark. There’s so much lightning activity we can really make out the cloud features. Again what’s so special about being on the back side of this is there’s no danger to me as long as I’m far enough away from the CGs. You can just sit there and GAWK at these beautiful lightning displays, colors and cloud shapes. Ok, that’s probably where we are. the line is still growing and zippering down like this. But there’s something developing right now that if you’re a lightning lover and you see that radar image, you’re like, “That’s where I want to be.” In the trailing stratiform region behind this bowing segment there’s a lot of lightning activity. That’s where we want to be because that is where some of the most erratic, crazy lightning discharges tend to occur. We’re going to start driving up into that. The first thing we start to see is anvil crawler lightning. Everybody here has seen anvil crawler lightning right? This is upward-moving lightning. Upward-moving lightning tend to initiate from tall objects. So you get into that trailing stratiform region, you find a radio tower and you wait. and eventually you’ll see lightning shoot up out of that tower. When it hit the base of the cloud there tends to be a screening layer there… A charged screening layer. And thank goodness for that because it hits that and blossoms out in all directions. And then… I’ve heard of three, but six? Now I’ll walk you through what’s happening. You’ve got this lightning strike. This one comes down. It hits the ground. When it hits the ground there’s an abrupt change in the electric field and actually triggers all these. This hits the ground and then boom! Six of these leap up into the sky. And then… Bam. That happened. I’m tearing up looking at it. One of my all-time favorite moments. I had never even heard of this before. 14 upward propagating positive leaders leaping up. What the heck is going on? Look closely you’ll see wind turbines. So wow! What an amazing storm chase we’ve had together. We’ve seen some amazing things. But we’re not done yet. It’s 2am. There’s one thing we haven’t seen. I think what we’re going to do now is drive away. We’re going to back away and here’s the storm. We’ve got the anvil cloud right here. And we see a red sprite. Discharges that are shooting out of thunderstorms 50 lies into the mesosphere. If you love nature and if you love thunderstorms I highly recommend that you guys go out and have a look at these mesoscale convective systems. They’ve brought me a lot of joy and I know you guys share the same enthusiasm and I know you’re going to see some amazing things. So thank you so much everybody!

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