March 13, 2018

Top 5 Lessons I Learned from 2017: My Year of Busts

2017 WAS A REMARKABLY QUIET YEAR FOR TORNADOES AS SETUP AFTER SETUP UNDER-PRODUCED. In fact, many chasers would agree that 2017 was one of the most challenging and disappointing years in recent memory. Nevertheless, lots of folks bagged photogenic tornadoes on multiple successful chase days throughout the season. I just did not happen to be one of them. Indeed, 2017 was a uniquely unsuccessful year for me. While I did manage to catch a few brief or distant tornadoes, this was the first year that I did not come out with at least one great photogenic twister. But what made 2017 particularly frustrating was that I did come close. I narrowly missed several opportunities to bag significant tornadoes. However, I don’t blame Mother Nature for my lack of results. Rather, I came up short because of my own mistakes or miscalculations.

So, without further ado, here are the top 5 lessons I learned from my many busts of 2017:


On May 19, we missed several tornadoes by minutes because I took too long to settle on my target. The obvious play appeared to be along the Red River. Instability would be high, shear was decent and tornadoes looked possible, however these would be water-logged storms in an already over-saturated area and so I was not enthused. Instead, I was intrigued by the looks of an underdog target: South Central Kansas. There, an outflow boundary was set up and though instability was meager, I suspected it might turn out to be just enough to get the job done. All the hype was for the Red River play, but I just preferred Kansas. In fact, I debated taking us to Rattlers in Medicine Lodge for lunch, but ultimately was not quite ready to blow off the southern play. So, we bided our time in Guthrie Oklahoma, splitting the difference between the two areas. I tried to make my decision. Finally, I went with my gut and we blasted north toward Kansas. While we were en route, storms began to fire. As we crossed the border, a cell near Medicine Lodge went tornado warned. When we were fifteen minutes from getting a visual, the first of several tornadoes touched down just north of town. We were just a little too far behind to get a view of this or any of the tornadoes that followed... DON’T BE INDECISIVE TARGETING.


What I would give for a do-over of May 18. SPC issued a rare high risk for what was forecast to be a major tornado event. My target that morning was Alva Oklahoma. We arrived there as storms fired and intercepted one as it became tornado-warned and approached. However, the storm was extremely HP and kept getting seeded and crashed into by storms to its south. There was no decent visible storm structure and, in hindsight, we were never going to get a photogenic tornado out of this storm. I stuck with it just because it was tornado-warned, meanwhile a nice isolated cell had blown to the southwest. Although I liked the isolated storm coming up from Chester and interception would have been easy, I just couldn’t pull myself away from our useless bird-in-hand. Finally, I decided we were never going to see anything good out of the Alva storm and set a course for Waynoka. Halfway there, reports started coming in of a significant (and photogenic!) tornado with the storm we were headed to. From a distance, we caught up with it just as its second tornado lifted. There would not be another... DON’T GET SUCKERED ON A SUCKER STORM.


On June 12, one of the most significant tornado setups in the history of the region was forecast for Northeast Colorado, Eastern Wyoming, and the Nebraska Panhandle. Anywhere up and down the I25 corridor from Denver to Casper looked ripe for dangerous storms and tornadoes to form. We set a target of Chugwater, smack dab in the middle of this area. However, what we didn’t consider was that exceptionally strong forcing threatened to make all the day’s storms tightly-clustered with little spacing. In retrospect, a better choice would have been a Tail End Charlie target based on the expectation that the southern cell would be most isolated. A storm did go up at Chugwater and we chased it all the way to Torrington. However, it was impacted by other storms in the area and never reached its tornadic potential. This was not the case for the southern cell, Tail End Charlie, which produced several pretty tornadoes. One of them was a stunningly strong and photogenic twister near Carpenter, Colorado, that was amongst the most impressive of the year. But, we were up by Torrington... DON’T FORGET, STORM MODE MATTERS.

4. DON’T DISREGARD YOUR TARGET (and everything you know about storm chasing)

EPIC FAIL is how I later described my storm chase of July 12. On that day, I didn’t expect the best dynamics to arrive until early evening. My target for the 5pm to 7pm timeframe was down in Southwestern Ontario between Grand Bend and Stratford. However, I got out early and as the afternoon got underway, storms began to fire further north. I disregarded my target and chased anything that moved… namely rainy garden-variety thundershowers. When I should have been patiently waiting for storms to go up down by Grand Bend, I instead found myself up around Shelburne, way out of position and nowhere near my target. Sure enough, storms went up in the Parkhill area but I would have needed a teleporter to get there. I ended up throwing in the towel and driving back toward home as reports came in of photogenic funnel clouds and tornadoes from Lucan to Drumbo... DON’T FORGET YOUR TARGET


After any chase that isn’t as fruitful as I might have hoped, I blame myself. I reflect on everything I could have done differently to be more successful (as evidenced by this blog post!). But the truth is, storms are nature, they are fluid; they aren’t totally unpredictable but nor are they totally predictable. So if you don’t turn out the results you’d hoped for, don’t be too hard on yourself. In 2017 I came home safely from each of my chases. Even though I failed to capture a significant, photogenic tornado, it was a season filled with beautiful storm structure, awesome lightning and amazing experiences on the plains. Be safe and enjoy it all… DON’T ALWAYS BLAME YOURSELF