"The Evolution of Technology in Storm Chasing”
By: Dr. David Gold
Storm chasing has come a long way since the first intrepid souls ventured out into the Plains to chase tornadoes in the late 1940's and 1950's[i] . I've often wondered what it would have been like to experience the sometimes-violent Great Plains weather as a wagon-bound settler crossing the nation in the 19 th Century. Or an American Native hunting buffalo on the plains of central South Dakota. I am sure that the Indians were better prepared than the big-city trailblazer, at least psychologically, to deal with the occasional tornado or severe storm.
Jump forward one century. The Industrial Revolution has changed the way we live. We have cars, pollution, computers and television. One can argue that the advent of communications technology has drastically improved the quality of life on earth. When news happens, we learn of it almost instantaneously. We can call the police on our mobile phone while driving down the road and report an accident. We can videotape our sister's high school graduation. And the list goes on.
Storm chasers, more than many others, have tremendously benefited from recent improvements in telecommunications. As any storm chaser knows, or soon learns, having access to timely meteorological data is critical to making and updating a successful storm chasing forecast. When a storm develops in our ‘target area', we can use a cell phone/cable interface and log into our favorite weather web site and watch things evolve on radar. If we are not yet sure where storms will form, we can download, plot and analyze the latest surface observations in less than one minute [ii] . With the latest in satellite tracking technology, a few gadget-oriented storm chasers have even managed to install a Satellite TV Tracking Unit in their chase vehicles [iii] so that they can watch the Weather Channel continuously from within their moving van. Some storm chasers' vehicles better resemble space ships than cars!
Any storm chaser who has been chasing longer than 10 years can remember the ‘bad old days' (pre-1995) when cell phone service was prohibitively expensive and practically non-existent. In fact, before the mid-1990's, few storm chasers owned laptops. This is understandable given the huge lag in performance relative to desktop systems and the paucity of telecommunication technologies. For university students, most storm chasing expeditions began with a group meeting at the difax machine. These patient souls had to cluster around an ailing Teletype machine as it printed at painfully slow speeds the upper air, surface and satellite data needed to define an afternoon target area. An afternoon update, which was almost always desperately desired, could only be had by using a pay phone to call a computer-bound friend or fellow student. The end-result was often a crude, out-dated and hastily plotted surface map.
Most well connected storm chasers got their “data-fix” by stopping at the local National Weather Service (NWS) office, sitting down at a spare AFOS [iv] terminal, and typing in a few archaic commands to generate smudge-prone ink plots. This would often be done with one's fingers, toes and other bodily appendages crossed in the sincere hopes that their data-gathering session would not be the one to bring the clunky AFOS computer system to its knees, thereby rendering inoperable the mission-critical NWS communications system. Before long, word leaked out to the chaser community at-large that a few fortunate souls were gaining regular access to the NWS facilities for the purposes of getting data for the chase. This unleashed the chaser hordes, and scores of chasers would descend upon tiny, understaffed NWS offices in the hopes of gleaning the few golden pieces of information that would make or break the day's storm chasing endeavor. There were memorable mob scenes; NWS parking lots would be swamped well beyond capacity while throngs of chasers waddled about the NWS office interiors laughing, helping themselves to unfamiliar computer equipment and generally disrupting forecasters' job. Before long, NWS offices started banning access to chasers whether severe weather warnings operations were in progress or not. Even those of us that previously had carte blanche found ourselves bribing NWS employees with donuts and cases of soft drinks for a few precious crumbs of data. In most cases, only single representatives would dare amble into the office to get skeletal data for the rest of the team.
Fortunately, by the time NWS offices became largely off-limits to chasers, computer and telecommunication technology had progressed to the point where many chasers began investing in a laptop computer configured with a cellular modem and data cable, a possession that revolutionized storm chasing. Now, rather than spend the night in one of the few cities hosting a NWS office (often times, this would require the bedraggled storm chaser to drive hundreds of miles out of his/her way), a chaser could stop anywhere and use the hotel phone to download the necessary data. Chasers could also use truck stops, many of which have table phones, to gather an afternoon update via modem. By 1997, quite a few storm chasers began incorporating a bag phone (a fixed-station mobile phone with a 3-watt transceiver) into their increasing arsenal of modern storm tracking gadgets. When coupled with a special analog-to-digital converter box, one could use the bag phone (in lieu of a fixed land-line phone) to download information. The current cell phone technology has moved in even more portable and exciting directions. The two dominant competing standards in the U.S. are now CDMA and GSM, the former offering digital and analog "overlap" while the latter's coverage footprint is expanding rapidly. In either case, a chaser can now buy a PC data card, insert it into the laptop and browse at 56-300 kbps anywhere there exists a digital signal.
Nowadays, laptop computers, cell phones and GPS software (which allows you to track your vehicle's position on a computerized map while driving) have become standard fare in a storm chaser's bucket of goodies. Even “old dogs”, stalwart in their refusal to adopt the state-of-the-art tools of the trade, are conceding that the “haves” have a significant tactical edge over the “have-nots”. Many of these first-generation storm chasers who once relied almost solely upon the crudely plotted and often-incomplete morning data have now begrudgingly bought laptops and cell phones so they, too, can check new weather data as it became available throughout the chase day.
Lately, some storm chasers have become electronically adept enough to install and operate TV satellite dishes in their chase vans, along with the necessary satellite-tracking equipment that keeps the dish locked onto the satellite signal, thereby enabling the chaser to constantly watch the Weather Channel while driving. Many chasers have retrofitted their vehicles with roof-mounted instrumentation, mimicking the VORTEX project's [v] now famous PVC piping-bedecked “probe” used to gather in-situ data in the near vicinity of tornadic supercell thunderstorms.
With the staggering array of technological tools now at the disposal of those with the means and desire to obtain them, one might ask the question: how much more likely to find tornadoes and severe storms is the well-equipped chaser versus the one who still chooses to (or has to, for financial reasons) chase with a minimum of gear? For a number of reasons, there is no way to adequately answer this question. The best answer I can give is this: given the state of current telecommunications technology, a point of diminishing returns is reached beyond possession of a laptop with cell compatible modem, cell phone and data cable. There are several reasons why this is so and we'll discuss those reasons now.
If you look qualitatively at the results of different chasers during the last few years, it is reasonable to argue that the most successful storm chasers are the ones who have a combination of three factors: experience, knowledge and access to data. This is what one might expect. There are other factors that can allow a given storm chaser to get to the right place at the right time (such as luck), but the aforementioned qualities are likely the most important for consistently successful storm intercept results [vi] . I know several very skilled chasers who still navigate using paper atlases and get their morning weather data at NWS offices. These same chasers often do very well with only a careful morning analysis and little or no updated afternoon information. After all, this is how most chasers operated until the very recent advent of affordable cell phone plans! By the same qualitative measure, I am aware of NO mobile radar-toting storm chaser or storm chasing enterprise that outperforms the experienced chasers . This strongly suggests that no substantive tactical advantage is to be gained by carrying such equipment.
There are several reasons why this is the case. Consider the roof-mounted marine radar: small roof-mounted radar units have, by necessity, very weak transmitting power compared with the big radars used by NWS offices. This means that the smaller, portable units just aren't capable of “seeing” storms nearly as well and the farther the storms are from the mobile radar transceiver, the less discernible they will be [vii] . You are far better off downloading radar data on the Internet. There are now multitudes of websites that provide frequently updated NWS radar data for a small monthly fee. This fact, combined with the proliferation of cell phone towers and falling cell phone service plan prices, makes the Internet a source of radar data far more practical and advantageous than anything a rinky-dink, jerry-rigged radar can provide! How about the teams, like the DOW, that carry more sophisticated equipment? While these mobile radars are much more powerful than the tiny units just discussed, they are generally designed to see a more detailed picture of very nearby storms. To be of tactical use to the storm chaser , he/she requires a radar display capable of seeing storms over a much larger region than that sampled by a DOW or millimeter radar [viii] . Thus, these mobile radars are really better suited to research endeavors that require high-resolution storm data. In other words, the teams employing such radars are not actually using them to generate a storm chasing strategy per se, but rather to gather the data that their scientific objectives require. These research teams must get to the right place at the right time in the same manner that the rest of us do; they must make a forecast using data widely available on the Internet. Another factor that contributes to a point of diminishing return is the fact that the more gadgets you have on board, the greater the amount of time that must be spent fixing them when they break or malfunction.
So what technological advances would garner an edge for the tech-savvy storm chaser? I would dare say that any advances that increase our ability to download Internet weather data “on the go” represent worthwhile upgrades. One such promising new technology is the wireless modem mentioned earlier. Connected to a portable computer, usually in a PCMCIA slot, this modem is capable of sending and receiving cell tower-borne IP packets [ix] . What this means is if you are traveling in a region within the wireless “footprint”, you can download data without being connected to a cellular phone. You can literally just drive down the road and your computer will ingest constantly updated information. The same capability can be had with a USB data cable and the phone itself. The thought of driving through rural Kansas guided by virtually live, updated radar data makes my heart race. Until recently, the area coverage of this wireless signal was highly limited to a few select metropolitan areas. However, this digital "footprint" is expanding rapidly and our own in-field tests have revealed that about 70-80% of "Chase Alley" now has more than adequate coverage. In 2004, we tested phone-USB cable kits with two different phones: a Cingular GSM phone and a Verizon CDMA phone. The Cingular GSM results were most surprising: the system worked well, yielding 40 Kbps internet connections on nearly all interstates and major highways, as well as in many rural areas. The coverage appeared to expand noticeably even from May to June! The Verizon system yielded even faster speeds - 100-200 Kbps - and in many areas. Unfortunately, at certain times and places, both systems would fail for reasons still unknown to us or to the technical support people at each company. Nonetheless, by 2005 we expect that either system (GSM or CDMA) will give coverage in 80-90% of the places where we chase.
Until very recently, satellite dishes designed to intercept the wireless Internet signals have been hamstrung by their dependence upon a phone line to make the initial connection. A few years ago, a generation of "2-way" satellite dishes has emerged, allowing the user to bypass the use of a cell phone to make internet requests. These dishes are designed to be mounted on the roof and some even stow themselves once the vehicle begins moving. In 2003, we used one of these systems during tour operations. We found that it's utility was limited by (1) severe sensitivity to movement/shaking of the van by wind or people; (2) the inability to use it while driving and (3) the long set-up and stowing times. We are hopeful that in the next few years, a low-profile satellite unit will emerge that makes it possible to download and upload data at broadband speeds while driving anywhere in North America. Although no such system is available, it's predecessor may already be here: the Baron Mobile ThreatNet system delivers near real-time radar data (collected from all U.S. NWS radar sites) to your laptop screen, anywhere in the contiguous 48 states. We had the opportunity to test this system this year and found that some of its shortcomings (e.g., low resolution and a limited number of available products) are trumped by the fact that it provides continuous near real-time radar data. Perhaps this same system, which operates on the XM radio frequencies, will one day be made general browsing capable - allowing the users to surf the internet just as they can over a DSL line. One thing is nearly certain: the day is coming when fast mobile internet surfing will be possible.
Another recent development is revolutionizing storm chasing: WIFI. Wireless hotspots, locations where a wireless internet signal is made available, are proliferating at a crazy rate. By this time next year, many McDonalds restaurants will be WIFI hotspots. Most Starbucks and all Kinko's locations already are. The majority of mid-quality hotels and motels have free broadband as well. Most town libraries do. Storm chasers are definitely becoming aware of these locations and are using them whenever possible. Soon, the real-time data ingest capabilities discussed above will be needed only for the purpose of downloading radar data during or just prior to the chase. All other data will be gathered at one of thousands of hotspots.
[i] It is believed that Roger Jensen (began in the late 1940's) and David Hoadley (began in 1956) are the pioneers. For an interesting read on this subject, go here .
[ii] My favorite software for doing this is Digital Atmosphere by Tim Vasquez. Details can be found at www.weathergraphics.com .
[iii] The reader is invited to see http://webserv.chatsystems.com/~tornado/vehicles/index.html for an oft-times hilarious chronicle of several infamous chase vehicles.
[iv] AFOS stands for Automation of Field Operations and Services, a largely out-dated and oft-maligned system linking the different NWS offices for transmission of weather information and communications.
[v] VORTEX stands for the Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornadic Storms Experiment and represented the most ambitious scientific effort to collect data on tornadic storms. Listen to the project's PI discuss the basics of this historical experiment at www.nssl.noaa.gov/noaastory/vortex.ram . REAL AUDIO FILE!
[vi] “Success” is extremely arbritrary and open to many definitions. For the purposes of the present article, we shall take success to mean the ability to consistently make the right choices and be in the right place at the right time. Novice chasers, for instance, rarely demonstrate consistency in results.
[vii] In fact, the radar's ability to see a storm is measured by the “reflected power” (call this P r ) and it turns out that P r is directly related to how strong a signal the radar can send (the “transmitted power, P t ). Moreover, P r drops off as the 4 th power of range, the storm's distance from the transceiver.
[viii] Like the one currently being used by Dr. Howie Bluestein of the University of Oklahoma.
[ix] One version of this technology is called “CDPD” (Cellular Digital Packet Data).