A Day in the Life of a Storm Chaser

As faithful readers may recall, I had the good fortune several weeks ago to meet with the Center for Severe Weather Research (CSWR) team as they embarked on the Vortex 2 project, a.k.a, the tornado chasers. If you'd like to go back and refresh your memory, I wrote here and here. At the time I wrote that I hoped that I would return to do a ride along with the team in order to see how all of this worked in the real world. Last weekend, I had the good fortune to be able to do just that. Today's post will encapsulate some of my experiences, observations, and interviews with the team as I sought to find out what all of this expensive equipment does anyway.

Friday, June 5, 2009– Dr. Wurman gave me the simple, yet vague instruction, "Fly to Denver and wait for our call." I could not blame him. Since the storm team has a wide range in which they operate in, they do not know until the afternoon where they will be staying that night. I found out about 2 p.m. that I was to join them in Kearney, Nebraska that evening. Fortunately there is a small airport that only exists because of a US Government "essential air service" directive and so I was able to book a flight, albeit with considerable difficulty. Corporate travel agents are great for the big cities and airlines, but they know beans about booking to airports that only see two 15-seat airplanes per day. Later that evening, after two missed attempts to land, we finally diverted to McCook, Nebraska where I ended up spending the night. If Kearney is small, McCook is even more so. At 1 a.m., trying to make it to Kearney by automobile was an impossibility.

Saturday June 6, 2009, 6:30 a.m.– I was up early to head back to the airport to make my 15 minute flight to Kearney. Since the Vortex team works late into the night, they do not start chasing until around noon when weather activity starts. Thus, I was still able to meet up with the team before they left for the day.

11:07 a.m.– Every morning begins with a daily briefing. The whole Vortex team (about 100 people) gathers in the hotel conference room where they get a rundown of expected weather conditions and learn where they are targeting to travel to that day. This morning was particularly exciting because yesterday was a big day. While I was in an airplane executing missed approaches with a joke telling co-pilot (What do you call a deer with no eyes? What do you call a dog with no legs?…), the Vortex team was in Wyoming where they finally were in the right place at the right time. They intercepted their first storm of the season. Weather patterns have been atypical for June, and so they have not been able to see as much storm activity as they were hoping for.

11:11 a.m.– Even though the heavy analysis on the data will be conducted over the winter off-season, it is impossible not to peek. The CSWR team has a mobile office containing three ThinkPad W700 notebooks. On most mornings they set them up and review the previous night's Doppler scans. Since the pictures are very high resolution, the W700 makes a great choice as its quad core processor makes light work of rapidly scanning through them to find out what they need.

The W700's 17" widescreen display makes it possible to review two opposing radar views at once.

11:37 a.m.– Since there are multiple possible storms to track today and weather patterns have yet to fully develop, the coordination team makes the decision to delay leaving until 1 p.m. Thus, I have an hour to kill.

12:04 p.m. – I wander out to the parking lot to take another look at the vehicles. It is impossible not to see the TIV, the Tornado Intercept Vehicle which is designed to drive straight into the heart of a storm. Though the TIV team is not officially part of the Vortex project, they often are chasing the same storms.

12:05 p.m. – I was quite pleased to find a ThinkPad T400 mounted inside. I asked why some of the keys were missing. Answer: One of the video cameras mounted to the windshield came unstuck and fell on the system. The team just ignores the missing keys and types by pushing on the plungers. I also asked how the system had been performing for them all season. They didn't know who I was or who I represented, so I was quite pleased to hear "flawlessly." I then identified myself, gave them my business card, and said that the least we could do for them is to send them a new keyboard. Notice also that the system is covered in dust. It comes in from every crack as the wind whips by. They did not know this when they bought it, but the T Series is one of multiple ThinkPads with MIL spec certification to stand up against dust.

1:34 p.m. – Finally, it is time to leave. I have to good fortune of riding in the jump seat of DOW #6 headed due west. 1:39 p.m. – This DOW (Doppler on Wheels) has a three person team consisting of a driver, navigator and radar operator. All of them perform different, vital roles essential to the continuing operations of the vehicle.

1:58 p.m. – The DOW vehicles are quite sophisticated and well thought out mobile weather trackers. They are completely custom built and designed to be bullet-proof reliable. There is a lot of redundancy and isolation of the various subsystems so that even if one goes down, it will not interrupt operations. For example in DOW #7, the team has installed quite a large stack of our ThinkCentre ultra small form factor desktops.

  • Machines #1 - #3 run the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping software.
  • Machine #4 handles the satellite radar feed from the National Weather Service
  • Machine #5 runs SASSI, the Vortex team's real time GPS tracking software for the entire fleet (more on that later)
  • Machine #6 runs a backup CSWR-only low bandwidth tracking system
  • Machine #7 has UHF tracking as a low-level failover system
  • Machine #8 runs Linux and takes the Doppler radar feed and translates it into Windows readable code in real time.

These machines run constantly. When actually tracking a storm, everything kicks into high gear. There are even more PCs to control the radar and to handle the gigabytes of data collected per day. The trucks all have large diesel generators, but power is not unlimited. The ultra small form factors not only save space, but are using Lenovo's latest power saving technology to conserve electricity and keep heat down. As it is, there is a second full-size air conditioning system that keeps everything inside the cab cool. Then there are the displays. Some vehicles have up to fourteen separate display panels! Here's a two minute video describing what they all do. [youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yh6-07YFSnY]

3:32 p.m. – There is no question that seeing any one of these vehicles causes quite a stir to the casual bystander. A fleet riding down the road stops traffic. Many people have seen the Weather Channel segments and are quite interested, but occasionally seeing the equipment has quite the opposite effect. I was told how during the height of one storm the team pulled into the parking lot of a local gas station. A girl inside who was already quite nervous became hysterical because she thought that the trucks outside meant that a tornado was going to arrive any minute. To their credit, the Vortex team is always patient and courteously answers questions, even though some people are jerks.

3:42 p.m. – Like any bunch of people with similar interests who get together, naturally they talk shop. The weather version of "peering over the hood" involves terms like "automatic leveling capability," "azimuth correction," and "Doppler rotation speeds."

4:45 p.m. – Finally, what we've all been waiting for. There is a storm worth tracking. The team quickly swings into high gear. All control over the mission is handed over to the coordinating team. Nothing will happen without their knowledge and blessing. The driver picks up speed and races against the fast moving weather to get into place as quickly as possible. Next time…the CSWR team deploys for a storm. More about the remarkable systems that make it all possible. And the trucks in action.