The Use of Technology During a Storm Chase

By: Dorian J. Burnette


There can be little doubt that advances in technology have made storm chasing much easier. Unfortunately, it is also easy to become too dependent upon it. This can be a dangerous around severe thunderstorms, where split-second decisions can be required. Severe thunderstorms are certainly not considerate when technology fails. Thus, it is imperative to know about all the limitations with technology.

Laptops, Mobile Phones, and the Internet:

The use of mobile phones for communication has improved since I first wrote this essay back in 2002. Coverage has expanded, and good Internet connections can be found away from major interstates. In general, I have had far better experiences in recent years communicating with the media, the National Weather Service, WeatherData (now AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions), and other chasers via the mobile phone. A battery charger and hands-free kit are highly recommended, of course. I continue to recommend against the use of a mobile phone to keep in contact with another car that is chasing with you though, since it is absolutely imperative that your communication with each other remain intact (e.g., searching through my address book to find the number and hit send takes too long in the fast-paced severe thunderstorm environment). My solution continues to be the Family Radio Service (FRS) radios. These are only good for a mile or two depending on terrain and other obstructions, but they do work well even in Stickville, USA. HAM radios are also another very good source of communication, but they do require a license.

The other use of mobile phones for storm chasing is to provide a connection to the Internet, and some dramatic improvements in areal coverage and speed have occurred. For years, I tethered my phone to a laptop and used an old, cheap 14.4 connection. That was enough for my needs (i.e., satellite image, surface map, radar from GRLevel3, etc.), when it actually worked. Today, the data available from the mobile phone companies is broadband, and such connections are becoming faster (e.g., 3G to 4G). However, plans adding tethering or an additional device like an air card or USB modem can be expensive. There can also be large coverage holes in the middle of Tornado Alley depending on your provider. For years, northwestern Oklahoma was a huge area with nearly zero data coverage. This finally changed toward the end of 2011, and during the spring of 2012, I was able to receive data in northwestern Oklahoma for the first time. Nonetheless, data holes still exist. So what is a chaser to do? The answer to this question will vary from chaser to chaser. How much are you willing to spend? Will you use the service outside of chasing, so the cost can be justified beyond storm chasing? You could retrieve the necessary information by using a browser or other application on a smartphone and avoid the cost of either tethering to a laptop or using an air card or USB modem. I have mixed feelings overall on the use of a smartphone. One complaint is the smaller screen size, and a lot of time can be wasted by zooming and scrolling to retrieve weather information. Screens have increased in size lately though, and there can be no denying the increase in the power of smartphones. Various weather applications are available too, but many of these offer only real basic radar that is pretty much worthless for storm chasing needs. The best radar applications I have found to date for smartphones are RadarScope and Pykl3. RadarScope is available for the iPhone and Android, while Pykl3 is only available for the Android.

My main complaint about using a smartphone though is that they are poor at multitasking. I gave the smartphone a trial run at various times during storm chases in 2011. One time the phone crashed on me in the middle of a storm chase just by switching between telephone calls and various weather observations. When I used my older laptop method, I found how much easier and faster I could obtain the data I need. This left the smartphone free to make phone calls and simply supply the data connection to the laptop (i.e., no major switching between applications on the smartphone itself). This method was much more successful for me. I even had fair success in 2011 and 2012 with the software that would allow me to answer or make a phone call and then automatically resume a data connection for the laptop. Now that Internet connections are more widespread and I am no longer living like a student, I have obtained a Jetpack from Verizon for 2013. This way the laptop can have its own data connection and I can leave my smartphone free to make and receive calls and text messages. This is the method that works best for me at this time. Whatever you decide, the point is to be aware of the locations you get the best service and integrate those locations into the storm chase (i.e., study the coverage maps available from your provider). I still have the webpages that I use most often for weather information saved on my laptop. That way the time spent online is actually spent gathering the data I need and not spent surfing through webpages to get to the right link to finally download the data.

There are other ways to obtain weather data while out in the field that do not require a mobile phone. One is to find a free Wi-Fi hotspot. These are stationary locations though, and won't be of use when in "chase mode." Sirius-XM satellite radio is another option, which can broadcast weather information directly to a laptop and certain GPS units. There are various grades available ranging from a relatively modest monthly fee to $100 per month and the service is available across Tornado Alley since it is satellite-based. However, there is a large up-front cost to obtain the GPS unit or laptop software that can display the weather data. Also beware that you do not get the entire NEXRAD suite with this service, which is a huge negative for me. It is better than nothing of course. The laptop software, WxWorks, also includes derived storm attributes and can highlight supposed areas of rotation. However, I have seen these highlighted rotation areas jump around significantly between radar scans, and the storm attributes have their own set of weaknesses and are meant to be used as guides. Thus, caution is advised.

No matter what you use for weather data always remember that any data you receive is always old. This is a basic remote sensing 101 rule. As of this writing, NEXRAD takes at least four minutes to complete a volume scan. These volume scans are certainly the way to go in order to obtain a complete picture of severe thunderstorms, and radar researchers are working on decreasing the amount of time it takes for each scan to complete. Each radar image is time stamped, so you can tell exactly how old it is. TV stations know that having their own radar can be a real important supplement to the NEXRAD data available from the National Weather Service, especially when severe thunderstorms are moving at 60 mph. They frequently make their radar data available on the Internet. Thus, I highly recommend that a link to local radars maintained by TV stations be kept as an alternate source of potentially valuable radar data (e.g., this one).

It can be easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of information that is available, especially when it is combined with the fast-paced severe thunderstorm environment. For many years, my main use of weather information through the mobile phone was to refine my chase target. Once I got into "chase mode," I was more likely to use NOAA Weather Radio, a scanner, and nowcasters at TV stations, private companies, and universities. However, since Internet connections are much more widespread, I find myself modifying this solution. Today, I find there are more times when I have the GRLevel3 program continuously downloading the latest radar data and a web browser set on the Storm Prediction Center's Mesoscale Analysis website. I can then simply switch back and forth between weather observations and DeLorme's Street Atlas USA (see below). NOAA Weather Radio, a scanner, and various telephone numbers are always close by though. This is the routine I find works for me, and it has plenty of backup options, which are important when dealing with technology in the fast-paced severe thunderstorm environment. The bottom line is to find a routine that will work for you and get you information quickly, but also note its limitations and integrate those into the storm chase. Finally, always remember that nothing can replace a couple of well-trained eyes on the storm you are chasing!

GPS Units:

A GPS unit is extremely helpful during the storm chase because it takes more of my mind off the map and places it on the storm I am chasing. GPS units come in a wide variety--some are standalone, others are simple "pucks" that plug in to a laptop, and, of course, smartphones these days come with GPS. I use a GPS puck that plugs in to my laptop via a USB port and plots my location on DeLorme's Street Atlas USA software. This GPS is completely powered by the laptop too. A GPS running on its own batteries is not recommended since most times there is no low battery warning and batteries can be inconsiderate regarding the time they expire (need I say more!). The other varieties of GPS units can also work, but if you want to send your GPS coordinates to other specialized software and save a log, then GPS pucks that plug in to a laptop are the way to go.

In a nutshell, it is very rare that I have an issue with the GPS/laptop combination. It is a solid technology that just works. Nonetheless, it is always good to have a backup plan when dealing with technology. I will never leave on a storm chase without taking ordinary paper maps with me. The state "Atlas and Gazetteer" maps sold by DeLorme are highly recommended given the immense amount of detail they provide. Having these maps handy can also make it easier to discuss possible routes with other folks chasing with you.

Final Comments:

Without a doubt, advances in technology have greatly assisted in storm chasing. However, it is important to note all the potential limitations given that the severe thunderstorm environment can change rapidly. The simpler solution can tend to be the better one, but the important thing is to find a solution that works well for you and takes into account all of the limitations. Such solutions can be dependent on the locations you typically chase, especially when it comes to the coverage provided by mobile phone companies.