What is stormchasing and how to chase storms with safety in mind

This post describes what the words “stormchasing” and “storm chaser” mean and what stormchasing involves, including my personal experience I gained stormchasing since the summer of 2003.

While not everyone knows what “stormchasing” really involves, most people certainly saw the American film Twister where Bill Harding (starred by Bill Paxton) chases tornadoes with his colleagues to obtain certain data in order to study tornadoes and improve warning systems. What these scientists do in the movie can be described as “stormchasing” or rather “tornado chasing”. The activity itself can be described as driving a car (or traveling by any other means of transport) into a proximity of a storm. This can be done for various reasons ranging from professionals who try to obtain scientific data to both amateur and professional photographers who want to take videos and pictures of storm structure and lightning. In the USA there is also a network of “storm spotters” who monitor storm activity and visually observe storms in order to provide warnings of developing tornadoes to the general public.

I have been a stormchaser since the summer of 2003. While I have been interested in storms, lightning and severe weathe, since being a child I did my first proper stormchase in that year. At the beginning I did it only for my personal interest, rarely even shooting any video. A few years later I started to take videos during all of my chases and since 2021 I have been involved in several scientific projects which required me to obtain data in a close proximity of thunderstorms. I have chased storms in many countries and the list still grows. My first stormchase in 2003 was in Cuba, but since then I chased storms in: USA, UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Romania, Malta, Argentina, Panama and Australia.

I have had a website in the Czech language for approximately 10 years (see www.stormchaser.webgarden.cz).  Why in Czech? Because I come from the Czech Republic originally and most of  my stormchasing in my early stormchasing years was done in the Czech Republic. However, I have permanently lived in the UK since 2012 and because many of my stormchases have since been done in the UK, visits to my original Czech website started to originate in the UK and earlier in 2017 more than 25% of people visited my original website from the UK. Furthermore, the ratio of traffic generated from general public sources to visits from professional meteorologists and amateur stormchasers has increased showing that general public is increasingly more interested in stormchasing with time. This led me to develop a new UK website where I will focus on my UK stormchases and will, as time permits, translate and update this website based on my original Czech website.

So let’s get to the description of how to chase storms and stay safe. First of all, before I encourage anyone to chase storms I need to stress that chasing storms is a dangerous hobby if not done in a safe and responsible way. Any thunderstorm can be life-threatening because it is always associated with dangerous phenomena such as lightning, large, severe wind gusts or some rarer and more dangerous phenomena like tornadoes and flash floods. Everyone who chases storms needs to be aware of these and take appropriate measures to avoid injuries or getting into a life threatening situation. The number one killer in a thunderstorm is lightning. It strikes fast and the exact point where it strikes can’t be predicted. The danger of lightning can, however, be easily avoided when chasing in a car, because its metal construction works like a “Faraday Cage” and any strike that may hit the car would be guided along the metal chassis around the people inside. This does not apply to convertibles! Furthermore, a car is not, unless it has tall antennas installed, an object that would be “preferred” as a target for a lightning strike as its shape is elongated and there are no pointy objects from its roof. A tree, chimney or a person standing outside is much more likely to be hit. However, while cars are very safe they still do not offer 100% protection. A car is not a perfect Faraday Cage, but for the purpose of relative safety, it is much safer than many other locations (including houses and other buildings!) where we may be during a thunderstorm. I have personally been several times in a car within 10 meters of a lightning strike and have never felt any electric shock or any other effects except very loud bang of thunder. While a car could be a very safe refugee from a weak thunderstorm or in a safe distance from a storm, it may not be a wise option to hide in a car in a core of a strong thunderstorm. Strong thunderstorm cores often bring severe wind gusts which can cause trees, branches or other objects to hit the car and injure people inside and the near zero probability of being hit by lightning in a car may then be offset by the danger of wind-driven objects hitting or falling onto the car. In addition, thunderstorms can be accompanied by large hail which can in extreme cases break the windows of the car. These phenomena are always located near and inside a core of a thunderstorm and therefore such core should be avoided whenever possible. Most stormchasing actually involves watching a storm from ~10 miles away as that offers much better view of the storm structure and lightning. In addition, if the core of the storm approaches, there is enough time to retreat or find shelter (such as a petrol station). While I often chase in a core of a thunderstorm, I do this for scientific purposes where I have to follow certain guidelines to lower any danger. For this reason, any videos that I publish and where I chase a core of a storm (called “core punching”) should definitely not encourage anyone to do it. A core of a thunderstorm can be identified on a radar and the use of radar is always recommended when stormchasing. The core of a storm can also be identified with some experience without a radar. It is a location with locally intense rainfall where visibility suddenly drops. There is often intense lightning activity in or near a core and the lightning is usually not visible well as the rain and hailstones hide it. It normally appears as a dark area of heavy rain with frequent flashes of lightning. Generally, the more frequent the lightning is the stronger the core. While heavy rain, hail and strong gusts of wind are usually located in a core of a storm, tornadoes, on the contrary, always form under an updraft where warm and humid air flows into the storm. An updraft normally appears as a dark cloud base with no or little rain falling from it.