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Spotting and Chasing Storms in the Ozarks

(Photo credit: Matthew Straubmuller, via flickr)

Spring is here, and so comes the severe weather season in the Ozarks. Some people place themselves on the front line of these storms to provide the rest of us with the information we need to stay safe. KSMU’s Shane Franklin spoke with a local expert and has this report.

On Tuesday morning, parts of southwest Missouri and Oklahoma began to gear up for the possibility of severe weather. People in this part of the country have plenty of experience when it comes to wind and rain, even tornadoes. That includes Ted Keller, founder of OzarksWeather.com, or Tornado Ted, as many call him. He too was preparing for the storm Tuesday morning when I reached him by phone. Keller wasn’t just preparing to wait out the storm though, like most folks. He was preparing to chase it.

 “A thunderstorm is made up of air and water, that’s it. It’s sustainable and it can produce wind that can knock over a house. It’s just fascinating for me to see. I never get tired of it,” says Keller.

There’s a lure to the storm, Keller says, so much so that now he offers private storm chasing tours to people in the region. He says the chasing wouldn’t be possible if it were not for trained spotters keeping an eye out, and relaying that information. He calls this information “ground truth.”

“Both chasers and spotter are vital parts, because even though radar is very advanced, nothing beats a pair of eyes on a storm to verify that the radar is working the way you think it will during detection. A tornado report has a lot of weight. There are tornado warnings and there are tornado warnings that are based on someone actually seeing a tornado. Those you pay a lot more attention to. They are less theoretical and more realistic,” explains Keller.

The National Weather Service depends on spotters on the ground to verify the path and magnitude of a storm, as well as extreme events like violent hail and tornadoes.  He says the spotter’s job can be more difficult and possibly more important than the chaser.   You can rely on the spotters to be at their predestinated locations, waiting on the storm to pass through, or not.

“Chasers have really filled in. Don’t get me wrong, but you never know where they may be.  They may not be on the more insignificant storm, for instance, whereas that may be very significant to the town that it’s approaching. So in that case its good to have a spotter there who’s job it is to watch,” says Keller.

Keller tracks storms weeks out using computer models. When the storm is close enough he transitions to actual weather data for the region.  After he is confident in his data models, he plans his course out, and informs his fellow chasers of his plan. He doesn’t leave to chase the storm until checking to make sure his vehicle and equipment is all in proper working order.

At that point he mixes intuition with chance, and sets out to head off the storm where he thinks he stands the chance of observing the most intense weather patterns the storm will produce.

He says the weather is not the most dangerous part. He’s more worried about the other chasers than the actual chasing.

“What’s really become more prevalent over the last few years is something called chaser convergence.  You get a lot of people, especially with the big honkin storm that’s already produced a tornado. You get hundreds and hundreds of gawkers and chasers. That’s actually the thing I review the most with everybody, being safe from traffic, not the hail and the lightning or any of that stuff,” says Keller.

This chaser convergence, Keller explains, is likely more common today because of movies like “Twister” and shows like Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers.” Also he says technology has a large role in the upturn in popularity for storm chasing and storm spotting.  Anyone with a smart phone now can track storms in real time. Large amounts of inexperienced untrained people out on the roads during severe weather do pose several safety problems.

He recommends that people interested in chasing and spotting contact the National Weather Service about training

For KSMU News, I’m Shane Franklin.