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                   Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 7:01AM CDT

The Plains observer traffic crisis update - 2012 test trip and the "CTI"

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Last year, I did something I thought I would never do after 10 years: not go on a weather expedition to the Great Plains. By doing so, I broke a 10-year streak of covering the Plains during tornado season - the event I looked forward to the most, the highlight of my year. In a nutshell, it appeared that in 2010 the number of storm observers traveling to the Plains was reaching 'critical mass' in terms of the traffic problems created on the roads. This was not only making the act of observing itself difficult, but creating a very real public menace right in the heart of communities where tornadoes were threatening or in some cases, had just hit. News articles lambasting observer crowds were painful to read. I increasingly felt a moral obligation to not contribute to the problem - it was not an easy decision to make, but one I felt I had no choice but to do. I had to give up the Great Plains.

The loss of something I enjoyed so intensely, in a place I had come to love just as much, was a major personal downer. It was not much different from losing a friend or family member. Think of the one thing you love to do and maybe even wait for every year. Imagine giving that up. Thankfully, this loss was tempered by the fact that I was now living in the Midwest - a lesser-covered yet severe-weather-active region of the USA. Despite avoiding the Great Plains, I captured two tornadoes in 2011 in Illinois, both less than an hour from my apartment and with no other storm observers in sight - much less any traffic.

During the 2011 season, I kept up with great interest the situation on the Plains via reports, video and imagery from other storm observers. Was the problem getting worse? Any better? Was there any chance I'd make it back there? Was guilt-free observing in the Plains going to remain a thing of the past, a relic of the good old days? The answer appeared to be encouraging. Storm observers reported little in the way of traffic crises for most of 2011. Pictures and video seemed to show 'business as usual' in the Plains. The cancellation of a high-profile storm observer show seemed to signal a waning public interest in observing.

So in 2012, I had decided to grant the Plains a 'test trip' to observe for myself the state of the problem. April 12-15 appeared to be an ideal time to 'test the waters', with a advertised-long-in-advance upper trough bringing a storm observers' 'dream setup': several days of a powerful southwesterly upper jet overtop of a sharp dryline, deep moisture and backed winds at the surface. This would undoubtedly bring a high number of storm observers to the Plains from literally all over the world, as most events like this have always done during the April-June peak season. The big 'main event' outbreak falling on a Saturday would maximize the numbers even more, when work would not be a hindrance to locals and Plains-based storm observers. Heading west on the 11th, I was overjoyed to get back to the Plains, but apprehensive about what I'd find. Whether or not I found a continuing traffic crisis would determine if the expeditions of old would be a part of my future or not.

So, I'll just cut straight to my personal observations. After observing April 12, 13 and 14 mostly in Oklahoma, I did not find the storm observer armageddons of May 19, 2010. I saw 'business as usual' as I'd always known: many storm observers out, but manageable numbers. No endless caravans. No roadblocks. The only impact was a shortage of roadside pull-offs on the shoulderless roads. I drove home happy to know that maybe I didn't have to give up the Plains after all. Not only that, but the trip ended up being my best ever in terms of photogenic tornadoes, close tornadoes, HD tornado footage and much more.

Then I started reading reports from storm observers in Kansas on Saturday the 14th. In central Kansas, it was May 19, 2010 all over again. See (Mike Hollingshead's report and photos)

Apparently, in choosing the Oklahoma dryline play on the 14th, I had avoided the area where most storm observers had targeted. I had assumed that the big outbreak and number of storms would have spread storm observers out, but alas, in Kansas this was not the case.

So what can we make from all of this?

It's apparent to me from this last trip that it's certainly possible to observe storms the Plains, choosing very good targets (not always secondary table-scrap or highly conditional targets) and avoid the storm observer traffic issues. I managed to do that without really trying, although that seems more related to happenstance. On the other hand, the problem definitely still exists in a big way. The challenge then is to figure out where and when these issues are most likely to arise. Apparently it's not as intuitive as I thought. Before this week, I would have thought that on a long-forecasted high risk outbreak day, Oklahoma would have been the epicenter for observer traffic instead of Kansas.

As for avoiding the traffic hordes, I can think of a few strategies that will be part of my forecasting and planning in future expeditions:

  • Use Spotter Network to gauge observer coverage. This isn't always useful earlier than the morning of an storm observation day, but can give some idea of where the most dense areas of storm observers are. Most storm observers don't 'go live' on SN until the expedition is in progress, so the icons you see on the map at noon can increase tenfold by mid-afternoon. Not only that, but SN-enabled storm observers probably account for less than a third of the actual storm observers on the road, and that's not counting the spontaneous 'local' storm observers.
  • If caught in a long line of observer vehicles, leave it! It seems that getting caught in a long, solid line of storm observers (20-30 vehicles or more) not only contributes to the menace, but practically ends your chase and good photo opportunities. You are at the mercy of the traffic flow. In that case, I think it best to deviate from the pack and either choose a different storm altogether, or use an alternate route to circumvent the crowds. Sure, you will lose ground on the storm, but that's happening anyway in the jams.
  • Stay ahead of storms. It seems to be a consistent pattern that observer traffic really picks up near and just behind a storm. I believe executing an expedition as to stay in front of the storm will place one ahead of not only the crowds, but potential roadblocks from damage and/or police.
  • Pass on no-brainer, single-storm setups. An event like May 12, 2004 happening today will undoubtedly produce horrific traffic jams. These are days with an easy, highly apparent target and a resulting single tornadic storm. I shudder to think of what the next such setup will be like in terms of traffic. That is, completely unchaseable. I can imagine a gridlock scenario (CTI of *at least* 8 - see below). Setups like this may truly be the ones I can see being simply better to just stay home rather than drive 2,000 miles just to get mired in traffic. Being there won't turn out well in any way. I'd probably only see the first one or two meso cycles before I get stopped in gridlock. I guarantee the next 5/12/2004 will make headlines with EMs and police railing on storm observers.

The Chaser Traffic Index (CTI)

I've put some thought into quantifying the storm observer traffic problem, and here is the scale I came up with:

The Chaser Traffic Index (CTI)
    Value     Number of Storm observers; Impact
CTI-0No other storm observers encountered. No impacts.
CTI-1Less than 20 storm observers encountered. No impacts.
CTI-2Less than 40 storm observers encountered. Short waits to re-enter traffic. Some pull-offs taken. No impact to EMS/LEO.
CTI-3Less than 60 storm observers encountered. Waits of 15 to 30 seconds to re-enter traffic. Most pull-offs taken. No impact to EMS/LEO.
CTI-4More than 60 storm observers encountered. Lines of vehicles at least 1/2 mile long. Waits of more than 30 seconds to re-enter traffic. All pull-offs taken. EMS/LEO slowed by having to pass multiple vehicles.
CTI-5More than 100 storm observers encountered. Lines of vehicles at least 1 mile long. Waits of more than 1 minute to re-enter traffic. All pull-offs taken. EMS/LEO slowed by having to pass multiple vehicles.
CTI-6More than 150 storm observers encountered. Lines of vehicles at least 2 miles long. Waits of more than 2 minutes to re-enter traffic. All pull-offs taken. Delays of more than 2 minutes at stop signs, towns or traffic lights. Ability to keep up with storm slightly impacted. EMS/LEO response time slowed by more than 5 minutes.
CTI-7More than 200 storm observers encountered. Endless lines of storm observers. Waits of more than 4 minutes to re-enter traffic. All pull-offs taken. Delays of more than 5 minutes at stop signs, towns or traffic lights. Ability to keep up with storm moderately impacted. EMS/LEO response time doubled.
CTI-8More than 300 storm observers encountered. Endless lines of storm observers. Unable to re-enter traffic without someone slowing to form a gap out of courtesy. All pull-offs taken. Delays of more than 10 minutes at stop signs, towns or traffic lights. Ability to keep up with storm severely impacted. EMS/LEO response time tripled.
CTI-9Countless observer vehicles. Endless lines of storm observers. Gridlock starting at first tornadogenesis. Storm observing impossible less than 30 minutes after storm initiation. EMS/LEO cannot reach storm victims.
CTI-10Endless lines of storm observers. Gridlock starting at storm initiation. Storm observing impossible. EMS/LEO cannot reach storm victims.

I might start making maps in forecast posts for the expected CTI. Here are some CTI values on a few of my recent and past expeditions:

  • April 14, 2012 - NW Oklahoma: CTI-3
  • April 13, 2012 - SW Oklahoma: CTI-2
  • April 12, 2012 - NW Kansas: CTI-1
  • April 22, 2011 - Missouri: CTI-1
  • April 19, 2011 - Illinois: CTI-0
  • May 10, 2010 - Oklahoma: CTI-4
  • May 12, 2004 - Kansas: CTI-2
  • May 29, 2004 - Oklahoma: CTI-1
  • May 5, 2007 - Kansas: CTI-3
  • May 4, 2007 - Kansas: CTI-3
  • April 23, 2007 - Kansas: CTI-4
  • June 9, 2005 - Kansas: CTI-2
  • June 12, 2005 - Texas: CTI-3
  • June 12, 2004 - Kansas: CTI-3
  • June 11, 2004 - Iowa: CTI-1
I wasn't there, but from the pictures and video I've seen, May 19, 2010 in Oklahoma was a CTI-7 or CTI-8. That event is likely the worst that storm observing has ever seen in its history. April 14, 2012 in Kansas looks like a CTI-6, not quite as bad as 5/19/2010 but still probably ranking in the top 3 of storm observing traffic hordes in sheer numbers.

Any opinions or thoughts?

I was out on the Lyons to Salina storm from 5:30 to 8pm. Towards the end after the wedge had been on the ground for almost an hour, it got nearly May 19,2010 bad. As I approached Salina, all the numbered highways were lines of expeditioners. I sat for nearly 2 minutes waiting for an opening to cross one of these Highways. Having a small 4x4 truck and the decent grid network southwest of Salina, I employed the 'gravel bypass' method pretty well, and even the paved county roads were not as bad as the state highways. On 5-19-2010 I was on the Hennessey-Stillwater storm, which was the somewhat less converged of the two main storms that day, but it was still pretty horrible once it got near I-35.
- Posted by Scott Sims from Herrin, IL
Super nice blog, by the way. I read often, but don't comment enough, especially since you are only 65 miles away. Welcome to the semi-secret Illinois plains chase territory, I was lucky enough to grow up around here. You'll see expeditioners, but not lines of them(I hope). Next time you are out observing locally, look for a bronze 2004 Nissan Frontier with a camper shell and a few Southern Illinois University parking decals on the rusting bumper. That would be me. Glad to hear you made it back to the plains, I know I would be sad without a couple trips a year.
- Posted by Scott Sims from Herrin, IL
Hi Dan. I think one of the reasons so many were in Kansas is because many were coming down from Nebraska when that setup went bad. I was going to chase NE too and when it started looking doubtful I was thinking about heading south too. But I was intimidated by the huge number of expeditioners just on spotter network showing up and heard about the gridlocks from the past years, so I ended up heading east into Iowa and caught up to a supercell that produced a tor in Creston.
- Posted by Michael Thompson from MN
Thanks for the comments. Yes the Nebraska target tanking so bad probably was a big factor. The smaller setups like May 12, 2004 might benefit from not being a moderate/high risk, just because those types of setups require some forecasting knowledge to know it's a good setup.
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL

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