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Earth Science Technology

O'Reilly Interview Digs Into the Tech of Storm Chasing 64

Posted by timothy
from the started-with-just-a-bicycle-and-some-crayons dept.
blackbearnh writes "If you've watched the Discovery Channel series 'Storm Chasers,' you'll be familiar with Dr. Joshua Wurman and his Doppler on Wheels radar, which he uses to study tornadoes up close and personal every spring. O'Reilly Media spent some time last week speaking to Dr. Wurman about what it takes, technologically, to operate a weather radar in 100-mile-per-hour winds in the middle of a lightning storm. They also talked about the value of this kind of research to both tornado and hurricane research, and how having a film crew around during missions affects the science."
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O'Reilly Interview Digs Into the Tech of Storm Chasing

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  • The Best Job (Score:3, Interesting)

    by inKubus (199753) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @11:44AM (#26133075) Homepage Journal

    This is something I've always wanted to do. Someday when I'm rich I'd like to become a storm chaser; outfit an awesome armored car with minicomputers and a powerful radar and run flat tires. I think the weather is going to be getting more interesting, seeing the recent extreme patterns of the jetstream almost reaching the arctic circle before winter even starts! There's something about a good thunderstorm; the booming thunder, the hint of ozone in the air. Ahh.

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You might also try some LSD, or peyote! Actually, that's probably safer.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by tompaulco (629533)
      Hopefully you'll be rich enough to make a better looking Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV) than the one they use. The TIV II was better looking, but kept breaking. The first TIV looks like something I would have made.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by inKubus (199753)

        You're right, the TIV [wikipedia.org] is pretty ugly. I was thinking about starting with an actual armored truck or possibly something military/industrial, like a Unimog [wikipedia.org] or Pinzgauer [wikipedia.org]. I'd definitely probably make it convertible to a regular truck for other weather conditions, so I could attack snow as well ;)

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          The problem with those vehicle types is their high profile. You need to remember that the point of the TIV was to drive into the tornado, so should be heavy but yet as low a profile as possible. Even if your armored vehicle base will be heavy, the possibility of tipping over is greatly increased.
          • by t0rkm3 (666910)

            Not to mention a very bothersome phenomenon exacerbated by tornadic conditions.

            Lift.

          • Heavy isn't enough. Tornados regularly toss around "heavy" items like warehouses and locomotives. The original TIV had outrigger arms [texomashomepage.com] that were meant to help stabilize the thing during high wind. That "feature" made me laugh, and it demonstrated that the designer doesn't really comprehend the forces involved.
            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by afidel (530433)
              Considering TIV-I made it through a EF2 tornado without any problems I would say he understood the forces fine, he never though the TIV could survive an EF5 which is the whole reason for teaming with the DOW.
              • Nah, they were just lucky. We had a tornado touch down nearby [umd.edu] (various reports claimed it was either a F2 or F3 event.) I got to see the damage first-hand. It picked buildings up and tossed them around like toys. We're talking several hundred tons of building that's bolted to the ground. If any of the TIVs get some air under them, they're going to become aircraft ... briefly.
            • The original TIV had outrigger arms that were meant to help stabilize the thing during high wind. That "feature" made me laugh, and it demonstrated that the designer doesn't really comprehend the forces involved.

              What's wrong with the outrigger arms? Sure, they won't stop the entire thing from being lifted airborne, but they will make it harder for lesser winds to tip the vehicle over sideways.

          • Maybe a surplus Jagdpanzer [wikipedia.org] (or the missile-armed Raketenjagdpanzer variant) would do the trick.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by machinegunben (672267)

      Be prepared for long hours in the car, clear sky busts 1200 miles away and a lot of gas station burritos. Storm Chasing, while fun, isn't as glamorous as Discovery has made it out to be.

      • Real science is rarely as glamorous as the media makes it out to be, let alone as glamorous as many Slashdotters would like it to be.

        This is why attempts to make $SCIENCE_TOPIC [fun|interesting|relevant] invariably fail.

    • Everybody's doing it. Just throw up a web site and charge European tourists $3000 per week to drive all over creation and get their grub at the Elk City Waffle House.

      It's all good fun so far but sooner or later somebody is going to be driving the wrong way down the interstate like the douchebag producer in the Discovery Channel show and take out a car full of my Okie relatives.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DrVomact (726065)

      Yeah, there is no high like a powerful storm. While working for the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout (back in the 70s) I got to see quite a few lightning storms from the inside...on a mountain top. No tornadoes (I was in Eastern Oregon), but the sheer magnitude of the forces at work inside an electrical storm gave me such an adrenaline rush that it became quite the addiction. "Oh please Lord, send me some more storms, and may they be with much lightning, little rain, and cause lots of fires." Like they

    • by rirugrat (255768)

      What, Bill O'Reilly is interviewing storm chasers? Are they liberals?

  • {tornado on radar}
    no film crew:
    "jim, are we near this isobar on the map?"
    film crew:
    "GOOD GOD JIM GET US TO THIS ISOBAR STAT! JESUS CHRIST! AAAAH!"

    {truck gets flat tire}
    no film crew:
    "yup, we have a flat"
    film crew:
    "Why God, why. I swear I have never believed in you before, but if you answer this one prayer for me now. Oh sweet Jesus."

    {tornado turns towards truck}
    no film crew:
    "yeah, it's turning towards us"
    film crew:
    "I know what you're thinking. 'Did he say EF5 or EF3?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this

    • by elysiana (1152995) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @12:40PM (#26133729)

      You laugh, but that's just about right. After having storm chased with the meteorology students at college and some of the USAF meteorologists, I can tell you some of the stuff that's done on TV is often laughable and downright dangerous at times. They're melodramatic and they push the limits more than is safe, because it makes for a good show.

      That's not to say we never did anything stupid... just never on purpose in order to have a good story. Here [noaa.gov] and here [noaa.gov] are some of the photos we've gotten (I'm Becky). The seventh set down on that second page were an accident. We almost got caught in that one - took a wrong turn and got stuck in a residential area near Indianapolis. Let's just say, when you start seeing the blue flash from power pylons blowing up closer and closer to you... well, you know you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      It may look cool on TV but it worries me the number of people who think you can go do this without having a ground support team. Even trained people can make mistakes.

      • Not to take anything away from Dr. Wurman's research but the tv program itself just seems staged, silly and reminds me of the old 'A-Team' show but without a Mr. T.

        They are few and far between, but programs done about the National Weather Services' severe storm research center in Norman, Oklahoma are much more interesting.

      • by Muad'Dave (255648)
        Perhaps it's intentional, but the last picture in the seventh set is not clickable.
        • by elysiana (1152995)

          It wasn't intentional, I actually don't know why they didn't link that one to the larger version. When I get home tonight I'll have to remember to upload some of the pics to my personal gallery. I have some great post-tornado damage pics from that same storm.

      • by droopycom (470921)

        More likely its just some very good editing by the production team.

  • Storm Chasing (Score:4, Interesting)

    by CompMD (522020) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @12:16PM (#26133447)
    Being out in Kansas, its kind of expected that we have some totally awesome storm [flickr.com] chasing [flickr.com] vehicles [flickr.com].
    • by GweeDo (127172)

      Bah, Garmin is in Eastern Kansas (Olathe to be exact...my home town!). They don't get anywhere near the tornado activity we do out here in Central and Western Kansas (where I live now). But that is a nice looking ride they have there :)

      • by CompMD (522020)

        True, there isn't the same quantity of tornados, but this year I did my fair share of chasing through Johnson, Douglas, and Franklin counties. We even had to evacuate to the basement in August when a tornado came rolling through south of Olathe.

  • by smooth wombat (796938) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @12:25PM (#26133543) Homepage Journal

    I don't watch it regularly but have taped a few segments. Other than the one guy in the other chase crew who apparently has lost the ability to control the volume of his voice (BACK UP! BAACK UPP!! BAAACK UPP!!! BAAAAAAAAACK UPP!!!!!!!!!!!!), the one thing that really grinds on me is that no one uses a tripod when filming a tornado. They all hop out of their vehicle, grab their camera and start taping. Then, when you look at the video, you do see the tornado in the distance but it's like the camera guy from Battle Star Galactica had two too many cups of coffee (and I like the effect in BSG).

    It's not that difficult to have a quick release tripod mount on the bottom of your camera. It can stay on while you're in the vehicle and holding the camera and be attached to the tripod in seconds once you're outside and taping.

    It would make things much more easy on the eyes not to mention you can pick out more details with a stable shot than one moving about.

    Yes, it is a bit more cumbersome to haul out the tripod, pop the legs open, mount the camera and start filming, but it would make things more enjoyable to watch.

    • It's not that difficult to have a quick release tripod mount on the bottom of your camera. It can stay on while you're in the vehicle and holding the camera and be attached to the tripod in seconds once you're outside and taping.

      It would make things much more easy on the eyes not to mention you can pick out more details with a stable shot than one moving about.

      Yes, it is a bit more cumbersome to haul out the tripod, pop the legs open, mount the camera and start filming, but it would make things more enjoyable to watch.

      If it's a bit blowy would the camera not still shake? I imagine even putting all your body weight on it to stop it blowing away would still cause it to shake.

      • f it's a bit blowy would the camera not still shake?

        At the distances they are filming the tornadoes, there is very little wind. The tornadoes are usually 1/2 to 1 mile away.

        Also, if a camera is on a tripod, there would be a brief moment of shaking if a gust of wind came by but otherwise the image would be very stable. If the wind did pick up, all they would have to do is put one hand around the neck and lean on it gently while using the other hand to continue filming.

        I have a decent Manfrot [manfrotto.com]
        • by elysiana (1152995)

          Very little wind? You've never been on the bad side of a supercell, have you :)

          The gust front alone is enough to knock you over at times. Straightline winds, hail, rain shafts, and the occasional random 80mph gust make stable filming very difficult no matter what equipment you have. The other problem is that when you're jumping in and out of a vehicle trying to get to a point where you're close enough to see it but not close enough to get hit AND trying to stay away from the hail shaft, you don't want to be

    • To their defense (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Torn8-R (1190051)
      Most tornadoes only last for a few seconds, and under many circumstances, are travelling at a fairly quick rate of speed. Storm chasers have to be aware of hail, lightning, direction of the storm, and the ever vicious RFD winds. The kinds of tornadoes that set themselves up for beautiful, tripod-able storms have their own rarity. The key is mobility - if a chaser takes the time to set up the tripod, that's one more step in the value stream of the chase.
    • It's a style issue. They WANT the camera to be shaky, if it wasn't, then the TV producers would discard the footage. Otherwise, they think it doesn't look "real". It's the same sort of crap when you're watching a fight scene in a movie and they change the camera angle once a second.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by TubeSteak (669689)

      It's not that difficult to have a quick release tripod mount on the bottom of your camera. It can stay on while you're in the vehicle and holding the camera and be attached to the tripod in seconds once you're outside and taping.

      People in dynamic situations, taking dynamic shots, do not use tripods.

      If you've ever seen a professional sports game, the camera guys are almost always using a mono/unipod. Partly to support the weight of their enormous camera lenses, but mostly because it provides a relatively stable and very flexible platform.

      • by lgw (121541)

        Yeah, a monopod plus a camera with good Steadicam-style software would do the trick. I'm betting the shaky-cam is a deliberate style decision.

    • Other than the one guy in the other chase crew who apparently has lost the ability to control the volume of his voice (BACK UP! BAACK UPP!! BAAACK UPP!!! BAAAAAAAAACK UPP!!!!!!!!!!!!)

      Did you watch the whole segment? There was a fricken tornado bearing down on them. It passed right over the spot they were when he was shouting.

      • Did you watch the whole segment?

        Yes, I watched the entire hour long episode where that occurred. While I can appreciate the necessity to get the vehicle moving, he was way over the top. The driver didn't need to have him screaming every three seconds while trying to reverse out of the situation. The driver was having a hard enough time trying to keep the vehicle more or less in a straight line while high winds were blowing about them. He didn't need a crying baby in the seat next to him.

        I dist
        • That film you are talking about was the Kansas Turnpike/El Dorado Lake Tornado. The video was all for dramatic effect - If you look at the lines in the road in the video they aren't travelling more than 35-45mph.

          Quite a memorable video, and probably the best that crew ever shot. It's being remembered almost 18 years later!

        • He's an excitable guy, and I think given ten people you'll get ten different reactions to a potentially life threatening situation. I guess I just don't let things like that annoy me.
  • Interesting (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Wowsers (1151731)

    Whilst I watched this and other similar types of weather related shows on tv with interest, the value can be boiled down to cheap tv. No set to build, a small appearance fee, and a tank of gas for the storm chasers.

    As for scientific value, you don't know until you explore the objects of interest. However I would say there's a cut-off point between curiosity and cost. The Large Haldron Collider is a huge project eating it's way though money at considerable rate, with not much to show for it as the end goal.

    • You could spend craploads of money on a TV show like that one--I mean, countless gallons of gas, 30-some cameras running 12 hours a day--and still not see many tornadoes. There's great risk involved.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @12:51PM (#26133853)

    Why chase storms at all? All you have to do to capture tornado footage and record atmospheric data is simply set some cameras and equipment up in various trailer parks in the "Tornado Alley' region and wait for the tornadoes to show up and feed on a few double-wides.

  • You may find it interesting that Joshua is the son of Saul Wurman. The Information Design icon. His dad coined the term Information Architecture!

  • by codepunk (167897)

    Up until I seen a couple of the DOW computers running windows...no self respecting geek would use windows
    to do a mans job.

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You can get linux drivers for a freakin' doppler radar? I can't even get my damn printer to work.

    • by tuxicle (996538)

      IAARE (I am a radar engineer) The DOWs use NCAR's older PIRAQ-III PCI digitizers to digitize the radar's final IF. The software to support the PIRAQ runs on DOS, AFAIK. The Windows box inside the DOW runs the antenna controller, which is a visual basic program with some, uh, "interesting" choices for user interface (think shocking pink buttons).

      "Real" weather radars, such as the NWS NexRad now run Sigmet/Vaisala RVP-8 processors, which use Linux.

  • One has to wonder how many times Dr. Wurman has read Bruce Sterling's "Heavy Weather"...

"And do you think (fop that I am) that I could be the Scarlet Pumpernickel?" -- Looney Tunes, The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950, Chuck Jones)

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