'This winter has really been a case of bad luck in much of the Midwest.'
On Friday, former Parkland College student Andrew Pritchard returns to campus for his “Confessions of a Storm Chaser” presentation at Staerkel Planetarium (7 p.m. start, $1 admission). He was kind enough to take our questions ahead of the event:
1. What’s the worst storm you’ve seen?
The worst storm I have seen is probably a toss up between tornadic storms that I intercepted on June 7, 2008, near Chicago and April 14, 2012, near Langley, Kan. The June 7, 2008, supercell just would not stop producing tornadoes as it approached the southern suburbs of Chicago. This storm would produce tornadoes one after another with almost no time in between for several hours, most of which were also quite large. This was somewhat unexpected as the main severe weather threat this day was forecast to be further west in Iowa, so had the storm maintained strength into the populated Chicago suburbs we could have had a real problem on our hands. The 2012 tornado near Langley was probably the strongest tornado I have witnessed. Luckily this storm also managed to avoid most populated areas nearby. We crossed the damage path several times in following the tornado and the trees were stripped down to their trunks, and the grass and vegetation had been scoured down to a flat dirt surface where the tornado had traveled.
2. What’s your take on all this wacky weather we’ve had this winter?
This winter has really been a case of bad luck in much of the Midwest. We have been stuck in an upper level jet stream pattern that keeps us in line for periodic clipper storm systems that add to our snow totals and bring reinforcing blasts of air from the north. This has kept us locked into a bitterly cold and snowy pattern. On the flip side, areas further west such as Anchorage, Alaska, have been stuck in an unseasonably warm pattern for much of the winter. Eventually the jet stream pattern will break down and things will begin to thaw out. Hard to say what it means for our spring.
3. What are driving on the job these days?
I actually do not drive anything special for storm chasing. Whatever gets you to the storm. I do most of my long distance storm chases with a long time friend of mine, Colin Davis, and we usually take his Ford Escape. My personal vehicle is a bright yellow Mazda, and I have never hesitated to drive it up to a tornado in rural South Dakota. I have been told the bright yellow car stands out like a sore thumb in fellow storm chaser’s photos out on the grassy prairie. Some of my companions do have their cars covered in armor coating so they may literally drive into the tornado, but that really isn’t my style and I tend to lay low out there. With gas hovering around $4 a gallon every spring, you do have to try and find a line between having a vehicle that can handle the roads, but also give you some sense of fuel economy. You do find a lot more storm chasers driving smaller fuel efficient vehicles out there these days. Like I said, whatever will get you to the storm and not drain your wallet in the process.
4. Who’s the weatherman you trust most and why?
My most trusted meteorologist will always be Ed Kieser, formerly of WILL and WCIA here in Champaign-Urbana. The man was at my first birthday party and is the reason I live my life around the sky. He would send all kinds of tornado video home for me to watch, and gave me my first part time job as an assistant in his weather office. I have never known someone to immerse themselves into the weather and the affect it has on their community like he does. Losing his weather coverage in central Illinois was a huge hit, especially during severe weather season.
5. You tell someone you chase storms for a living. They respond by ...
I really do not chase storms for a living. It’s more of a passion. I am lucky enough to pay the bills with my camera as a photographer, but strictly speaking with storm chasing you are lucky to break even in the end. There are the occasional video and photo sales to the media networks, but when you consider all of the money put into gas, vehicle maintenance, camera gear, hotels, food and more, you are generally pretty happy if you are able to make your money back and break even. There are a few guys out there making their living from storm chasing, but you could probably count them on one hand.
6. What’s 2014 shaping up like weather wise?
This is definitely already an interesting year weather wise. It’s been extremely cold, and many locations in central Illinois are approaching all-time records for snow totals. There are some indications that with the high soil moisture content, plenty of cold air aloft, and a potentially favorable jet stream pattern that we could end up with a rather stormy spring in the midwest, but that could be the ever optimistic weather nerd in me. With plenty of snow to melt this spring, any heavy rains early in the spring could also leave us with a flooding situation. If it isn’t drought one summer, it’s flooding the next spring.
7. Your favorite Parkland memory
My favorite Parkland memory has to be my Introduction to Weather course with the late Dean Timme. It was an evening class at the end of the day, but his enthusiasm and sense of humor always made the long classes very interesting. I was really sad to hear of his passing last fall.