Storm Chaser Interview: Jennifer Brindley Ubl

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Name: Jennifer Brindley Ubl

Storm chasing name: N/A

What influenced you to start storm chasing? 

Ubl: I’m among the generation of Twister Storm Chasers”. I saw the movie in the 90’s, and while I thought it was fascinating and amazing, I also thought it was just a Hollywood invention. It wasn’t until about ten years later when I met my dear friend Tony Laubach, that I would realise storm chasing was a real thing.

It was 2006, and Tony was generous enough to welcome me along on a storm chase. We then went on many chases between 2006-2007 until I saw my first tornado on 4/13/2007 in Seymour, TX. It was a close range experience and from that moment on I was irreversibly hooked!

How many storm chases have you been on and what’s your favourite to date?

Ubl: Oh my. I don’t know the exact number. I’ve chased 10 full seasons (20,000+ miles of driving) plus 2 shorter seasons. If we say that’s around 30 chases per year, then I’d say around or over the 300 mark. My tornado count is hovering around 60. (I am VERY picky on what I’ll count as a tornado.) 

My favourite chase is always a really hard question to answer. There are so many incredible memories and experiences, they’re all very different, and so it’s quite difficult to create a hierarchy of the best chases. But my top three come down to:

  • Pilger, NE 6/16/14 (Twin EF4 tornadoes + the fastest tornado on record)
  • Eads, CO 5/9/15 (Cyclical supercell with several photogenic tornadoes)
  • Tipton, KS 5/28/19 (Close range strong tornado intercept with the research team)

This doesn’t necessarily mean the most impactful chase experience, which no question would be the El Reno tornado on 5/31/2013. I’ve done several interviews about this tornado and chase experience, and how it has changed my relationship to storm chasing – most recently a feature interview on the Outside Magazine Podcast.

  • El Reno, OK 5/31/2013 (The El Reno tornado is the largest tornado on record with a maximum width of 2.6 miles wide. Graduate students deploying a mobile radar on this tornado measured wind speeds of 296 mph.)

During a chase, what excites you the most?

Ubl: The moment we get in front of a tornado warned supercell and get that first glimpse of the updraft base and the wall cloud – that is a pretty wonderful moment because it’s in that moment that anything can happen. We could just watch a pretty storm, or we could be moments away from witnessing the birth of a tornado. Sometimes after you just cut south out of the precipitation and get your eyes on a tornado in progress, that’s pretty damn exciting, too.

What is the most dangerous thing you’ve had to deal with whilst chasing?

Ubl: By far and away the most dangerous aspects of chasing are other drivers. It’s really important to stay aware of what others are doing on the road because around a supercell everyone is highly distracted, focused on the storm and usually not so focused on the road. It’s something that is a continuing serious problem and has resulted in several storm chaser accidents, and even deaths. 

Getting close to a tornado, or staying in the path of a tornado too long is also something that happens. There have been plenty of recent chaser incidents where chasers have been hit by or “impacted” by a tornado. This even includes some storm chasing tours. 

Focusing on being as safe as possible while chasing is always at the forefront of my mind. It’s incredibly important. Not only because I want to be able to chase another day, and another, and another…but because I want that for everyone else, too.

– LET’S DISCUSS CHASING IN DETAIL –

When do you start planning for a chase?

Ubl: I dedicate 6 weeks to storm chasing each year, and so I start general prep for those dates about 2-3 weeks ahead of time. I work with a small group of tornado science researchers (Dr. Anton Seimon, wife Dr. Tracie Seimon, my chase partner Skip Talbot and (Pecos) Hank Schyma.

Some members of the team start working in prep for the season much earlier than I do. Skip works on projects for chasing throughout the entire year. Every season, we have dedicated expedition dates each spring, and outside of those dates Skip and I will chase independently/for fun. I tend to prefer chasing later season-mid-May to end-June. I like northern plains and high plains setups. I do not enjoy chasing deep south/Oklahoma/Texas.

What steps do you take to plan out where your severe weather (tornado) target will be?

Ubl: Generally speaking we are looking at our chase opportunities via the models which are divided into long-range (GFS – less reliable, but can be indicative of pattern consistency), mid-range (NAM / NAM Nest – slightly more reliable, more detail) and short-range / high-res (HRRR – “most reliable”). As time moves forward we can further narrow down our prospects with use of these models and analysis of pattern and atmospheric ingredients.

What do you take when you go chasing?

Ubl: A suitcase and a giant camera bag, a big cooler and a big organiser box full of food and snacks. My chase partner and I are both vegan so we mostly live out of the cooler & food we bring on the road. This also saves us from eating gas station microwave dinner or constant fast food when we land in a small town overnight in the middle of nowhere. We also always have basic first aid supplies, vehicle repair items including plastic and tape in case we lose a window, etc. 

What equipment do you use to chase?

Ubl: Skip has customised his vehicle to include a huge touch screen console in-between our seats as well as mount points on the dash and windshield for cameras and go pros. A converter for power supply, a signal booster for wireless data and streaming, etc. He’s much more the techno-geek whereas I am happy with a camera, google maps and the Radarscope app. 

Also, what equipment do you use during a chase?

Ubl: I am a professional photographer and shoot with the mirrorless Nikon z7ii + my classic three-lens chase kit. (A 14-24mm 2.8, a 24-70mm 2.8, and a 70-200mm 2.8.) My backup body is a Nikon D4s. I have a backup of the 70-200mm on me as well along with an overflow of memory cards, batteries, chargers, external hard drives, and my laptop. I also have a lightning trigger, a tripod and a monopod. I use the airport Think Tank bag and it’s absolutely stuffed to the brim.

If someone wants to start chasing, what should they learn or do and what should they expect?
Ubl: The first step is to get your Storm Spotter Training. You can do that with local or online classes with the National Weather Service. This is the bare bones foundation for your storm knowledge. The basics about storms, supercells, severe weather, storm feature identification, and how to make appropriate reports on weather you see to the NWS Spotter Training (weather.gov).

After that – your next step is continuing education. It really is ALL ABOUT education. I very strongly recommend Skip Talbot’s Youtube channel. He has an educational series of storm spotting and analysis videos that are second to none. They are particularly fantastic resources for folks who are VISUAL learners (like I am.) There is so much you can learn about identifying physical storm structure and how that will help keep you safe in these videos that would otherwise take absolute years in the field to pick up. You can view those here: (1) Storm and Tornado Educational – YouTube

Another great general resource list for folks interested in learning more can be found on the Girls Who Chase page here: Education | Girls Who Chase. Stormtrack is the original storm chasers forum, and it still is going strong. I also recommend would-be-chasers check this website out as there are lots of resources here as well: Stormtrack

Stay tuned to Discover Tornadoes for more tornado news, information, and more. Stay tuned for more storm chaser interviews.

If you’re a storm chaser and would love to be interviewed! Email us at discovertornadoes@gmail.com.

RELATED: Storm Chaser Interview: Corey Ecton – Nature Untamed 

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