Great Plains Anywhere: Quincy Vagell
Vagell is a meteorologist and storm chaser who travels the country documenting and researching severe weather. Previously he worked as a meteorologist for The Weather Channel and doing on-air broadcasting for TV. As a storm chaser for the last decade, Vagell has visited all but a handful of counties in the Great Plains. We spoke with him about severe weather and why the Great Plains is ideal for storm chasing.
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[00:00:00.000]Welcome to "Great Plains Anywhere",
[00:00:02.040]a Paul A. Olson lecture
[00:00:03.750]from the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:00:05.400]at the University of Nebraska.
[00:00:08.280]Today's guest is Quincy Vagell,
[00:00:10.020]a meteorologist and storm chaser who travels the country
[00:00:13.110]documenting and researching severe weather.
[00:00:16.170]Previously, he worked as a meteorologist
[00:00:18.360]for the Weather Channel
[00:00:19.290]and doing on-air broadcasting for TV.
[00:00:22.410]As a storm chaser for the last decade,
[00:00:24.780]Vagell has visited all but a handful
[00:00:26.700]of counties in the Great Plains.
[00:00:28.710]We spoke with him about severe weather
[00:00:30.450]and storm chasing in this region.
[00:00:32.940]The University of Nebraska is a land grant institution
[00:00:36.030]with campuses and programs
[00:00:37.740]on the past, present and future homelands
[00:00:40.440]of the Pawnee, Ponca, Otoe-Missouria,
[00:00:43.710]Omaha, Dakota, Lakota, Kaw, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Peoples,
[00:00:48.930]as well as those of the relocated Ho-Chunk,
[00:00:51.540]Sac and Fox and Iowa Peoples.
[00:00:54.480]Hi, I'm Katie Nieland,
[00:00:55.313]I'm the Associate Director
[00:00:56.490]at the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:00:58.200]and today we have with us Quincy Vagal,
[00:01:00.510]a meteorologist and storm chaser.
[00:01:03.870]So, thank you so much for joining us today, Quincy.
[00:01:06.420]We really appreciate it.
[00:01:08.010]We wanted to start by asking,
[00:01:09.270]if you could give us a little background
[00:01:10.860]about your history as a meteorologist and a storm chaser.
[00:01:15.863]So, I went to school on the East Coast.
[00:01:18.090]I went to Western Connecticut State University,
[00:01:19.800]got my meteorology degree in 2009.
[00:01:22.500]Now, I've done a lot of different things
[00:01:24.150]when it comes to weather.
[00:01:24.990]I actually started off in TV.
[00:01:26.760]I did some weather producing.
[00:01:28.470]I had a couple of on-air gigs.
[00:01:29.880]I even worked at the Weather Channel for a while.
[00:01:32.310]Kind of switched gears and during that time
[00:01:34.830]I began to try storm chasing
[00:01:36.870]and I actually left the Weather Channel
[00:01:38.490]to go out to just go out to the Midwest and plains
[00:01:41.610]to just storm chase.
[00:01:43.080]I've been doing freelance storm chasing since then.
[00:01:45.570]I also do some photography,
[00:01:48.120]some of it's weather related, some of it's not,
[00:01:50.460]but that's kind of a little bit about my background.
[00:01:52.590]There's some odd things I do.
[00:01:53.550]I feel like I'm always on the go,
[00:01:54.810]whether it's traveling, there's lots of,
[00:01:56.820]I maintain a website.
[00:01:57.810]There's lots of different things within meteorology,
[00:02:00.120]but the thing that really gets me the most,
[00:02:01.710]or interests me the most,
[00:02:03.090]is definitely severe weather, tornadoes,
[00:02:05.100]super cells and things like that.
[00:02:07.980]Well, I'd say you're in the right place for that.
[00:02:11.550]So, how does storm chasing on the Great Plains work?
[00:02:15.240]Like do you start by looking for potential storms,
[00:02:17.790]like sort of what's your list of things that you do?
[00:02:20.910]Sure, and there's different ways to do it.
[00:02:23.040]A lot of people, and the peak storm season
[00:02:25.500]is really like May and June.
[00:02:27.180]So, I'll usually block off a couple of weeks,
[00:02:29.100]2, 3, 4 weeks during the peak storm season.
[00:02:31.770]On a trip like that, what I do is
[00:02:33.440]I'm looking at weather maps throughout the day,
[00:02:36.480]figuring out where I'm going that day.
[00:02:38.820]And even logistically,
[00:02:39.720]seeing where you're going the next day.
[00:02:41.040]So, you kind of plan out like
[00:02:42.537]where the storm patterns are going,
[00:02:44.040]how the jet stream is setting up.
[00:02:45.720]And I usually have what I would call like a target area.
[00:02:47.910]So, let's say for example, I know I wanna be
[00:02:50.340]storm chasing somewhere near Lincoln, Nebraska.
[00:02:52.290]I'll get a hotel nearby that night.
[00:02:54.408]Then that morning I'm looking at weather data
[00:02:56.460]going out there and I want to be
[00:02:58.260]in position before storms develop.
[00:03:00.540]Typically, with peak heating
[00:03:01.980]storms begin to develop mid to late afternoon.
[00:03:04.050]So, you wanna be somewhere like by lunchtime
[00:03:06.660]and then at that point you're just watching
[00:03:08.430]satellite and radar seeing where storms develop.
[00:03:11.100]A lot of times weather prediction's a little bit tricky.
[00:03:14.130]Storms can end up changing direction,
[00:03:15.750]or maybe they don't develop at all,
[00:03:17.670]or maybe they end up developing in a different area.
[00:03:19.740]So, it's always on the go.
[00:03:21.420]But I love the plains, because it's so open and wide
[00:03:24.000]that even if a storm's 100 miles away
[00:03:25.860]you can usually see a big super cell in the distance.
[00:03:28.890]And the road network's pretty favorable,
[00:03:30.600]'cause you have a grid layout throughout most of the plains.
[00:03:33.180]So, if I have to go south 30 miles,
[00:03:35.520]I can usually get there and I know in about 25, 30 minutes.
[00:03:37.770]So, it's a very helpful road network.
[00:03:40.380]I've storm chased all around the country,
[00:03:42.120]but really the plains is the best place
[00:03:43.980]for visibility, road network,
[00:03:46.440]and then of course traditionally,
[00:03:47.670]they get a lot of storms during May and June,
[00:03:49.590]which is during our peak tornado season.
[00:03:52.200]Historically, I feel like we've come
[00:03:53.880]to associate the plains with like tornadoes,
[00:03:57.150]especially, like Tornado Alley.
[00:03:59.370]But have you seen, like I've heard
[00:04:01.890]about Tornado Alley sort of shifting.
[00:04:04.020]Have you experienced that in the last 10 years?
[00:04:06.300]Sure, there's several different elements to go into that.
[00:04:08.640]So, the traditional Tornado Alley
[00:04:10.110]has always been thought of as the central plains.
[00:04:12.750]It's a little bit of a misnomer,
[00:04:13.890]because the Southeast has always had
[00:04:16.140]a lot of tornado outbreaks,
[00:04:17.520]but I would say probably 2011 was the year
[00:04:20.700]that, that really switched people's mindset
[00:04:22.560]and realized that like Mississippi, Alabama
[00:04:25.380]they've had some of the longest-tracking violent tornadoes
[00:04:27.720]in the entire country,
[00:04:29.490]but because they're not as visible,
[00:04:31.050]they're usually, there's trees they tend to happen at night.
[00:04:34.050]So, it was just kind of like a misconception.
[00:04:36.690]But I will say though, with climate change,
[00:04:38.790]we have noticed a little bit of a shift
[00:04:40.398]where because of warming sea surface temperatures,
[00:04:43.860]there's been ongoing droughts
[00:04:45.210]across the Western essential US,
[00:04:47.250]it actually has caused Tornado Alley
[00:04:49.140]to shift and expand a little bit.
[00:04:51.330]And I would also argue too,
[00:04:52.440]as temperatures begin to increase across the globe,
[00:04:55.470]we've seen more severe storms farther north too.
[00:04:58.500]So, if you think of Tornado Alley,
[00:05:00.210]originally, it was maybe in the plains,
[00:05:02.430]but it really incorporated parts of the Southeast
[00:05:05.550]and now it's kind of growing and expanding
[00:05:07.050]a little bit into the Midwest, parts of the Great Lakes.
[00:05:09.630]So, it's ever shifting.
[00:05:11.430]And this other thing too with El Nino, La Nina,
[00:05:14.400]patterns can shift and you may have
[00:05:15.780]five or 10 year patterns where storms follow a certain area.
[00:05:19.140]Same thing too, like the long-term drought
[00:05:20.940]that was going on for much for many years
[00:05:23.340]up until this year, honestly.
[00:05:25.110]That's also kind of shifted too.
[00:05:26.370]And this is the first year
[00:05:27.240]we've had a very, very active plain storm season,
[00:05:30.390]even on the High Plains.
[00:05:31.500]And I would argue part of that has to do with
[00:05:33.420]all the heavy rains across the Western US earlier this year.
[00:05:37.410]What kind of stands out to you about the Great Plains,
[00:05:40.860]either weather-wise or just like in general,
[00:05:43.830]like what have you learned about the region?
[00:05:46.290]Well, there's really a lot of neat things.
[00:05:47.850]I mentioned a little bit, I grew up on the East Coast,
[00:05:49.920]actually only about an hour outside New York City.
[00:05:51.960]So, up until I started storm chasing,
[00:05:54.300]I hadn't really been to rural America that much.
[00:05:56.880]So, as I've traveled, I've gone through so many small towns.
[00:06:00.300]Almost like you said, almost every corner of the plains.
[00:06:02.580]And I've gotten to know the communities,
[00:06:04.680]a lot of familiar roads, I've met some of the locals.
[00:06:07.350]It's definitely a different culture than East Coast,
[00:06:09.630]but I've learned to embrace it
[00:06:10.980]and it's really that's kind of opened my eye
[00:06:13.290]when it comes to just how diverse this country really is.
[00:06:16.890]So, seeing all those different corners has been really neat.
[00:06:19.680]And another thing I've noticed too
[00:06:20.970]is obviously, plains and Midwest,
[00:06:23.430]there's a lot of corn fields.
[00:06:25.440]One thing I've learned too is with evapotranspiration,
[00:06:27.930]actually the moisture evaporating
[00:06:30.990]from like corn fields, for example,
[00:06:32.400]that can actually influence weather patterns.
[00:06:34.230]And I've noticed that especially during the summertime
[00:06:36.630]like Nebraska, Iowa, the Corn Belt into Illinois,
[00:06:39.870]that on those days where it's really humid,
[00:06:41.940]it's the crops actually influence the severe weather,
[00:06:45.300]if that's a little hard to believe,
[00:06:46.230]but it's pretty neat.
[00:06:47.220]So, I've learned a lot of little things like that
[00:06:49.140]just traveling all around.
[00:06:50.790]Just the way geographically how the Central US is situated.
[00:06:54.540]You have the Rocky Mountains across the West Central US
[00:06:57.720]and when air masses come over that
[00:06:59.730]there's several things coming together.
[00:07:01.110]If you have a southerly wind or a southeasterly wind,
[00:07:04.110]in the lower levels of the atmosphere,
[00:07:06.030]you're transporting moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.
[00:07:07.950]And I'm kind of oversimplifying a little bit,
[00:07:09.960]but especially, early in the season,
[00:07:11.280]you have the moisture coming up from the south and east.
[00:07:13.530]You have cool dry air coming off the Rocky Mountains
[00:07:16.890]and that creates an environment
[00:07:17.970]where you have warm, unstable air
[00:07:19.860]in the lower levels of the atmosphere
[00:07:21.870]with cooler, drier air aloft.
[00:07:23.850]And that creates a very unstable environment
[00:07:26.130]that's it's conducive for explosive storms.
[00:07:29.430]And then like April, May and June,
[00:07:31.830]you have a usually a pretty strong jet stream.
[00:07:34.170]So, if you have unstable air, moist low levels,
[00:07:36.930]and then strong winds aloft,
[00:07:38.760]that creates an environment
[00:07:39.930]that supports explosive development, rotating storms,
[00:07:43.650]and then tornadoes and all that.
[00:07:44.970]So, that it all kind of comes together.
[00:07:46.890]There's not many places in a world
[00:07:48.300]that have a setup that's like this.
[00:07:50.220]So, when you think of Tornado Alley or the Great Plains,
[00:07:53.190]it's one of the areas that sees the most tornadoes
[00:07:55.380]consistently anywhere in the world.
[00:07:56.910]Now, obviously, other areas do see it,
[00:07:58.890]but not quite like the US where there's this long season
[00:08:01.350]that's pretty reliable with storms like that.
[00:08:03.990]And what's pretty neat is I've known storm chasers
[00:08:06.090]that come from Australia, New Zealand, England even,
[00:08:10.620]that will come out take two or three weeks off vacation
[00:08:13.740]and just storm chase,
[00:08:14.573]because it's a whole different,
[00:08:16.110]it's almost like a sport to them,
[00:08:17.340]because it's you come out here
[00:08:18.510]and it's this new foreign thing
[00:08:19.620]that you're trying to go out there
[00:08:20.453]and almost kind of hunt for the storm.
[00:08:22.200]So, it's really neat to just see all the communities
[00:08:24.450]and people come together.
[00:08:25.283]But yes, like you said, US has a very unique pattern,
[00:08:28.890]but there are occasionally tornadoes and severe weather
[00:08:31.470]in other parts of the world too.
[00:08:33.953]It almost is like storm chasing as tourism it sounds like
[00:08:38.490]kind of in some cases?
[00:08:40.380]Yeah, there's actually storm chase tour groups
[00:08:42.900]that go out there and I've actually been,
[00:08:45.000]some of 'em have contacted me to work for them.
[00:08:47.280]And it is very interesting,
[00:08:49.170]because there's so many elements to go into it.
[00:08:51.660]But yes, it's turned into like a tourism business.
[00:08:54.990]I don't know how many there are,
[00:08:55.890]but at this point there's gotta be
[00:08:56.910]at least 10 or 15 tour groups that go out
[00:08:58.920]and they'll have several weeks throughout the year
[00:09:00.720]where they'll have a tour, they'll start in Denver.
[00:09:03.930]People fly in and then they just kind of follow the storms.
[00:09:06.481]So, it's pretty neat.
[00:09:08.403]Wow, what would you say to somebody
[00:09:09.724]like visiting the Great Plains
[00:09:10.881]and who's worried about storms maybe?
[00:09:13.470]Well, if someone's just visiting,
[00:09:16.170]remember, storms themselves are relatively small
[00:09:19.110]and tornadoes are very small too.
[00:09:21.090]The vast majority of tornadoes are less than a mile wide.
[00:09:23.850]They may only last a few minutes.
[00:09:25.650]So, there have been people who live in the plains
[00:09:27.870]that maybe have lived here their entire lives,
[00:09:29.730]30, 40, 50 years, and have never seen a tornado.
[00:09:32.430]Now obviously, you can't have fluke events
[00:09:33.960]where tornadoes happen, but if you're just visiting,
[00:09:36.480]because I know some people have storm anxiety.
[00:09:38.070]I've known people who have had
[00:09:39.090]conferences in May in Oklahoma,
[00:09:41.070]and they're worried about should I cancel it?
[00:09:42.750]Should I really go?
[00:09:43.583]And obviously, you want to be weather aware,
[00:09:45.960]but those events are relatively small in any given area.
[00:09:48.840]There is a very low probability
[00:09:50.520]of a tornado hitting a specific location, for example.
[00:09:55.290]And what would you say
[00:09:56.123]is your favorite thing about storm chasing?
[00:10:00.180]I would say just the thrill and excitement.
[00:10:02.370]On any day that I go out and storm chasing,
[00:10:04.560]I don't know exactly what I'm going to see.
[00:10:06.210]I usually have a pretty good idea,
[00:10:07.440]okay, storms are going to develop here
[00:10:08.880]and there'll be around this time
[00:10:10.200]and there's a chance of a tornado,
[00:10:11.790]but just the way that nature works.
[00:10:13.620]You never know where you're gonna see explosive storms.
[00:10:16.890]Something I've seen too
[00:10:17.850]is you may catch wildlife with storms.
[00:10:21.510]Because I do photography, I'll sometimes try to catch
[00:10:23.910]like a great landscape, maybe an old abandoned house,
[00:10:27.480]try to, how can I layer in the storm
[00:10:29.970]with also the scenery around me?
[00:10:31.320]So, it keeps me on my toes.
[00:10:33.210]I've always loved traveling and maps as a kid.
[00:10:35.670]So, being able to kind of incorporate that
[00:10:38.100]into my almost day-to-day life, it's been pretty rewarding.
[00:10:41.310]Just like the landscapes, the sunsets,
[00:10:43.530]being able to see so far.
[00:10:45.090]On the East Coast with hills and trees
[00:10:47.850]unless you're in like a farm or something
[00:10:49.530]you usually can't see more than a couple of miles.
[00:10:51.480]But I lived out here, especially like when you get
[00:10:53.670]into like the high plains
[00:10:54.840]like Western Nebraska and Western Kansas,
[00:10:57.330]you can see 50, 100 miles easily.
[00:10:59.910]And there's just the views.
[00:11:02.190]Even though I've been doing this so much,
[00:11:03.420]it always captures my attention
[00:11:05.070]and it's just breathtaking sometimes to be out there.
[00:11:08.010]If you either are a storm chaser
[00:11:09.780]or a person just in a stormy area,
[00:11:14.250]what would you give advice for people
[00:11:15.840]to stay safe in those scenarios?
[00:11:18.570]Sure, really, the number one thing I would say is
[00:11:21.510]just stay aware of surroundings,
[00:11:23.430]whether it's alerts going off on your phone
[00:11:25.153]or changing weather patterns.
[00:11:26.940]But the biggest thing is try not to worry
[00:11:28.950]or if you're just like, let's say,
[00:11:30.750]if you just live out in the plains,
[00:11:31.860]you're visiting and there's a threat of severe weather,
[00:11:34.350]don't get too anxious.
[00:11:36.690]Like I said, storms are usually
[00:11:37.860]they're pretty small scale phenomenon.
[00:11:39.810]We usually have good lead time
[00:11:41.250]and they tend to happen during a specific part of the day.
[00:11:44.460]So, don't get anxious or worried about it.
[00:11:46.410]But if you are caught in a situation
[00:11:48.720]where you're in a storm,
[00:11:49.560]or let's say you're traveling on the road
[00:11:51.480]and there's a tornado or a tornado warning,
[00:11:53.910]you definitely want to not be in a moving vehicle.
[00:11:56.040]You wanna pull over,
[00:11:58.290]heaven forbid there is a tornado coming,
[00:11:59.850]or if there's large hail,
[00:12:00.690]you wanna either get down in a ditch
[00:12:01.920]or get down in some kind of low-lying area away from that.
[00:12:05.010]There's a common misconception
[00:12:06.210]that you should go under an overpass
[00:12:08.520]and that's actually a very unsafe place.
[00:12:11.250]You could create a situation where the road gets blocked
[00:12:13.230]and then emergency personnel can't get out of the way.
[00:12:16.410]It's tempting to, if there's hail,
[00:12:17.670]you wanna park under a bridge,
[00:12:18.870]but that could just block traffic.
[00:12:21.120]And then actually under an overpass,
[00:12:23.430]if there is a tornado that causes
[00:12:24.690]like a wind tunnel effect, so actually makes it worse.
[00:12:27.090]I think some people think that,
[00:12:29.100]'cause there's been a couple of videos of people
[00:12:30.810]under a bridge during a tornado,
[00:12:33.120]that could actually be a worse spot.
[00:12:34.710]Especially, if the debris gets funneled into it.
[00:12:37.350]But if you're in a home or something,
[00:12:39.030]obviously, you'd wanna either go into a basement
[00:12:41.070]or have a storm shelter.
[00:12:42.600]Some people don't have the luxury of that,
[00:12:44.430]especially, if you have a mobile home
[00:12:46.140]or if you live in Oklahoma like me,
[00:12:47.790]there's not a whole lot of basements.
[00:12:49.440]So, if there is a tornado,
[00:12:50.520]what you wanna do is you wanna go into an interior room,
[00:12:53.190]maybe a closet and just stay away from windows
[00:12:55.590]in case there is hail or tornado and there's glass breaking.
[00:12:58.860]So, just being aware, but it's great with smartphones.
[00:13:02.850]Almost everyone has a smartphone.
[00:13:04.260]If there's a tornado warning,
[00:13:05.820]or even if there's a severe thunderstorm warning,
[00:13:07.530]or a flood warning,
[00:13:08.640]usually get those alerts pretty quick.
[00:13:11.040]And the National Weather Service is very good.
[00:13:12.690]Usually, the typical lead time
[00:13:14.010]is between 10 to 15 minutes for most of these events.
[00:13:17.190]So usually, you have at least some time
[00:13:18.360]to stop what you're doing
[00:13:19.560]and get somewhere safe if you are caught in a storm.
[00:13:22.920]Is there anything that I didn't ask
[00:13:24.330]that you wanted to share
[00:13:25.320]about what you do or even just to tell people
[00:13:28.950]where to go to find out more information?
[00:13:31.710]Sure. Well, if anyone wants to follow me,
[00:13:33.090]I do have a website.
[00:13:35.220]I like to write, I haven't done a whole lot recently,
[00:13:37.350]but that's my website.
[00:13:38.520]But Storm Chaser Q is where I post my photos and stuff
[00:13:41.730]on Instagram and Twitter.
[00:13:43.350]So usually, if I'm out storm chasing,
[00:13:45.300]I try to throw updates out there as I can.
[00:13:47.340]So, that's the best way to kind of follow me.
[00:13:49.980]We'd like to thank Quincy
[00:13:51.060]for speaking with us today.
[00:13:52.470]Find all of our short Great Plains talks and interviews
[00:13:55.770]as videos and podcasts at go.unl.edu/gpanywhere.
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