Help Grow the Live Storm Chasing Platform in 2015

We have launched an IndieGoGo project to fund the Live Storm Chasing platform for 2015. Live streaming is a very expensive undertaking requiring many dedicate servers to handle the load of   people viewing the streams. We expect this number to be even greater in 2015 and that is why we need your help to make sure we can provide the same level of service during peak times when it matters most.

We estimate that we will need $40,210 to run the service in 2015, with most of the costs going towards leasing of dedicate servers (the number fluctuating over the year). Each server also requires a license for the streaming software we use to deliver live streams over different protocols for compatibility with different devices and screens. The servers run on a distribution of Linux so there are no other software licensing expenses involved, the streaming server license expense representing almost all of the software portion of the budget. You can see a full breakdown of the budget on our project page. To raise the amount we require, we have set a goal of $50,121 to include the fees accessed by IndieGoGo and payment processors as well as the costs for fulfilling some of the perks associated with the certain contribution levels.

This platform provides additional warning information and great entertainment and educational value. If you watched any of the chaser streams in 2014 consider contributing at least $1, it’s very easy to do and will allow you and many others to enjoy the platform in 2015. If you can’t contribute financially we completely understand but you still help us by sharing the project with friends and family who may be interested.

Thank you and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from TVNweather!

IndieGoGo Project

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DNS Provider Outage 12/1

On Monday 12/1/2014 our DNS provider (DNSimple) was the target of a DDoS attack that created widespread outages on their entire infrastructure from early afternoon to late in the evening. We like to aim for a certain level of transparency so we thought we would share the details of what happened how we implemented changes to mitigate the chances of it happening again.

Events like this can happen at the worst time possible and of course it had to happen while we were busy autographing the new Limited Edition Tornado Chasers Blu-ray. In fact, we didn’t even realize it until we took a break to post some pictures of the signing on Facebook and Twitter. It was also Cyber Monday and it’s likely that some other website using DNSimple was the target but everyone using their service was impacted.

With DNSimple’s website down we couldn’t even login to export our zone file and temporarily migrate to a new provider. Of course having an offline copy of our zone file would have helped a lot but this made us realize there was still a big hole in our uptime strategy. Before continuing, it should be noted that the outage does not reflect negatively against DNSimple, they are a good DNS provider operated by good people and what happened to them could happen to any provider.

In fact DNS is a service that is designed with redundancy in mind, even with a single provider you specify multiple NS records on your domain and DNS clients will retry these in order if one is to fail until one succeeds or if too many fail it gives up. Each NS record likely backed by many servers and being that each of these NS records usually point to different datacenters in different regions (often spread out over different continents), you tend to think of DNS as being something that is already very resilient.  However, in this case the entire provider was the target of a coordinated attack on each of their points of service in each datacenter.

With warnings and the live storm chasing platform we’ve always sought to maintain a very high level of uptime, with lots of redundancy and a platform designed to scale. So to protect against these kind of events we’ve now added an extra layer of redundancy at the DNS level by adding a second DNS provider (DNS Made Easy). We ended up with these two providers because they both support a custom record type (ALIAS and ANAME) that allows us to map our A record to CNAME, which can normally only be assigned to an IP address. This is because our web application runs on a high-availability infrastructure where the IP address can often change and we don’t want to run our website under the “www” CNAME because it doesn’t look cool. ;-)

Hopefully this post can help other people realize they can not rely on a single DNS provider alone. You have to either use a combination of multiple providers or a combination of a provider and self hosted DNS. DNS is a service that is already relatively inexpensive so paying for two providers is definitely a good investment.

 

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Severe Weather Warnings

We decided to take the severe weather warnings we already had in place on our Live Storm Chasing map and make them more consumable over the web and social media. Since we were already processing this data it made sense to go ahead and expose it other ways our users would find useful so we created a page that contains all active warnings (Tornado, Severe Thunderstorm, and Flash Flood).

http://tvnweather.com/warnings

The warning data comes from the National Weather Service but we enhance it by converting the expiration time into the local timezone in which the warning is happening in. We also use reverse geocoding to provide a more descriptive location than what we get in the source warning data from the NWS.

In the warning details we page we display the warning polygon on a Google Map as show below (red for Tornado, yellow for Severe Thunderstorm, and green for Flash Flood):

warningweb

Since it’s a Google Map you can zoom in and apply most of the map options you’re familiar with:

warningwebsat

We display a clearly visible red message if the warning has expired:

warningexpired

We also use responsive design so they look good on mobile devices as well:

responsive-sidebyside

We also added support for social cards so they look great when shared over social media (Twitter and Facebook). The card includes a picture version of the warning polygon on a map and if the warning is expired you will see that status in the social card without even opening the link.

facebookcard

Twitter Warnings

We also created a new Twitter account @tvnwx that posts Tornado, Severe Thunderstorm, and Flash Flood warnings automatically as they happen. We designed it as a service we can use with other accounts we operate and customize how we see fit. It includes the improved reverse geolocated place name and the expiration in the timezone local to the warning. We also attach a static image of the warning polygon on a Google Map. We’ve seen a lot of other automated warnings on Twitter but we didn’t notice any with pictures and you know what they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

twitterwarnings

We even size the image so it’s perfect for viewing in your timeline:

timeline

We hope you find these new warnings useful in getting the word out about severe weather.

Update:

We added some new features to make our warning service even more resilient. For example we ran into one issue where the generated image of the warning was rejected by Twitter’s API. We were able to find a work around but we added a fall back to where if there is another unexpected issue with posting an image to Twitter we instead post a text-only tweet of the warning. In this text-only warning we also include a link to the warning on our web site so you can then see a full Google Map of the warning area with the colored polygon. This will help make sure the warning gets out even in the event of the unexpected.

We also found a few cases were the location API we are using fails to return a result (with no error) even though it returns one in subsequent requests. We added another fall back here to retry this call at least three times if there is no result returned and finally resort to just listing the county names if we still get nothing. Of course it is possible the county name list in the original NWS warning can put us over the character limit for a tweet, in this case we truncated it but indicate it has been truncated by ellipses (“…”). The location info is something that we are still monitoring and our techniques may change in the future, our goal is to provide a very detailed description that still fits within the limitations of a tweet, of course providing a picture of the warning polygon on a map is about as descriptive of a location as you can get.

We also decreased the interval in which our background process which downloads the warning data from NWS operates, which means new warnings will be posted even faster.

To get all three warning types on Twitter follow our new account: @tvnwx

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Live Storm Chasing Now Includes Weather Reports

We just rolled out weather reports on our Live Storm Chasing platform. Powered by Twitter, these weather reports provide important ground truth from chasers in the field which can aid in public safety.

Picture of Mike Olbinski's weather report

Storm chaser Mike Olbinski posts a weather report about a flash flood in Arizona.

We decided to use embedded tweets because we wanted the process for adding weather reports to be as easy as possible for chasers. These chasers already have so much to concentrate on while they are chasing so we made creating weather reports as easy adding a hashtag to tweets containing pictures the chasers are already posting anyway.

These weather reports will show up on the map with a new icon as pictured below and persist on the map during the entire chase regardless of whether the chaser is still online.

Weather Report Icon

Often we here feedback from users that our Live Storm Chasing platform was the only warning they received about a weather hazard and we feel that the addition of weather reports will enhance this aspect of the platform. In fact earlier this year we had a farmer tell us that he was watching our live streams on our app and saw a tornado touch down on his property. He gathered his family and took shelter in their basement; the house was not damaged by the tornado but their barn was. He said the only warning he received was the tornado touching down on the live stream as no tornado warning had been issued on this storm at the time.

Although that is just one example we believe weather reports will be extremely valuable in providing ground truth for other events as well like flash floods, debris blocking roads, destructive hail, and anything that can help people avoid dangerous situations. Even for those not in harms way the weather reports will still provide additional awareness of the destructive impacts of severe weather.

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Tornado Chasers Production Log 10: El Reno, Part 2

Tornado in progress: it was around 6:11 PM on May 31, 2013, and Dominator 2 was charging east on Reno Road, with Dominator 1 following. Our eyes were fixed on a seemingly mile-wide wedge tornado that was racing east, paralleling the road.

What looked like cone tornadoes started to form and rotate around the main wedge. Appearing and disappearing at will, these intense suction vortices indicated that the parent circulation was bigger than we’d thought. Chris Whiteneck and I were able to shoot some rare footage of these suction vortices (seen in Episode 12, “Nemesis, Part 2″ and “Tornadoes of 2013: The Ultimate Cut”).

Reed realized the immediate danger and stopped Dom 2, letting the morphing twister move ahead of us. When it was far enough away, we started driving again. At this point the tornado had accelerated, and we had to move fast to catch up.

The tornado was becoming heavily rain-wrapped, making it difficult to tell where the rain stopped and the tornado began. Later we would learn that everything in our field of vision was the tornado.

Racing after the monster at 60 mph, downed power lines suddenly emerged and crashed into Dominator 2, jamming underneath its hood. Dom 2 was stuck. Sean put it into reverse and tugged the power lines until the hood ripped off (and was never seen again). As Dom 2 drove happily away without a hood, we all laughed at the comic relief of the moment. We realized that we had to let this tornado go — there was no way to catch up to it now.

When Whiteneck and I were shooting video at that moment, it seemed a little anticlimactic to drive away from a rain-wrapped wedge and call it a day. From our perspective, it looked like the tornado missed El Reno and hadn’t done much damage — our adrenaline levels started to go down. Well… until we made it to Highway 81.

Minutes earlier, Mike Bettes of the Weather Channel had been trying to escape the tornado when his car was flipped and tossed 200 yards. We came upon the white “Tornado Hunt” SUV lying in a field — the vehicle was crushed. Mike Bettes was in shock and his crew was injured, but all were lucky to be alive (as seen in “Episode 12: Nemesis, Part 2″).

We made sure Mike’s crew was safe, and then attempted to drive home. The storm, however, had grown into a high-precipitation monster, putting down the heaviest rain I’d ever seen.

The rain became so intense that we (Dom 1) lost Reed and Dom 2. Roads were flooded under three feet of water, and Connor, Ray, and I desperately tried to make our way back to Reed’s house. Dick, whose team had aborted the chase earlier, encountered standstill traffic on I-44, and was forced to travel south in the northbound lanes.

Somehow, after hours of driving through flooded roads, we all made it home. We told stories, joked, and Ray Bohac bought us Pizza Shuttle.

Over the next day, the national media reported about the immense size and power of the El Reno tornado. Many chasers had experienced life-threatening encounters, including Mike Bettes and KFOR meteorologist Emily Sutton.

One team of chasers hadn’t surfaced since May 31st. We didn’t notice it right away, but by the early morning hours of June 2nd, rumors started to fly that the unimaginable had happened: a storm chaser died during the chase.

At first, there was a veil of secrecy over the identity of the chaser. Some people said it was a “well-known” chaser, or perhaps multiple chasers. As time went on, the truth became apparent: Tim Samaras, Carl Young and Paul Samaras (team TWISTEX) had passed away.

Like so many other chasers, I didn’t know what to do or how to feel. Storm chasing and the field of meteorology had lost three of its brightest stars. Tim, Paul, and Carl were universally beloved, even by people who hadn’t met them. Reed, especially, had known them well and was crushed. I contacted Chris Whiteneck, who had worked with Tim, Paul and Carl on Storm Chasers. Terry Rosema, Mike Scantlin and others volunteered to help recover the personal items at the accident site.

That night, Reed’s house became a focal point for the recovery effort, as well as a communication base with the Samaras and Young families. I worked with Terry and chaser Tyler Costantini to catalog each personal item, and relay that information to the families. Reed was also speaking with the families. Over the next few days, the biggest names in the field would come to Reed’s house to inherit and safeguard Tim’s research equipment.

Storm chasing would never be the same. The sense of loss was palpable. Every TV network wanted to interview Reed about the tragedy, but he only granted a few interviews before it was too much. We weren’t sure how (or if) we should proceed with the series.

In time we realized that we could complete Tornado Chasers as a tribute to all who had lost their lives from tornadoes in 2013. We were in a unique position to provide an authentic visual account, from Reed’s perspective, of these historic events.

The challenge was finding the right way to do it.

To be continued next time.

2013 Season
2013 Bonus Content
2012 Season


S2B1 – Tornadoes of 2013: The Ultimate Cut

S2B1 - Tornadoes of 2013: The Ultimate Cut
The first bonus episode cut from the 2013 Tornado Chasers footage (previously called Tornadoes 2013: Raw and Uncut) contains over 80 minutes of extremely high quality video from multiple camera angles of all the major tornadoes chased by TVN during the 2013 production season. Shot with cinema cameras and delivered on our streaming and download platform that meets or exceeds the highest quality of Netflix and other streaming services, you won’t be able to find a better value anywhere else. You can get this episode by itself or as part of the Tornado Chasers Bonus Pass.

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Tornado Chasers Production Log 9: El Reno

Everything felt “off” on the morning of May 31st, 2013. The Storm Prediction Center had issued a “PDS” Tornado Watch (Particularly Dangerous Situation) for central Oklahoma — the same area that had been devastated less than two weeks earlier. Gathered at Reed Timmer’s home in Norman, OK, the whole chase team was acting strangely. Hardened chasers like Dick McGowan vowed to abandon the chase to rescue pets if necessary.

Reed himself was especially direct and blunt about how bad the day could be (as seen at the beginning of Episode 11, “Nemesis, Part 1″). “It’s gonna be bad today, real bad,” he said. Our Director of Photography, Chris Whiteneck, was concerned about his fiancée and baby, who didn’t have access to a tornado shelter. Shooter-producer Jason Bagby offered to let them use his shelter if necessary. The mood was a weird form of suppressed panic.

We started driving north through Moore, where traffic was crawling as rubberneckers gazed at the damage from the May 20th tornado. It was very ominous, and there wasn’t much conversation in any of the vehicles on the way to these storms.

On this day, Whiteneck was riding in Dominator 2 with Reed, Sean, and Seth Deckard. Seth is our wiz programmer at TVN, responsible for creating almost everything you see on our site, TVNweather.com. Because Mike Scantlin was out of town, Seth stepped in to run our live, streaming internet video. Bagby was shooting Dick, Dick’s girlfriend Shalyn, and Terry in the SUV. I was shooting in Dom 1 with Connor and Ray Bohac, our Kickstarter backer who had returned to chase with us.

I have trouble remembering what exactly happened on this day until we stopped in front of some windmills in the countryside north of El Reno. For what seemed like 20-30 minutes, we watched three discrete storms merge together into one dark mass. The sky was electrified. We should have been excited in this situation, but we just weren’t. No one, not even Reed, was having fun or cracking jokes.

As for the shooters, we just focused on capturing the beauty of the scene. There was so little banter, however, that Bagby, Whiteneck and I started shooting each other to get the “behind-the-scenes” perspective (some of this footage appears in “Behind the Scenes, Part 2″).

After Reed’s “phoner” with KFOR, we were off and we knew this was the point of no return. We were going to see something today, and it was probably going to be bad. We just had to hope that the tornado would stay away from major populations.

We briefly chased some red-herring funnels, and Dom 1 accidentally backed into the SUV — luckily both vehicles had steel and/or Linex coatings! We finally journeyed to the southernmost circulation, west of El Reno, where the rain cleared and we could see the entire side of the supercell. The sight of this storm made our jaws drop. It was beautiful and fearsome, everything that gets a storm chaser’s blood pumping.

Reed charged directly toward the developing circulation. Things were happening fast, and we needed to get there as quickly as possible. While driving toward the huge, rotating wall cloud, little wispy fingers started to appear and disappear underneath. These were the initial “spin-up” vortices, and when you see them rotating underneath a broad wall cloud, it’s a sign that a large tornado is imminent.

The frustrating part about shooting in Dom 1 is that there’s almost no visibility from the backseat. The windows only roll halfway down, and the steel armor blocks the view forward and back. I had to stick my head and the camera outside of the vehicle to get a good view (definitely not safe in this situation). Luckily, Bagby and Whiteneck had a better field of view in Dom 2 and the SUV.

All of us shooting, including Terry Rosema, were breathlessly trying to capture these strong, fully-condensed suction vortices. Two vortices appeared for one second, and in the next second there were eight on the ground simultaneously.

Reed stopped the caravan twice, and the second time he stepped outside of Dom 2 to stand on the road. The dancing vortices had crossed, and the situation was so loud and chaotic that Reed didn’t notice a baseball-sized hailstone crashing 15 feet away from him. Dick blared the horn to warn Reed. Then Dick bailed.

At the beginning of the day, I had told Dick to stay right behind Reed. In the past, if Dick didn’t agree with Reed on how to chase, he would leave the team and chase solo. Today was too important, I told him, and we couldn’t get separated. He agreed and promised to stay behind Reed.

But at this moment in El Reno, he decided to flee and abort the chase. In retrospect (and I’ve told Dick this), it was the smartest move he could have made. The SUV didn’t have steel armor like the Doms, and could easily have been tossed by the tornado. Or have its windows blown out by hail.

With Dick gone, Connor, Ray and I (in Dom 1) pulled up behind Dom 2. The next eight minutes would be more dangerous than any of us realized. The Doms drove east along Reno Road, trying to keep pace with this tornado, which had quickly grown into a wedge. Reed and the rest of us watched as the wedge grew to become a mile wide. Or so we thought.

To be continued next time.

Ken Cole
Executive Producer, Tornado Chasers

2013 Season
2013 Bonus Content
2012 Season


S2B1 – Tornadoes of 2013: The Ultimate Cut

S2B1 - Tornadoes of 2013: The Ultimate Cut
The first bonus episode cut from the 2013 Tornado Chasers footage (previously called Tornadoes 2013: Raw and Uncut) contains over 80 minutes of extremely high quality video from multiple camera angles of all the major tornadoes chased by TVN during the 2013 production season. Shot with cinema cameras and delivered on our streaming and download platform that meets or exceeds the highest quality of Netflix and other streaming services, you won’t be able to find a better value anywhere else. You can get this episode by itself or as part of the Tornado Chasers Bonus Pass.

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Tornado Chasers Production Log 8: Tornadoes in Kansas

On the morning of May 25, 2013, a weary chase team gathered at Reed’s house around 6:00am. Everyone had somewhat digested what had happened to Moore on May 20th, and the crew was ready to head for a chasing campaign in northern Kansas. This would also be a “break” from Reed’s demanding job as a live correspondent for KFOR.

One great addition to the team this time was Justin White, or “rocket man” from our 2012 season (Episode 7, “Rocket Time”). Justin is an old friend of Reed’s from Science Olympiad, and he invents new ways to launch Reed’s probes into tornadoes. Plus, he’s an entertaining character onscreen, bringing a lot of passion and positive energy to the chase.

Reed’s hope was to have Justin personally launch a probe into a tornado. The plan was to head up to Kansas, where Justin could chase with the team for 2 days. If all went well, Justin could fire the probe canon and launch the “Wing,” Reed’s remote-controlled plane that was constructed by Ray Bohac during Episode 5, “Warning, Part 1.”

So Dom 2 and the SUV headed for Kansas, fully armed with science artillery. I should also add that Dom 3 was being repaired and having its Linex (Kevlar coating) applied to its steel armor. Kevin Barton had left for Michigan to oversee this with Mike Scantlin (which is why they don’t appear for the rest of the season).

Meanwhile I stayed back in Norman, undertaking the tedious task of cataloging and backing up all of the footage from the previous week. So I experienced the chase through phone calls from Whiteneck and Bagby.

May 25th phone call from Whiteneck: “Hey man, it was a bust today. Some pretty storms, but dude, Reed TOTALLY crashed his plane. It was hilarious. The thing was in the air for seriously 10 seconds before it got destroyed.” (You can see this event in our bonus episode “Storm Science, Part 2: Experiments and Safety.”)

May 26th phone call from Bagby: “Another bust. Beautiful supercell. Connor got Dom 2 stuck in the mud. Oh, and the air canon fired INSIDE the SUV when Terry was sitting in there. It blew out the window. Terry’s okay. Justin had to go home.” (You call also see this in “Storm Science, Part 2.”)

May 27th phone call from Whiteneck: “Dude, we’re just stuck out here. Dom 2 has been stuck in the mud for 5 hours. Yeah, we saw a wedge today. But I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this mud. We’re in the middle of nowhere. We did run into Tim Samaras earlier.” (Episode 9, “Stranded”)

May 28th phone call from Bagby: “(gasping for breath) We were 10 feet from a mile-wide wedge. Reed was screaming for the trucks but they didn’t come. I tried yelling to Reed but the wind was too loud. He said to jump in the ditch. I don’t know what to think anymore.” (Episode 10, “Overtaken”)

Bagby had just experienced his first out-of-vehicle encounter with a tornado, and it was a doozy. Reed and Bagby were 100 yards away from the intense Bennington, KS wedge. Luckily, it remained absolutely stationary but it had expanded and threatened to overtake them. I received a similar call from Whiteneck, a tornado veteran, who was also rattled by Bennington.

I knew that our guys had captured amazing footage, but I was nervous about how the team seemed to be “pushing the limit.” When everyone arrived back in Norman (safe and sound), there was a lot of reflection on chasing boundaries. Even on the morning of May 31st, Sean and Terry were still thinking about their close call in Bennington, KS (beginning of Episode 11, “Nemesis, Part 1″).

We couldn’t have known that morning, but May 31st turned out to be our worst nightmare.

To be continued next time.

Ken Cole
Executive Producer, Tornado Chasers

2013 Season
2013 Bonus Content
2012 Season

Tornado Chasers

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