The blockbuster 1996 film “Twister” introduced storm chasers and the practice of storm chasing to a worldwide audience. A storm chaser is a person who chases any severe weather condition and storm chasing is the actual pursuit. Since storm chasers work on land when the storm is forming and hurricanes form over warm ocean water, chasers are usually pursuing tornadoes which generally form over land. Storm chasers do this for a variety of reasons such as for adventure, scientific exploration, storm photography, curiosity or they are a part of the news media.
Seeing a tornado is one of the biggest objectives for most chasers with the ultimate goal being to witness a supercell which is a thunderstorm with a deep, constant rotating updraft called a mesocyclone. They also seek out cumulonimbus clouds which are dense clouds capable of producing lightning, hail and tornadoes. Storm chasers come from all walks of life, many are adrenaline junkies and they must be knowledgeable about meteorology. About 2% of storm chasers are women. There is a difference between a spotter and a storm chaser. Spotters are situated in various locations in the U.S. and alert the National Weather Service about oncoming critical weather information. Chasers are mobile and travel hundreds of miles to observe and record storms. There is overlap between these two groups as some chasers are certified spotters and some spotters will follow a storm for certain distances.
Tornadoes…fascinating but dangerous:
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WHO WERE THE FIRST STORM CHASERS?
American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin is considered one of the first storm chasers. After he discovered the nature of lightning, he pursued learning more about storms and tornadoes. Franklin wrote about a visit to Maryland in 1754 where despite everyone else’s fear, he and his son, William followed a “funnel whirlwind” for miles on horseback until it dissipated. In recent history, the first recognized storm chaser is Roger Jensen, considered to be the first person to actively hunt for severe thunderstorms in the upper Midwest in the late 1940s. In 1956, David Hoadley started chasing North Dakota storms using local weather data and is considered a pioneer in storm chasing. Scientist Neil B. Ward pioneered modern storm spotting in the 1950s and 1960s and used his field experience in observing tornadoes to build more accurate tornado simulations in his laboratory.
Scientific storm chasers observing an oncoming tornado:
The thing about storm chasers is they keep shooting video even when in the middle of a violent tornado:
In 1972, the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory implemented the Tornado Intercept Project, a large scale storm chasing activity which was successfully executed in 1973 with the Union City Oklahoma tornado. It was also the first time a Doppler radar (which is widely used today) was implemented to track a storm and send early warnings. This project spawned a community of storm chasers and interest in storm chasing grew. Besides being featured in several TV documentaries and the feature film, “Twister,” storm chasers got their own TV show with the 2007-2011 Discovery Channel reality series “Storm Chasers.”
WHY DO PEOPLE BECOME STORM CHASERS?
There are a multitude of reasons why people storm chase but the primary ones are recreational, scientific and journalistic. Recreational storm chasers love the thrill of the chase along with the opportunity of photographing the storm and resulting landscape. Many recreational chasers contribute their videos and photos to the National Weather Service (NWS) for spotter training. This kind of storm chaser also enjoys the experience of feeling close to such a large force as nature and the camaraderie with other storm chasers. Scientific storm chasing is generally sponsored by a university or is a government project. Many of these are research-oriented and meteorology-based training. Journalistic based storm chasing come from television crews, professional photographers and video stringers. Generally, these are the only people who get paid to storm chase since they work for a media company. Professors and researchers are the other people who also get compensated for storm chasing. To finance their endeavors, many storm chasers sell videos and pictures to various media outlets. Ultimately, this isn’t financially sustainable since the time, energy and money needed for storm chasing outweighs any profits. A recent trend is storm chasing tour services offered to those who want to storm chase but don’t know how.
Watch how close this storm chaser got to a tornado:
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HOW DO YOU BECOME A STORM CHASER?
There is no degree or certification needed to be a storm chaser. What a person most needs is education about meteorology. The National Weather Service conducts severe weather workshops for operational meteorologists and offers storm spotter training classes. Experienced storm chasers recommend that interested people should first learn about meteorology, how it works, know the scientific terms and especially understand how a severe weather situation will unfold. Experts also recommend that new storm chasers gain experience as a sky watcher and actually witness meteorological concepts while you study them. They also recommend new chasers intern with experienced chasers in order to learn effective tactics and techniques so that they’ll learn how to react in different situations, stay safe and increase their chances of seeing severe weather. This also means any chaser in training needs to be living in the parts of the U.S. like the Midwest that has tornadoes and other severe weather conditions.
WHAT KIND OF EQUIPMENT DO YOU NEED TO STORM CHASE?
A storm chaser’s vehicle is important since it’s what enables the chaser to actually follow the storm. Four-wheel drive SUVs are the most popular vehicles for chasers because of their ability to handle dirt, gravel roads and wet, slippery conditions plus they are large enough to carry equipment. Scientists, researchers and tour groups often use large vans and some chasers even customized a vehicle for their equipment.
Storm chasing vehicles:
When it comes to equipment, every storm chaser has their own personal choices as to how much and what kind they prefer to use. Some like to use a large amount of equipment like satellite based tracking systems, vehicle mounted weather stations and live data feeds and some like to simply bring photographic equipment. In the past, radio gear was used by the first scientific storm chasers to receive data which was useful for getting basic analysis data. Chasers also used radio scanners to listen in on emergency services and reports from storm spotters to find where the most active weather was located. Non-scientific chasers used acoustic couplers to download information about surface and upper air data from payphones.
The laptop computer helped to revolutionize storm chasing. Now, chasers could use computer mapping software and easily download all kinds of information including pictures and maps. Chasers also started using VHS camcorders instead of 8mm film cameras to record storms. And now, the advancements in digital and mobile technology allows chasers to record storms in digital video or photographic stills via a smartphone or tablet and instantly upload the pictures. In 2004, the new XM Satellite Radio based system that used a special receiver and weather software ensured there was no risk of dead spots so storm chasers could depend on receiving a live data feed even in remote areas. Since 2006, chasers have used a GPS to plot in real time the position of other chasers and spotters. Collecting environmental data is a priority for some storm chasers so many have mounted weather stations atop their vehicles and use anemometers to measure wind speed.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING A STORM CHASE?
Storm chasers drive hundreds of miles in order to see and record active severe thunderstorms which happen in a relatively short window of time. Since they need to know weather patterns and try to predict where the weather is headed, many chasers spend a large amount of time forecasting the weather before going on the road and during the chase using a variety of sources for data. This is all a part of what goes on during a chase. Many times, a chaser will experience a “storm chase bust” which is a failed chase trip where chasers don’t see a storm. However, because it’s hard to see a see a tornado, few chasers consider any chase a bust. Many chasers are happy to witness the beauty of the sky and open plains and enjoy the experience of the chase. On average chasers see tornadoes on 1 in 10 trips so the odds are very high.
See how it feels to get caught inside a tornado:
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HOW DANGEROUS IS STORM CHASING?
Besides the risk of getting caught up in a tornado, other dangers in pursuing severe weather range from lightning, flooding, large hail, hazardous road conditions, reduced visibility from heavy rain and wind and downed power lines. However, tornadoes are predictable enough and generally contained in a small area so they can be avoided if chasers keep a safe distance and avoid the direction the tornado travels. Some chasers feel that the closer they get, the better the view. It can also get more dangerous. “Core punching” is storm chaser slang and refers to driving through a storm’s heaviest rain area to get to a better location. The biggest dangers about core punching is the reduced visibility and hazardous road conditions and large balls of hail can damage your car. Another storm chasing slang term is the “bear’s cage” used to describe a region of a thunderstorm that has heavy rain and rotation with the potential to become a tornado. When chasers say they are in the bear’s cage, it means they’re in a dangerous area and a tornado could develop or has already developed.
Ok, this selfie craze has gone too far:
For nearly 60 years, most storm chaser deaths were car accidents due to bad road conditions. It wasn’t until May 31, 2013 that a tornado actually killed storm chasers. While doing research, Engineer Tim Samaras, his photographer son Paul, and meteorologist Carl Young were killed in the widest tornado ever recorded in history near El Reno, Oklahoma. The tornado had grown to a record-breaking width of 2.6 miles and became extremely violent with winds in excess of 296 mph. A local resident who was also storm chasing but not with the Samaras party also died and several chasers were injured. Incidents like the El Reno tornado demonstrated that storm chasing is not for amateurs. Many experienced storm chasers advocate adopting a code of ethics to address safety, courtesy and media profiteering issues. Professional storm chasers feel that reckless storm chasers endanger not only themselves but also others and that some kind of regulation is needed. This is an ongoing discussion in the storm chasing community since storm chasing is both a science and a recreational activity and efforts are being made to find where the distinct line is between the two definitions.