What are storm chasers and why do they do it?

storm chasingThere are many reasons why a person intentionally pursues severe weather – some do it for university research while others do it because of their fascinations of extreme weather phenomena or for photographic opportunities, but all who do it are called storm chasers.   

People who chase storms share many common interests but witnessing the magnificence of intense atmospheric phenomena, such as supercells and tornadoes, is considered by most as the ultimate goal - a lot of people have other reasons for storm chasing.  

For some it’s a chance to get out and see the diverse landscapes that can be found while storm chasing – from the terrain of the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle to the Tall Grass Prairies of Kansas to the Black Hills of South Dakota, there are many wonderful photographic opportunities throughout the region known as Tornado Alley.  City dwellers will also appreciate the fresh air, open scenery and even the small, sleepy towns that can be seen along the way.

Storm chasers are known for their long drives across the country in pursuit of severe storms, but in many of these smaller towns and communities throughout Tornado Alley there are also storm spotters.  While both shares the common task of identifying storm structure, storm chasers have the intention of forecasting extreme weather and traveling to their targeted area in order to validate their forecast.   Storm spotters on the other hand are generally community based volunteers with less knowledge of meteorology and have the intention of reporting ground-truth information to warning officials from a fixed point and location.

Storm chasing is an advance and very specialized discipline that requires countless hours of preparation for a few hours of results.  Most storm chasers are driven by the very challenge of being able to plan a forecast and being able to witness the validation of that forecast, as well as to understand the processes and inner-workings of severe thunderstorms that are most likely to produce tornadoes, the supercell thunderstorm.

storm chasing toursSince storm chasers generally only operate during the spring and summer months, when severe storms are most active, they spend the majority of their winter months advancing their knowledge of subjects such as mesoscale meteorology, mobile communication technology and Tornado Alley geography.  

Many storm chasers are professionally employed meteorologist of whom the majority are based at the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma.   Over the years the experiences of these chasers has helped forecasters better interpret one of our most useful tools – Doppler radar.   

For years scientist used Doppler weather radar knowing that the little green, yellow and other colourful pixels seen meant something, but they were not exactly sure until their fellow workers would communicate with them from the field with tornado reports.   Only then were scientists able to determine the tale-tell sign of a tornado’s signature on the radar screen – the Hook Echo.  And, it was later discovered that using radar’s velocity information could further assist warning meteorologists in identifying tornadoes.

In fact, scientists have learned more about the processes of supercells in the last 5-years than was known in the past 50-years combined!  With recent advancements in mobile communications and technology more and more storm chasers are able to receive near real-time Doppler weather radar information in their vehicles, which greatly helps them not only validate their forecasts, but also increases their ability to safely intercept severe weather and tornadoes.

In 1996 screen writer and author Michael Crichton, along with his wife Anne-Marie Martin penned the hit movie Twister.  While there are some similarities between the movie’s characters and real-life storm chasers, such as the fact that some chasers are scientists - the film itself is about as far from the truth from real-life storm chasing as Hollywood itself is from Oklahoma where the movie was mostly filmed.  

The movie however created a stereotype of a storm chaser – the mad scientists and documentarian (Dusty) whom recklessly pursues a goal of deploying some kind of instrumentation into a storm while having a large and violent tornado in sight throughout the entire day and night.   And while some cable network television reality series have worked very hard to further expand upon this image, real storm chasers are not the reckless yahoos portrayed upon the screen.  

In the non-Hollywood version of storm chasing there are many hours spent pursuing tornadoes to every few minutes of actually witnessing tornadoes.  When real storm chasers do witness tornadoes, they usually are responsible enough to spend a few seconds on either the phone, or radio, and touch-base with warning officials to inform them of what is happening at their location.  The effort of making the communication is minimal and invaluable for life-saving efforts.  In fact, those who claim to study tornadoes in order to save lives can actually do more life-saving work in the short-term by making a quick tornado report than they can by collecting weather data, sadly enough many fail to perform up to the public’s expectations.

Kansas F3 TornadoProfessional storm chasers have tried hard to turn the stereotypical image portrayed in the movie around and show the public they are not people who drive in reverse on Interstate highways, or through someone’s crops, or start fights in gas stations.  But, are in fact people who care about other people.  Experienced storm chasers have seen massive structural damage while performing their beloved hobby, and most have responded to such incidents as first responders and some of even performed life-saving emergency medical actions.  All responsible storm chasers are stewards of the communities throughout Tornado Alley and generally enjoy a good reputation and respect from residents in the Great Plains.

Despite what may be seem like a glamorous lifestyle, most storm chasers are hobbyist and spend more money in pursuit of storms, than they are able to make from either selling their photographs, video or other commercial activities.  They are driven by the pursuit of being witness to one of natures most incredible and beautiful atmospheric sculptures, the supercell.  

If you were to ask a well experienced storm chaser how many tornadoes they have seen, it’s likely they will not be able to tell you.  Tornadoes are defined as a rotating column of air that extends from the cloud base and is in contact with the ground.  This does not mean that the rotating column of air is filled in with a visible material such as condensation, or debris.   Several tornadoes appear to only be funnels, but with closer examination a swirling pattern can be clearly identified on the ground beneath them.

Another reason that a well experienced storm chaser may not be able to provide an exact number is that they don’t keep an exact count, but instead remember more notable tornadoes, such as ones that either had distinctive structural characteristics in either shape or color, or ones that earned a name for themselves such as the Greensburg tornado that struck Greensburg, KS on May 4th, 2007.

Sharon Springs, KS TornadoMany tornadoes have happened throughout the years in Kiowa County, Kansas of which the City of Greensburg is the County Seat.  However, only the large and violent EF-5 tornado of May 4th, 2007 is referred to as “The Greensburg Tornado.”   This is due to the significant damage this specific event left in its wake.  It was however witnessed by a small number of storm chasers because the event itself happened after sunset, a time in which many storm chasers quit due to the increased risk to life and property of chasing tornadic systems in the dark.

Those who do decide to chase in the dark do assume a larger risk of personal safety, but they are also performing a task that is probably needed more during non-daylight hours than what is needed during daylight hours – reporting ground truth information!

Residents of Tornado Alley are never completely without risk to life and property from tornadoes.  Their risk also increases during the night hours as tornadoes are much harder to see, thus any storm chaser that is in the process of witnessing a night time tornado should always do everything possible to try and get a report into warning meteorologist.   The storm chasers who did this during the Greensburg EF-5 tornado event are heroes, and deserving of the term in every respect.

That said, had they made any mistakes and had injured themselves, or someone around them, the outcome may have been disastrous not only to their own life and the lives of their families, but to all storm chasers.  Whenever a storm chaser, despite their level of experience is in doubt of their safety, they should quit chasing and live to chase another day.  While chasers have a strong urge to help during times of emergencies, they’ll do far less good if they are incapacitated for any reason.

Kansas TwisterThose who are new to storm chasing should not attempt a solo chase without first having spent time with more experienced storm chasers.  There are many valuable resources available on the Internet that can help expand their knowledge of this specialized discipline.  The National Weather Service also holds storm spotting classes in many areas throughout the United States to help educate the public on issues such as identifying storm structure.  

Participating on a storm chasing tour is also a great way for someone new to storm chasing to learn.  While these tours may seem expensive at first, they are far less costly than attempting to chase independently with the same level of success.  And to better the value, the information that a person can learn from a well experienced tour guide, or storm team in just a few short weeks is a great deal more than a most people can learn from years of independent study.  And once again to add just a bit more value – you’ll meet a lot of people on these tours that share the same fascination with severe weather that you have, and many who embark on a guided storm chasing tour end up making life-long friends who remain in-contact with one another year-round.

Okay, I admit - I’m partial to storm chasing tours because I own StormTours.com.   But, if you’re new to storm chasing and really want the opportunity to learn from experienced storm chasers, or just want an incredible adventure vacation where every day brings new challenges, opportunities and scenery - then I strongly encourage you to visit our website (of course it’s stormtours.com) and make a reservation.  

Whatever your course of action may be, I wish you well and lots of success in your journeys.  And most of all, I wish you safe travels and hope you learn to enjoy the experience of storm chasing as much as I have.

Brian Barnes is the owner/operator of StormTours.com storm chasing tours, as well as StormChase.com and this blog.

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