Storm-Chasing, a Chess Match With Nature

Two fans of extreme weather head for Tornado Alley to look for twisters—but stay the heck out of their way.

By Jocelyn Rice|Tuesday, September 13, 2011

 

On top of a small, shrubby hill outside Pratt, Kansas, my brother Andy Rice—a former TV weather producer who now manages the development of weather visualization software at Weather Central—stood in the roadside dirt with his best friend from childhood and scanned the sky, looking hopefully for signs of trouble. If you’re chasing storms, this part of Tornado Alley is ideal terrain, dotted with hilltops that offer great vantage points for assessing the clouds. And now is the time to do it: Peak tornado season runs from April through July, though twisters can form at any time of year.

The United States sees more tornadoes than any other country, averaging 800 a year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Tracking one down can be an exhilarating experience, but it comes with serious risks. About 30 percent of American twisters are classified as “strong,” with wind speeds topping 110 miles per hour. Although only a handful reach “violent” status, with winds exceeding 205 miles per hour, these powerful storms account for 70 percent of all tornado deaths. This past April, the series of outbreaks in the Midwest and Southeast generated at least 600 tornadoes—more than any previous month on record. This year already ranks as the deadliest tornado season in decades.

Partly because of the danger (and despite its high profile on reality TV), storm chasing is a fairly rare sport. Longtime chasers Roger Edwards and Tim Vazquez, who maintain an online forum dedicated to storm tracking, estimate that there are only 100 or so enthusiasts who chase year after year. Occasional observers number in the thousands, though, so a single promising storm may be pursued by hundreds of vehicles.

On this afternoon, Andy and his friend, veterinary technician Avi Solomon, felt a change in temperature and moisture creep over them, the cool spring air suddenly turning muggy and 30 degrees warmer. Then they spotted another sign: A Doppler on Wheels truck cruised past. These mobile, radar-equipped weather stations—along with weighted probes bearing anemometers, thermometers, and cameras that can be placed in a tornado’s path—allow scientist chasers to gather valuable data on the formation and internal structure of twisters. Seeing the pros nearby encouraged the pair that they were on the right track. Sure enough, a towering mass of cumulus clouds soon sprang up on the southern horizon. Andy knew the prime placement for spotting twisters is southeast of the action. There, one can drive along the edge of the region most likely to spawn tornadoes while avoiding the danger zone, since most storms track a northeasterly path. Andy and Avi had to move quickly to reach this sweet spot. If they waited much longer for the isolated, rotating thunderstorm known as a supercell to develop, they would face a drive through brutal winds and baseball-size hailstones to get to their vantage point. Already it was beginning to rain. Time to get going.

Near Attica, Kansas, they emerged from the rain and looked skyward, taking in the sector of the storm that vacuumed up warm surface air and thrust it high into the atmosphere. A wall cloud, which often marks the birthplace of a tornado, hung ominously before them. Finally a wildly spinning filament of cloud snaked out and grabbed at the ground. Andy positioned his camera: He had spotted his prey, a tornado in the act of forming. The sighting came just in time, since it was growing late. A storm trundling along at 30 miles per hour is no problem, as long as you can see it. “Then suddenly it’s dark, and now the tornadoes are chasing you,” Andy says.

tornado
tornado
Avi Solomon

He and Avi headed for Wichita, where they checked into a Holiday Inn Express and turned on the news. For the first time that day, they hoped the tornadoes would be far away. They were safe, but after the thrill of the catch it was hard to unwind. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” Andy says.

That first chasing adventure in 2004 grew into a biennial tradition. Growing up in Northern California, the friends had always been fascinated by weather, hopping on their bicycles in pursuit of rainstorms. As a kid Andy sat glued to the Weather Channel, plotting the progress of hurricanes on graph paper. Now he was living in the Midwest and becoming an experienced chaser himself.

Even for the well prepared, catching a twister is hardly a sure thing: Of the 50 or so days that Andy has spent in the field, just four have yielded tornado sightings. A successful chase relies on a combination of specific atmospheric conditions and careful hunting. Creating a supercell takes moisture, updraft, spin, and then the trigger—a boundary between hot and cold air masses. Even if chasers find powerful storms brewing within driving distance, they still need an accurate forecast of the weather’s progress to reach the action in time. Andy uses his laptop and Weather Central’s software to pinpoint colliding air masses, but travelers without extensive familiarity with meteorology can join a tour group. “Storm chasing is like a huge chess game,” Andy says. “Your playing board is the entire Midwest and Plains states. Your opponent is really good and potentially dangerous. It takes a lot of luck and skill to win.”

Next Page: Join the Chase

Join the Chase

The do-it-yourself approach to storm chasing is best left to those with considerable experience. For others, the safest strategy is to go with a professional chasing outfit. Tornado Alley also offers attractions for weather buffs who have no desire to get up close and personal with a twister.



Extreme Chase Tours  claims a 100 percent success rate for tornado-spotting since 2006 on its six-, ten-, and fifteen-day trips out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It also offers a remote-chasing option: A guide will direct you by phone to the best spots for viewing storms. Prices start at $2,700.

extremechasetours.com

TRADD Storm Chasing Tours  bills itself as America’s longest-running tornado tour company. Offering weeklong trips out of Dallas, TRADD (Tornado Research and Defense Development) also provides weather bureaus with reporting from the field. Prices start at $2,000.
traddstormchasingtours.com

 
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