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.