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Tornado Riders

Michal Ish Shalom

When a major storm strikes, most people hunker down or get out of the way. But not the storm chasers. For them, the clashing wind currents, dropping barometer and smell of electricity in the air means it’s time to suit up and meet nature head on.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some of them are media and nature photographers; others are meteorologists with an extreme fascination with the natural complexity and sheer power of a tornado; and then there are the thrill-seekers, looking for the ultimate adrenaline rush. All of them know the synoptic map of storms in their region by heart. They know the significance of every move of the barometer, track cloud formations, and wait for the next storm to hit. These are the storm chasers, an assortment of people who are bound together by their love of extreme weather conditions.

So while most of us take cover in our homes, or at least in a heated car, as the storms rage outside, the storm chasers waited anxiously for the gusts to rise. They don’t wait for storms passively. They go out to chase them, literally.

Storm chasers can be found among all strata of the population, but most of them have academic degrees. Their love for extreme weather has united them in their goal of carefully tracking the weather in order to know when to go out to the field to chase a developing storm. Their biggest thrill is to observe a tornado as it forms and strikes, but most of them will also enjoy a violent thunderstorm, photographing the lightning as it strikes and the overall chase that tracking storms involves.

As wild as it sounds, most storm chasers are quite grounded. Prominent storm chasers are meteorologists who want to learn as much as they can about storms, the way they are formed and how they work, in order to save lives. The more knowledge they have about a storm, the earlier they will be able to warn people in the danger zone, and take protective measures against the havoc and destruction the storm can wreak.

They’ll get as close as they can to the storm — sitting in the eye of the tornado is a storm chaser’s most coveted achievement — while deploying special tracking equipment along the storm’s projected path or around it. These devices help measure air pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity and will also track any resultant damage. 

Reed Timmer is one such scientist. The thirty-year-old meteorologist-turned-celebrity storm chaser, Timmer has been fascinated by storms since his childhood, when a storm dropped hailstones the size of golf balls in his family’s backyard. When the next storm came — which happened to be one of the fiercest in US history — he managed to chase and photograph it. 

On May 3, 1999, several states experienced sixty-six simultaneous tornadoes. Timmer, who was a freshman meteorology student at the University of Oklahoma at the time, found himself in the eye of the storm — literally. That Oklahoma storm reach level F5, the deadliest grade for a tornado.

Timmer was not deterred by the destructive winds that reached 400 kph; he took out his camera and began clicking away as the storm raged around him, mesmerized by its beauty and chaos. At one point he took cover under a bridge, but continued shooting photos the whole time. When the tornado began moving in a different direction, he came out from his shelter and followed it.

“What I did then is a perfect example of how not to behave during a storm,” Timmer warns today. “I was a complete ignoramus as far as safety. Standing under a bridge during a tornado is one of the most dangerous things you can do.”

That was Timmer’s rite of passage.

Since then, he has gone professional. Together with a group of scientists and weather aficionados like him — they go out each spring, during tornado season to the Great Plains, which weather nuts call Tornado Alley — and wait for a storm. This area of the Midwest, the intersecting point for the warm Gulf winds and the cool, dry wind from the east-flowing jet stream, sees about 90 percent of all tornadoes reported annually in the US.

Many storms will remain categorized as mere “thunderstorms” and will never reach tornado strength. In general, storm chasers usually have to chase five to ten storms before they “catch” a real tornado. While they move hundreds of kilometers from place to place, based on the status of the shifting winds, many days can pass without encountering a single tornado. But sometimes, if they get lucky and the conditions are ripe, a storm chaser might even spot a dozen storms in one day.

When the chase is over, a new task begins: laying the tracking equipment so that it can track the storm from the inside. On the one hand, a storm is racing toward them at a speed of between one and several hundred kilometers per hour, and they have to flee in order not to get trapped and injured. On the other hand, they want to remain as close as they can to the storm so that their equipment will register the information. 

They photograph the storm, thrilled at the feeling that they are witnessing the beautiful and destructive power of nature, but their senses are on alert. They identify the distance at which the storm is located, calculate its expected progress and speed, and prepare accordingly. A moment before they have to run, they put down the “probe” which contains their information station and quickly flee the area.

“Tornado chasing taxes your intellect and puts you at one with incredible, spectacular forces of nature,” Timmer reports in his bestselling Into the Storm. “Chasing is also a fix for any adrenaline junkie… But an obsession with stalking tornadoes can kill or maim you, too, and even if chasing doesn’t leave you with physical scars or a need for crutches, it’s hard to escape unscathed. You’ll witness death and destruction of property that sickens your stomach and saddens your heart.”


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