Storm Chasing: A Twisted Pleasure
By Mark Okrant
There are a number of people who get their kicks by driving all over the landscape in search of violent storms. Many do this in the name of scientific investigation, while others are adventure seekers or simply curious. These adrenaline junkies are known as storm chasers. Most are searching for tornadoes; however, others prefer to track lightning and thunderstorms, cumulonimbus clouds, tropical cyclones, or hail storms.
Dr. Eric Hoffman is one of five professors in Plymouth State University’s (PSU) meteorology program. New Hampshire’s only undergraduate meteorology degree program is housed in the state-of-the-art Judd Gregg Meteorology Institute, on the top floor of Boyd Hall at PSU. Like his colleagues, weather phenomena have been a lifelong passion for Dr. Hoffman. However, unlike many in his profession, he has experience as a storm chaser.
During interviews of storm chasers conducted more than a decade ago, participants listed a range of motivations for this pastime. These include the mystery of the unknown, the open road, being one with nature, and thrill seeking/risk taking. However, for scientists like Dr. Hoffman, the purpose of the chase is for collecting scientific and empirical data that will enhance future efforts to predict the nature of these violent bursts of nature.
Who are these storm chasers? While it is not a requirement, many have backgrounds in meteorology, the branch of science concerned with the processes and phenomena of the atmosphere as a means of forecasting the weather. The vast majority are males in their mid-thirties; most have college degrees, are lovers of nature, and reside in the central or southern U.S. states.
Unless storm chasers are working in a faculty or researcher capacity at a university, or have obtained rare funding from a federal agency, these hardy souls generally are not paid. Recently, a handful of entrepreneurs have developed chase-tour services, a slightly crazed form of niche tourism.
According to historic information, the first recognized storm chaser was a man named David Hoadley, whose efforts to track tornadoes in North Dakota began in 1956. Hoadley founded a magazine called Storm Track, where he published his findings. Another pioneer of storm spotting was Neil Ward, who tracked storms in Oklahoma, during the 1950s and 1960s. The first coordinated activity sponsored by an institution dates back to 1969. The Alberta Hail Studies (AHS) employed a small fleet of vehicles fitted with meteorological and hail catching equipment. Field personnel were kept abreast of weather phenomena and directed where to travel by a radio controller at a radar site. A major breakthrough occurred in 1973, when a team comprised of University of Oklahoma and Severe Storms Laboratory personnel completed a successful chase of that state’s Union City tornado.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the media brought attention and funding to storm chasing. Four events are credited with the emergence of widespread interest in this activity. These are: The Weather Channel (1982), development of internet activity (1990s), the movie Twister (1996), and the Discovery Channel’s reality series, Storm Chasers (2007 to 2011). Meanwhile, improvements to an innovation called Mobile Doppler Radar Intercept allowed people in the field to have greater freedom in finding storm paths, thereby expanding storm chasers’ ability to get closer to tornadoes.
Even with the aid of the National Weather Service (NWS), Weather Channel, and improved radar systems, there is no guarantee that a chaser will actually view a storm event. Countless hours—labeled “extreme sitting”—are spent waiting, while analyzing data and forecasting probabilities before speeding toward a hopeful event. During a typical outing, storm chasers may drive hundreds of miles to position themselves for the chase. In this ultimate gamble with nature, exact timing and a good deal of luck are needed to view these spectacular, albeit short-term, meteorological events. Just as any professional poker player can attest, more often than not, all of the preparation and sudden action produces a “bust,” when the storms they are chasing don’t fire.
This is a seasonal activity. In the southern states, spring and early summer—especially the months of May and June—are peak times. In the Midwest as well as Tornado Alley, sobriquet for the Great Plains, the summer and fall months are the peak period for chasing.
Why is the Great Plains region a preferred place to view tornadoes; and why not New England? When you visit the plains for the first time, the feeling of openness and exposure to nature is commensurate with being in a small boat on the ocean. In this region, there are no mountains or forests to block your view of the onset of storms. Therefore, a forming cyclonic system—the type that produces tornadoes—can be viewed from a substantial distance. Additionally, the low moisture profile of the atmosphere makes it possible to view the full structure of the tornado.
Meanwhile, here in New Hampshire, the atmosphere rarely produces systems that are conducive to forming a tornado cell. Even when one develops, all of those beautiful mountains and forests make storm viewing extremely difficult. Furthermore, according to Dr. Hoffman, this region tends to produce high precipitation super cell thunderstorms, wherein the large amount of rain near the storm’s center acts like a curtain, rendering any tornado activity nearly impossible to spot.
The tornado of July 24, 2008 provides evidence of what Dr. Hoffman described. That day, a one-half mile wide tornado spent 90 minutes on the ground, cutting a swath between the towns of Deerfield and Freedom. The storm destroyed a dozen homes, damaged 200 more, and caused the first tornado-related death within New Hampshire in more than 60 years. Despite the fact that the NWS measured wind speeds of up to 135 miles per hour, and labeled it an EF-2 (on the Enhanced Fujita scale of 0 to 5) tornado, there was no credible sighting of a funnel.
Storm chasing is not for the weak of spirit. Along with the threat from the tornado’s winds, one needs to be very concerned about lightning, large hail, flooding, hazardous road conditions, wandering animals, downed power lines, flying debris, and dramatically reduced visibility. Then there is another great risk—the presence of other storm chasers madly in pursuit of the same quarry.
Being in the right place at the right time allows one to see nature in one of its most violent and spectacular states. In discussing Dr. Hoffman’s two experiences as a tornado chaser, he emphasized the respect one must have for both nature and human life. One must know the physical structure of these magnificent storm systems, as a slight miscalculation could place the storm chaser in immediate peril, or miss the event entirely. While these stalwarts live for the chase, all are cognizant of the value of human life, and are continually respectful of the people whose lives may be instantly disrupted by one of these powerful storms.