Storm Chasers Revealed

Christiaan Patterson

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We’ve seen them on Discovery and in Hollywood movies like Twister but what are these people attempting to do? Storm chasers, as they have come to be known as, are men and women with a fierce passion and adoration for Mother Nature’s fury.

Variations of chasers range from the absolute amateur of everyday people chasing in their own vehicles to government funded research teams comprising of the nation’s top meteorologists. No matter what level they are at, all of them share one common bond: weather.

Depending on which level of storm chasing a person is at influences why they are out in the field. Some amateurs chase for a thrill ride and to see how close they can push themselves into the path of a tornado or hurricane. The rest simply watch from a somewhat safe distance and admire that which is not fully understood.

Then there are some chasers who use these storms as wonderful photo opportunities for either personal use or selling to businesses. In order to be successful at capturing images such as lightning, you need a basic understanding of thunderstorms. Without it, you could point the camera toward some fractocumulus (scud), created by condensation below a cloud base, expecting to see a tornado form.

You’ll be waiting a long time….

Now chasers on the scientific level are those who have received a B.S. of Meteorology or higher and usually work with the intention of solving the mysteries of different storms. For this, let’s just stick to tornadoes.

No matter what Hollywood might tell you about tornadoes, scientists still do not understand why tornadoes form in some thunderstorms and not in others. Theory after theory have been developed and most dismissed.

A brief history of storm chasers leads us back to a scientist named Howard Bluestein of the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Him and a chase team went out in the 1980’s in an attempt to deploy a probe called TOTO (TOtable Tornado Observatory) in order to measure wind speeds, barometric pressure, and temperature.

Initially the goal was to get TOTO into a tornado yet unlike Twister (which was inspired by this), Bluestein was not successful due to the center of gravity on TOTO being too high. However, his team did receive information that there was a greater drop in pressure with a developing tornado compared to a dissipating one.

From there and with the help of Jan DeBont, director of Twister, storm chasing and NSSL was thrown into the spotlight. The popularity in the field of meteorology grew and more people became interested in tornado research. It certainly worked for me!

In modern times, the realm of storm chasing has picked up once again and now the world can watch these efforts via the Discovery Channel and The Weather Channel’s Storm Hunters.

The most extensive and government funded project, Vortex 1 & 2, consisted of dozens of meteorologists from NSSL which set out with several vehicles and even a Doppler on Wheels (DOW) during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Their main mission was to surround a thunderstorm and be able to deploy probes around a tornado in order to get valuable data.

Other meteorologists such as Reed Timmer, Ph.D in Meteorology and Tim Samaras, engineer, are using creative methods to attain data inside a tornado. Some of these ingenious ideas are: flying a mini, remote controlled plane around a funnel in order to deploy probes; attaching hail sensors to the vehicle to measure impact speed; placing a “turtle” probe in the path which suctions itself to the ground as a tornado passes over it; or literally driving into a tornado with a specialized vehicle.

With this information and a clearer understanding of tornado formation, advanced warning systems can be developed which could give people a chance to get to shelters faster. Saving lives is the #1 priority of these scientists, as it should be.