In the 1950s, many Americans began buying home movie cameras. Amateur photographers with home movie cameras took some of the fi rst movies ever made of tornadoes.
One of the fi rst tornadoes to be photographed by amateurs happened in Dallas, Texas, on April 2, 1957.
More than a hundred photographers took pictures of the storm. Some of them took home movies. One of these home movies went to a meteorologist at the U.S. Weather Bureau. His name was Walter Hoecker. He studied the movie and was able to fi gure out the tornado’s wind speed. It was 170 miles per hour (275 kilometers per hour). This was the first time that anyone had been able to estimate the wind speed of a tornado scientifi cally.
The First Storm Chasers
Meteorologists realized that photographs and movies could help them learn more about tornadoes. So, they thought, why not go out and look for tornadoes? The scientists became storm chasers.
A meteorologist named Neil Ward began chasing storms in the 1950s. Ward was a meteorologist with the
U.S. Weather Bureau. Later he was a research scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), which studies powerful storms. When driving with his family on vacation, he would sometimes give them all a wild ride when he saw a storm and decided to chase it. In May 1961, he became the fi rst scientist to take photos and movies of a tornado while on a storm chase. Ward became known as the “father” of storm chasers.
Doppler on Wheels
In 1995, meteorologist Joshua Wurman invented Doppler on Wheels, or DOW. Doppler radar is a special type of radar that can show wind direction and speed. DOW is a Doppler radar system on the back of a truck.
DOW helped Wurman get better information about tornadoes than ever before. In 1999, Wurman and his team used a DOW device to measure a wind speed of 318 miles per hour (512 kilometers per hour) during a tornado. It is the highest wind speed ever recorded.
In 1972, meteorologists at the NSSL, which is in Norman, Oklahoma, started the Tornado Intercept Project,
or TIP. Norman is in the heart of Tornado Alley, and TIP was one of the fi rst organized efforts to fi nd tornadoes in action and study them scientifi cally. In that same year, a group of meteorology students at the University of Oklahoma also began chasing storms.
The storm chasers didn’t fi nd a lot of tornadoes in their first year. But the weather got really wild in 1973. It was one of the stormiest years ever in the United States, with more than 1,100 tornadoes. The NSSL and the university chasers were able to fi nd many tornadoes. One of the worst tornadoes they saw was a storm that wrecked Union City, Oklahoma, in August 1973. It was an EF4 tornado that killed two people. The scientists were unhappy to see all the damage. But there was also good news. It was the first time that meteorologists were able to watch the life cycle of a tornado from start to fi nish. They learned many things
that allowed them to predict tornadoes much better. For example, they discovered that air starts spinning high in the sky before a tornado forms and touches the ground. They also learned that radar could help them tell that a tornado might be forming.
Storm chasers need to know how to stay safe. An important safety rule is: Don’t get too close to a tornado. Usually, the best place to be in a car is a few miles ahead of the tornado. The chaser can see the storm, but the tornado isn’t likely to get to the chaser’s vehicle. A car can usually be driven faster than a tornado can move. Storm chasers try to avoid what is called core punching. Core punching is driving into the part of a thunderstorm that has the heaviest rain. In a very bad thunderstorm, a chaser’s car can be hit by hailstones that are big enough to break the windshield.
The most dangerous thing about storm chasing is not the tornado. The biggest danger is driving in bad weather.
Movie director Sean Casey has invented a special kind of truck called a Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV). Each one is built like a tank. TIVs are made to drive into a tornado. In June 2006, driving the fi rst TIV in Texas, Casey saw a tornado ahead of him. The tornado came right at him. Heavy winds shook the TIV, and oil drums were fl ying through the air. But the TIV was not damaged, and Casey got some great movies. For the fi rst time, someone had actually driven into a tornado and survived!
One risk is hydroplaning. That’s what happens when water on the road causes a car’s tires to slip. The driver can lose control and slide off the road—or even crash.
Sometimes animals walk onto country roads and highways. A driver chasing a storm has to be careful not
to hit an animal. The driver also has to be careful not to lose control of the car trying to avoid hitting an animal. Lightning is a danger. Chasers who get out of their cars to set up cameras need to remember to take shelter if lightning gets too near.
If chasers get too close to a tornado, they are also in danger from all the material being blown in the wind.
Tornadoes might carry tree branches, pieces of houses, and metal objects that are heavy or have sharp edges.
Fortunately, not many storm chasers have been hurt by lightning or fl ying objects, because they know how
important it is to be careful. The risk is there, though.