One of the most diffi cult things about chasing tornadoes is actually fi nding one. It is still extremely hard to predict exactly where a tornado will strike. The area in which tornadoes might occur is huge. Even scientists with the latest equipment can spend days or weeks out in the field without fi nding one. Very few tornado chases end with the chasers being able to collect information about a powerful tornado. Both meteorologists and amateurs spend much of their time sitting in a car in bad weather, watching the sky.
It can get boring. Sometimes the chasers stay out into the evening looking for storms. They may not get home until late at night.
On one storm chase, the chasers kept going to a spot where they thought tornadoes would be occurring only
to fi nd they had gone to the wrong place. First the storm chasers drove to Kansas. Then they heard there was a tornado in Oklahoma. They drove to Oklahoma, but a tornado then happened in Kansas.
The day on which the storm chasers were doing this was April 26, 1991. Meteorologist Howard Bluestein was
leading the team of storm chasers. Finally, they spotted a really big tornado. It was ahead of them, so they followed it. They saw terrible destruction that the tornado had left behind. Telephone poles had been thrown half a mile (more than three-quarters of a kilometer). Later, they studied photos of the damage and the information their radar had recorded. They were able to fi gure out the tornado’s wind speed. They had seen the rarest and most powerful of all tornadoes—an EF5! The storm became known as the famous Red Rock Tornado. It got that name because it touched down one mile (1.6 kilometers) away from the town of Red Rock, Oklahoma.
The Red Rock Tornado
Red Rock is a small town in northern Oklahoma. Only a few hundred people live there. The powerful tornado that touched down near the town in 1991 destroyed farm houses and other buildings. It took the bark off trees and lifted pavement off roads. Fortunately, very few people were hurt. The damage could have been much worse if the tornado had touched down in an area where many more people lived.
Cars Full of Equipment
The cars that meteorologists use carry a lot of equipment. They may have devices for measuring wind speed and air pressure. They may have lightning detectors that can find lightning almost 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. Some larger vehicles carry their own radar.
Cameras are a must. So are cell phones to keep in touch with the scientists back at the research center who might be able to help them fi nd out where a tornado is likely to happen. A cell phone can also be used to call for help in case of an emergency.
Good maps are important, too. Meteorologists use GPS (Global Positioning System) equipment. GPS devices link to satellites high above the Earth’s surface. They let users know exactly where they are at all times. This helps them when they are on roads they don’t know. Or if storm chasers hear on the radio that a tornado is occurring somewhere, the GPS equipment can help them fi nd that spot.
Laptop computers or handheld devices may allow chasers to search the Internet for weather maps. Chasers
also use their radios to listen to weather reports from a special network of radio stations. This network is called NOAA Weather Radio, or NWR. It is operated by the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
How Many Storm Chasers?
About how many people are doing storm chasing today? No one knows for certain, and the answer partly depends on how you defi ne a storm chaser. The number of people, both scientists and others, who spend a large amount of time each spring looking for and observing storms may be only about a hundred. If you count students, fi lmmakers, and others who sometimes chase storms, then the number may be more than a thousand. When a very severe thunderstorm pops up in Tornado Alley during May, the number of people who will get in their cars and crowd the roads watching for a tornado may be even larger.
Many people who are interested in weather and storms join a special program. It’s run by the National Weather Service (NWS), and it’s called SKYWARN. Almost 290,000 volunteers are in SKYWARN. They act as severe-weather spotters and send reports of severe weather to the NWS. Their job is to identify and describe
severe local storms.
People who want to join SKYWARN sign up at a local NWS offi ce. They fi rst take a free class about severe weather. The class lasts about two hours. The volunteers learn how storms develop and how to tell if a severe storm might be coming. They are also taught how to report information, and they learn the basics
of storm safety.
So You Want to Be a Storm Chaser
If you want to be a scientist who chases storms, you will need to study meteorology. Meteorologists need at least a bachelor’s degree, and many scientists who study weather have a doctorate in meteorology or a similar branch of science.
Some meteorology students get their fi rst jobs by becoming interns at places where scientists study weather. An intern works for little or no pay in order to learn more about a certain career from experts in the field.
Meteorologists who want to be storm chasers need to learn how to use the special equipment chasers take with them. They also need to learn the safety rules for storm chasing. That’s why meteorology students interested in storm chasing begin by going along on chases with their teachers.
Some amateur storm chasers act as spotters. Spotters report what they see to weather offi cials. This can help scientists who are storm chasers get to the right place at the right time. Many people who are amateur storm chasers belong to the National Association of Storm Chasers and Spotters (NASCAS).
A lot of people found out about storm chasing when the movie Twister came out in 1996. It is a fi ctional story about storm chasers. It’s an exciting movie with lots of action scenes. But most real storm chasers don’t think the movie gives a very accurate picture of storm chasing. They think it shows storm chasers doing foolish and dangerous things, like trying to drive into the path of a tornado.
Still, many storm chasers were happy to see a movie that was about them. Millions of people who saw the movie found out about storm chasing for the fi rst time. Twister made storm chasing seem important and exciting. After the movie came out, more people became interested in becoming meteorologists and doing storm chasing as their job.
Storm chasing may be a dangerous job, but a lot of people love it.
Storm Chasers on TV
A television series called Storm Chasers follows actual teams of chasers as they take to the roads of Tornado Alley in search of tornadoes. People watching the show can see some of the high-tech equipment chasers use, including Doppler radar and Sean Casey’s Tornado Intercept Vehicles. They can watch chasers driving through stormy weather on muddy roads as they try to catch and learn about powerful tornadoes. Shown on the Discovery Channel, the series began its third season in the fall of 2009.