Storm chasing can be exciting. It can also be frustrating. A tornado is a moving target. When they’re out driving, storm chasers have to make quick decisions about which road to take. One mistake and they can miss the tornado. Sometimes, they know where the tornado is, but there is no road to take them there.
So why do storm chasers do what they do? The answer depends on what kind of storm chaser the person is.
The storm chasers who run companies that give tours of Tornado Alley want their customers to get their money’s worth. These storm chasers take people who want to see a tornado on long drives through Tornado Alley in the springtime. The trips last for several days, and the visitors stay in motels. The people running the tours don’t guarantee that visitors will see a tornado. People on a tour are likely to see tornado damage, though, and are almost certain to see some really strong thunderstorms.
The storm chasers who are professional photographers or fi lmmakers want to get the best pictures they can. Sean Casey, who invented the Tornado Intercept Vehicle, films tornadoes for IMAX and other movie companies. IMAX produces 3-D and other wide-screen movies that make you feel as if you are right in the action.
Another well-known photographer of storms is Mike Hollingshead. Working on his own, he goes on 40 or more
chases a year, driving thousands of miles. It can be hard to make a living taking pictures of tornadoes. That’s because the chasing season is short. Most tornadoes in the United States happen in the spring. So a tornado photographer has to fi nd something else to do the rest of the year.
Storm Chasing for the Fun of It
Most storm chasers do it as a hobby. They love seeing the power of nature in action, and just about nothing is more amazing than a tornado. A lot of the fun comes from predicting where a tornado will happen. If you are a meteorologist, you might have a better chance of fi nding a tornado. That’s because meteorologists have special training and equipment that’s too expensive for almost any amateur to buy. But many storm chasers who are not scientists get very good at knowing where tornadoes will happen.
Many storm chasers are scientists. They chase tornadoes in order to study them. They want to be able to better predict tornadoes before they form. If people can get more warning that a tornado will strike, lives can be saved.
Meteorologist storm chasers often work in special laboratories when they’re not out driving. The laboratories get pictures of weather conditions taken from satellites. They collect weather information from a network of reporting stations all around the United States. They use powerful computers to analyze all the information they get.
Many of the scientists who are storm chasers work at the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. It is the largest meteorology school in the United States. The school is in the building in Norman, Oklahoma, that also houses the National Weather Center. At the National Weather Center, university and government scientists work together to study tornadoes and other types of storms. Tornado research is also done at the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colorado.
When meteorologists try to predict a tornado, they look at many things. They get an idea of how unstable (likely to change quickly) the weather is. They study wind fl ow patterns and temperature. They use information they get from weather balloons, airplanes, satellites, radar, and weather stations. Weather balloons can give scientists information about how strong the wind is blowing high above the Earth. If radar tells the meteorologists that the air is beginning to spin within a supercell, they know that a tornado is likely.
No Forecasts Allowed
In the 1880s, a U.S. Army meteorologist named John Park Finley said that it might be possible to predict tornadoes. The U.S. government did not want tornado predictions to be made. In 1883, it said that meteorologists could not use the word tornado in any weather forecast. The government thought that using the word would make people panic. It wasn’t until almost 70 years later that the government changed its mind because the science of predicting tornadoes had gotten better. In 1952, the U.S. Weather Bureau (now called the National Weather Service) was allowed to begin making tornado forecasts.
Another thing meteorologists look for is places where cold air is colliding with warm air. If one batch of air has a lot more water in it than the other, that’s a sign that a tornado might form. Meteorologists use very powerful computers to create models of the atmosphere. These models help them understand the conditions that make tornadoes form.
When the conditions seem right for a tornado to form within the next few hours, meteorologists issue a tornado watch. When a severe storm is expected very soon or the storm is actually seen (or spotted on radar), they issue a tornado warning.
In 1986, the average time between a tornado warning and an actual tornado strike was about fi ve minutes. That’s not much time to get to shelter! Today, the average warning time is about 13 minutes. That’s a difference of eight minutes—enough time for many more people to take cover.
The First Tornado Forecast
The fi rst successful tornado forecast was made in 1948 by two meteorologists who were members of the U.S. Air Force. On March 20, a tornado hit Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Over the next few days, the two meteorologists studied the weather charts. On March 25, they saw that the weather looked a lot like it had on March 20. It was almost impossible that a place would be hit by two tornadoes in less than a week. But the weather looked scary. So they warned of another tornado. Three hours later, a tornado hit the air base. There was a lot of damage, but no one was hurt. One of the forecasters, Captain Robert C. Miller, later wrote that “we became instant heroes.”
In January 2008, meteorologists warned the people of Caledonia, Mississippi, 41 minutes before a tornado hit.
Students in the school took shelter. That was lucky because a tornado hit the school. A school bus landed on the roof. Many lives may have been saved by the early warning.
The death toll from tornadoes has gone down a lot. Scientists say that better warnings are the reason. Scientists who are storm chasers have had a great deal to do with that improvement.