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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 08/27/2012

Hurricane chasing: While most run from the storm, iCyclone seeks out its core


A screencap from Hurricane Wilma’s eyewall as it passed Josh Morgerman’s location in Florida. Wilma was, at one time, the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic Ocean.
Josh Morgerman of iCyclone is perhaps not who one would typically think of when it comes to a hurricane chaser. He’s not a meteorologist, and he does not live near hurricane zones. Rather, he’s a Harvard-educated advertising executive who divides his time between Southern California and Europe.

Despite this unconventional background, he’s as hardcore as it comes in the pursuit of these beastly storms. In less than a decade, he’s faced some of the strongest storms to churn in the Atlantic. If that’s not enough to make a chaser “legit,” what might be considered his most successful adventures have happened outside the country, in desolate and sometimes nearly lawless regions.

I posed some questions to Josh about his journey to where he is today. Those questions and his answers are reproduced below:

Ian Livingston (CWG): Let's begin at, well, the beginning. Almost everyone who really loves weather has a moment when it all started. What was yours?


Josh Morgerman of iCyclone. You can follow his travels on iCyclone.com, YouTube, and Facebook.

Josh Morgerman (JM): I think it’s a combo of two things. One was the tornado scene in “The Wizard of Oz”—I just thought that was so awesome, the way everything goes nuts as the funnel nears the house. The other was Hurricane Belle in 1976, which really clobbered my neighborhood on Long Island, NY. I was a toddler and it crossed the Island overnight, so I don’t remember the storm itself—just waking up to a world transformed. It made a strong impression on me.

CWG: As noted in the introduction, you're not a meteorologist. Of course, one doesn't have to be a meteorologist to be a weather nut, but maybe it's a little harder to explain! Regardless, I'd say you arguably know as much about the subject as many trained in the field, especially given your long-term and wide-ranging interest in the subject. Have you had any formal meteorological education? Do you enjoy the art of forecasting, or would you consider your specialty to be something else when it comes to tropical weather?

JM: I have no formal training—I just have a passion for the subject and a ton of in-the-field experience. I mean, I’ve been in more hurricanes than most meteorologists, and years of analyzing radar imagery and correlating that to what I experience on the ground has given me an intimate knowledge of hurricane structure and wind fields.

This aside, I’m a history nerd: on the off-season, I do detailed research about the big, historic storms—so I’m a walking almanac of hurricane history. One area I don’t touch is forecasting—I leave that to others. But chasing requires some innate sense of anticipation—and I feel I have adequate instincts there, despite not totally understanding the physics behind what’s happening.

CWG: Hurricane chasers have to, mostly, be more ready than your average tornado chaser to hop on a flight and travel into completely unknown territory to meet their target. Additionally, as a Southern California guy, you don't even live in an area which sometimes gets tropical activity. What made you catch the chasing bug?

JM: I caught the chasing bug early—in college! I was interning on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1991, and as Hurricane Bob approached the East Coast, I just decided: “I need to get in that!” I was too young to rent a car, so I jumped on a train for NYC, and then another for Providence as the cyclone raced up the coast. (Yes, I did my first chase on a train, which sounds absurd now.) I just had a knapsack and a couple hundred dollars—no phone, no credit cards. At the time, I wasn’t aware of “storm chasing” and didn’t even know people did that—I just felt this compulsion to be in the storm. It was like a magnet pulling me in—I almost didn’t have control over it. And so the affliction started.

iCyclone 10. View more videos on iCyclone’s YouTube channel.

CWG: Chasers are often viewed as adrenaline junkies, particularly from those outside the chase community who can't seem to understand why someone would want to put themselves in the path of a dangerous storm. As someone who's chased tornadoes in the Plains, I don't think it's totally adrenaline seeking, but there is perhaps an aspect of that type of intensity during "prime time." Did you get into it for the thrill? Or, is there more to you wanting to go back again and again?

JM: I’ll be honest here: I am an adrenaline junkie. That’s the motivator—not science and not research. I think that might bother some people—but I make no apologies about it. Violent windstorms are a drug for me. I love being in the core of a severe hurricane, seeing the trees waving like mad, debris flying through the air, that high-pitched screaming sound of the wind. I get a chill from it.

We all have our own aesthetic sensibilities, and that’s mine. A hurricane’s energy is beautiful—and I need that drug a couple of times a year. Getting video footage and collecting meteorological data are cool aspects of the craft, but the main thing for me is just being in it—seeing it, hearing it, feeling it.

CWG:You've been at this on a consistent basis since 2005, and there have certainly been some memorable storms in that time. Do you have a favorite chase? Is it a favorite purely because of the power of the storm, or are there other factors which make one chase rise above others?

JM: That’s a great question. Each chase is such a big project—and as a parent loves their children, you appreciate each chase in its own unique way. A surprise thrill was my last one, Hurricane Jova, which hit a remote part of Mexico’s Pacific Coast last October. Satellite imagery showed a small, sorry-looking cyclone approaching the coast, and I wasn’t expecting much from it. Well, it turned out to be ferocious!

As the inner core passed over us, the winds were explosive and violent. Unfortunately, there was no recon plane collecting data at the time, and the Mexican radar was down, so we’ll never really know what happened in those final hours—but I think the cyclone was rapidly strengthening as it came ashore, and we were in the worst of it. We really hit the bull’s-eye with that one.

Link: Hurricane Jova (2011) Chase Account and Video


Hurricane Jova makes landfall as a category 2 hurricane on Mexico’s west coast in October 2011.

CWG:Following your travels personally, you seem to hit far more than you bust, but there must be a chase—or a few chases—that stand out as disappointing . Are there instances where you wished you had just stayed at home? How do you cope with that type of outcome when it occurs?

JM: Well, thanks for saying that! I do take pride in my “batting average.” Part of it is instinct—I think I have “good taste” when choosing which storms to chase. Part of it is the great team advising me (and sometimes chasing with me). Part of it is just determination. The inner core of a hurricane—the eyewall—has the maximum winds, and that area is pretty small.

As a hurricane comes ashore, you have to adjust your position a lot to get in that area—and that often means driving on bad roads in bad conditions into really remote areas. And it’s in those final hours that you have to keep pushing yourself to penetrate the inner core—even if you’re exhausted or scared or whatever. You have to resist the urge to say, “I’m pretty close—this is good enough.” I’ve always pushed myself to the bloody end, and for that reason, I almost always get in the eye or at least the eyewall.

That having been said, sometimes Mother Nature just doesn’t cooperate. If I had to axe two storms from my portfolio, they’d be Hurricane Rina and Hurricane Irene—both in 2011. I flew to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to chase Rina and it really fell apart before landfall—so that was a bad bust. I chased Irene where it came ashore in North Carolina, and it was just a lackluster storm—didn’t have the fireworks I expect from a good hurricane.

CWG: Obviously, doing what you do, the hope is to get to the worst a hurricane has to offer. But, to an outside observer such as myself, I'd be fearful of that period—potentially several hours long—where your decision-making is tested, possibly with your life. How scary is it as the core of a hurricane bears down on you and then continues for a lengthy period? Have you ever been fearful you wouldn't make it out alive or without harm?

JM: Oh, yeah. Hurricane Dean of 2007. I chased it to Chetumal, a small, exposed Mexican city on a remote part of the Yucatan. As the hurricane approached the city, it strengthened into this monster Category 5—at the top of the intensity scale—with winds of 175 mph. Chetumal was completely flattened by another Category 5 in 1955, and I started to feel spooked—like the whole chase was a fatal mistake. I was literally getting short of breath over it. At the very last second, the cyclone wobbled north, and the eyewall missed the downtown area (where I was) by a couple of miles. Even so, the city was pounded very hard, with widespread destruction. I can’t imagine what would have happened if it come a few miles further south.

Link: Hurricane Dean (2007) Chase Account and Video


Category 5 Hurricane Dean makes landfall in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in August 2007.

CWG: As if chasing potentially deadly hurricanes wasn't enough of a risk, you've noted many successful intercepts in remote parts of Mexico—a country cited as being as violent as some war-torn nations. Have you ever been nervous chasing there, or in any other countries outside the United States? Any particular issues and/or a noted lack of issues?

JM: It’s a great question. Mexico has become my specialty. I’ve chased more Mexican hurricanes in the last decade than anyone else I’m aware of, and my best work has been there. Because Mexico is deep in the tropics, you get “the real thing” down there: structurally perfect, very severe hurricanes. Also, perhaps because I’m from Southern California, I love Mexico and feel at home there—I feel connected to the people and the culture. That having been said, the drug wars are very concerning, and a couple of my chases have brought me deep into cartel battlegrounds. It’s probably not smart to go to those places, but I just can’t miss a good hurricane. Addicts don’t always make rational decisions, I guess. It is what it is.

CWG: When you chase, you bring at least some equipment along to take measurements of the storm as it makes landfall. From what I have gathered, you're one of few who does this. The National Hurricane Center has used some of your data, correct? Do you think this sharing of data has been useful to them and have they been receptive to it?

JM: Yes, I do collect data—vital measurements like air pressure and so on—which I send to the National Hurricane Center. And, yes, they do use the data in post-analysis—particularly for the remote Mexican hurricanes, when no other data are available from the landfall area. In at least one instance—Hurricane Rina—they adjusted the storm’s track in postanalysis to reflect my data. Senior Specialist Jack Beven doesn’t encourage people to chase, but he’s very receptive to chaser data; his philosophy seems to be that he can’t have too much information when trying to reconstruct what happened.

I gather data with a Kestrel 4500, a small device that fits in your pocket. Portability is important to me, as I’m often chasing alone and over great distances—so I don’t want to get bogged down with too much equipment. iCyclone technician Cory Van Pelt has designed a portable mount—the B.A.S.T.A.R.D.—that allows me to affix the device atop the car to collect wind data, and based on my feedback from field testing, he’s currently re-engineering it.

CWG: You’ve recently redesigned your site and have highlighted more of a team effort there. What made you transition from doing this all on your own to with a group? Have you found the group effort to be helpful overall?

JM: Nothing’s actually changed. I’ve had a team behind me for years now, and with my Website redesign, I wanted to really bring our teamwork to light—to show all the collaboration that goes into a chase.

While I’m often the only guy on the ground, in the hurricane, it really is a team effort. Scott Brownfield has been my right hand for years now—either chasing with me or advising me, analyzing radar, coordinating logistics, and so on. (I don’t know what I’d do without him!) meteorologist Adam Moyer is one of the best tropical forecasters I know anywhere, and Jorge Gonzalez is another really talented analyst. Those guys and a few others form a complete team that’s my lifeblood on these chases.

Hurricane Ernesto (2012). View more videos on iCyclone’s YouTube channel.

CWG: You’ve already embarked on a successful chase this season, in your prime territory of Central America nonetheless. Hurricane Ernesto proved to be a fierce little system that strengthened into landfall, and you got some impressive footage! How did the Ernesto intercept rank on your list? Was it worth going after a bit weaker of a storm than you usually target? 

JM: Ernesto was a spectacular chase subject, actually! Intensity-wise it was either a strong Cat 1 or maybe a Cat 2 (the National Hurricane Center will have a verdict when they do their post-season analysis), but the structure of the cyclone was gorgeous: it had a tightly-wound, intense little core and a pinhole eye that couldn’t have been more than a few miles wide. I’m a “structure nerd”—I love these tiny, perfectly-formed, deep-tropical cyclones which I call “microcanes”—so for me, it was a great thrill. That having been said, chasing it was a bit of a nightmare—finding such a small target at night, in the middle of nowhere in the Yucatan swamps—but my right-hand man, Scott Brownfield, did a great job analyzing the radar and getting me into an almost perfect position for it.

CWG: Isaac is now churning in the Gulf of Mexico, and you’re on the chase along the northern coast. What made you decide to give this one a go? Should we take that as a sign it’s going to be a big one? Any spots you’re hoping Isaac manages to miss, or spots you’d rather not have to make an intercept of the core? Oh, and good luck!

JM: Yep, I’m in Mississippi as we speak—trying to decide next steps. Your question is strangely relevant to this storm, because Isaac is threatening the very region that I consider the most difficult for chasing hurricanes in the USA: the Mississippi Delta and coastal Louisiana. A highly irregular coastline, wide swaths of low-lying swamplands, Metro New Orleans, and the scars left by Katrina all conspire to make this region a chaser’s nightmare. This aside, we really dread the idea of another hurricane hitting a place as precious and vulnerable as New Orleans. But current indications are that it’s going in that general direction. It’s chases like these that really test your skills.

By  |  10:30 AM ET, 08/27/2012

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