Storm chasing is my passion — and it is a science.
At the moment when a cumulus cloud explodes in fury, it turns into a sculpted piece of art. When a stunning tornado touches down, it makes the hours and hours of waiting in the sun worthwhile. In many ways, the experience is spiritual. You may never see something so big and powerful work its magic right there in front of you.
This is why I had such mixed feelings when I was quoted in a story on Slate with the headline, “Storm Chasers, Stay Home.”
I spoke in length with the author, Eric Holthaus, while driving through Kansas on an intense severe weather day in late May. I stand by my comments in his story, and — this may come as a surprise — I think it was better written and researched than its reception suggested, but it was too hard on storm chasers.
At the same time, the response from many in the storm-chasing community made me cringe. Holthaus challenged us and sought debate (albeit lazily at times), which is his job. But the knee-jerk reaction from some chasers was to go for the jugular. The chasing community has a history of not treating those who question it with respect.
As chasers, there’s no reason to get so defensive. Holthaus’s commentary is simply a reminder that there are many misconceptions about storm chasing that need to be set straight. The plains are not overrun by storm-chasing caravans every spring. There are not thousands of cars on the road preventing first responders from doing their jobs. We do not do it for the money. We do not disrupt local residents’ lives.
The truth is that tornadoes kill, maim and destroy. I believe chasers understand this better than most, but we need to remember that it’s the first thought that many non-chasers have when it comes to tornadoes. We should not whitewash this aspect with too many excited superlatives.
But it’s not just about tornadoes.
Some chasers are rewarded — mainly on social media — for appearing extreme or wild. Often, some of these chasers can appear out of control. They get too close to storms that are obviously more unpredictable than others. They take risks that the rest of the community might not be okay with.
On the other side of the coin, though, being a nerd is totally cool right now. Science is catching. Storm chasers should show off their nerdy side a little bit more, and I think they’d find similar rewards in the same social media spheres. Most of us are far from “extreme” in everyday life, and some of the best moments of the chase aren’t extreme at all.
Tornadoes have fascinated us since our first days as a nation. Even prior to that if we include Native American accounts. Tornadoes occur across the world, but in no place like the United States. In many ways, big tornado culture is a uniquely American phenomenon.
Decades ago, the early adopters of storm chasing were almost entirely made up of academics looking for clues about what made severe thunderstorms and tornadoes tick. The best way to study such a fierce phenomenon was to get right up in the face of it. David Hoadley, the founder of Storm Track magazine, is known as the first amateur storm chaser — someone who was so enamored by the weather that he is now counted among the top storm experts in the world.
These days, there are a lot of “David Hoadleys” roaming the plains in the spring.
There are also chasers like Jeff Frame, who teach field courses in meteorology. A professor at the University of Illinois, Frame says his meteorology students frequently claim “to learn more during the two weeks of the course than in any other two-week period in their lives.” Many universities boast chase teams, which often make up a sizeable portion of the “thrill-seekers” you will meet in the plains. Some, like the Hokie Storm Chasers of Virginia Tech, come from the far reaches of the East Coast.
Chris Sanner, founder of the Oklahoma-based Tornado Titans, told me that it is hard to define storm chasers as a specific group. It’s always changing, with many people coming and going over the years. Over the past decade or so, the number of people chasing in the plains has increased — but that might be changing now that “Storm Chasers,” a Discovery show that featured Reed Timmer and his team, has been off the air for four years.
“At worst, [the number of storm chasers is] staying steady if not outright seeing some slight declines since the 2011-2012 period,” Sanner said. “It seems that the ‘Storm Chasers’ craze, plus the newness of storm chasing to the masses, has worn off a bit.”
Even so, there are a lot of people out there on any given chase day. Yet the idea that the locals see the group as a scourge, demolishing the Kansas landscape like a plague of locusts, is not quite true. There is little to support this thought.
Radar apps that are geared toward the chasing community have an added feature built in — the ability to track not only your location but the location of all other chasers on the storm spotter network. For us, it’s a fun way to see where everyone is going. Which storm will people converge on? Where will the group go once this storm has faded?
It’s highly predictable now — as thunderstorms begin to fire off in the plains, chasers and chase-watchers alike will begin to share “the dots” on social media. Twitter lights up with dot maps. Oh my gosh — all. The. DOTS!
The first thing that has to be said is — obviously — dots are not to scale. Cars are not that massive. They do not cover all the roadways. If every car on the road was represented by a dot, some people would apparently be afraid to leave their house.
In reality, there is ample evidence, like video gathered by veteran storm chaser Dan Robinson from many chases, that thoroughly clogged roads are unusual. I’m not excusing breaking the rules of the road, which certainly happens, sometimes to horrible consequence.
In the interest of “being real,” it’s worth watching even a short clip from a Dodge City, Kan., storm in May that had a lot of chasers on it. It shows that there was some traffic but nothing too intense. I was on this road. This is how it looked for most of the ride.
On the vast majority of chase days in peak chase season, I see a handful of chasers among regular traffic. On bigger days, main roads do get busy, but it is nothing compared to day-to-day traffic in a city. No one has ever been able to point to any instances where storm-chaser traffic was impeding first responders or emergency management, simply because it has not been an issue.
What also does not seem to be an issue is the impact of the chasing community on local residents.
During my time in the plains, I’ve witnessed excitement among local residents that chasers were “converging” on their town. Small-gas-station owners see a swarm of storm chasers as a windfall — not a pain. There’s the mother who asked us for a baseball-practice forecast, then told us where to find her house in case we needed shelter.
Chasers, ranks filled with tons of meteorologists, are generally smart folks and excellent risk assessors. Observers should keep this in mind while continuing to judge us on safety practices and choices when it comes to proximity to tornadoes. The well-known chasers who were killed in 2013, led by tornado researcher Tim Samaras, were giants of the field. But they chased in a particularly dangerous way while trying to put probes in front of tornadoes.
Most chasers don’t chase that way. And very few are out there with, as Holthaus calls it, “dollar signs in their eyes, as bystanders’ livelihoods are destroyed.”
I’ve spent a lot of money in my time chasing. Chasing brings dollars to the plains — not the other way around. There are those who occasionally “score” a larger monetary prize thanks to a particularly amazing video or photo, but it’s honest to say that the vast majority are not making money while chasing.
Despite living in an area that gets plenty of cool storms up in Calgary, Canada, storm chaser Beth Allan is one of many who “make the journey to the U.S. plains to chasecation because the storms there are second to none.”
Allan told me that, as a photographer, there is hardly a better subject — and I agree. “There is something that makes me respect nature and our Earth so much more when I see the violence inextricably tied to beauty that nature provides,” Allan said.
She also noted that she makes it a point to shop locally and give back to the plains. Many chasers are trained as first responders, most would stop a chase to help local victims, and groups like Storm Assist, among others, have a history of giving time or money to tornado survivors.
If nothing else, the focus on chasers is hardly balanced. We either need to get to that point — or agree to disagree and move on to something more important.