Whisper the word spring, and the ears of storm chasers all across the world perk up.
Thoughts drift toward the immense Great Plains, and the monstrous rotating storms, known as supercells, that contort into all sorts of shapes as they prowl across the rolling flatlands.
We’re entering peak time for tornado season, which typically runs from April through June.
In a typical tornado season, one might see many different types of chasers flocking to each storm. In addition to the storms themselves, this year brings another risk to the mix: the novel coronavirus. The coronavirus continues to tour the country, showing up in densely packed cities and rural crannies.
For many storm chasers, fear of covid-19 — the disease the coronavirus causes — will be a straightforward reason to stay home, reminisce and remember there will be scenic tornadoes next year.
But not all are stopping in the face of this pandemic. In fact, the most-used phrase in the community might be the one popularized by veteran chaser and meteorologist Reed Timmer: “Never stop chasing!”
Chasers have already headed into the trees of Dixie to follow severe weather, and the first several tornado threats in the Southern Plains also have been hopping with chasers. These are indications that there will be widespread chasing despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 50,000 people in the United States since February.
How chasers are adapting
There are several types of storm chasers, and they each face unique challenges due to the pandemic. There are the solo folks, and those who chase in pairs or groups of three. Then there are the tour groups chasing vans, with college classes thrown into the mix.
In multiple email inquiries and phone interviews with potential storm chasers this year, there was nearly unanimous agreement regarding the seriousness of the threat from covid-19. Concern is not only for the chasers’ health but also for the communities potentially impacted.
Plenty of chasers have decided they will chase only locally and solo, some packing lunches and snacks, plus perhaps a roll of toilet paper for the outdoor pit stop.
Others are carrying on with “normal” activities, including overnight trips and days on the road. The pros and cons of chasing during the pandemic have been vigorously debated on the online storm chaser forum Stormtrack.
For solo or small-group chasers, the potential for chasing as usual isn’t totally implausible. But with others, it’s not so easy.
Jeff Frame is an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois. His annual summer courses — which consist of two weeks of forecasting and chasing storms in the Plains — already have been canceled. That’s the story at a number of colleges and universities, as well as with scientific field projects, which have been postponed until 2021.
Frame says, “In everything I do in my field course, student safety is paramount.”
He noted that despite chasers’ efforts to protect themselves from the virus, the fact that chasing requires “spending the night in hotels, eating at restaurants, and frequenting gas stations, would make it hard to do” in a safe manner.
Tour groups are still planning to hit the road
Because canceling a college class is largely out of the hands of those leading them, the biggest questions about whether to chase this year may revolve around the tour groups.
Storm-chasing tours tend to have about two vanloads of passengers crisscrossing the Plains looking for tornadoes. Each trip runs for roughly 10 days, and some of the operators run up to 10 or so tours a year.
In the best of years, the tour groups can clog a rural road and make finding a hotel room difficult for other chasers and road trippers. Tours also offer a quick way to get to know other chasers.
Because one has to be consistently finding great storms to keep running in a business like that, it’s an excellent way to see tornadoes if you’re new to the scene.
Storm chaser Alex Fisher called the chase vans “a mobile infection unit,” given that tour members come from around the world, most traveling through airports to get to their destination.
Yet Fisher is still planning on chasing with a group this year, albeit with second thoughts. He’s chased with Tempest Tours for almost a decade and has already moved his trip from June to July, “hoping conditions will be further improved by then.”
From what professional tour groups post online, it seems a majority are still planning on chasing this year.
A few have canceled early tours, which start around now. A couple of others have canceled their season entirely. While it’s possible some Web pages have not yet been updated with cancellations, it seems a number of the field’s best-known operators still plan on being out.
That’s not the case with Charles Edwards.
He runs Cloud 9 Tours, which does three chase expeditions during the peak of the season. Edwards, who also works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said canceling “was a no-brainer decision to make.”
Edwards, one of the biggest names in storm chasing, noted that many of his tour guests fly in from Europe. Given the restrictions on travel into and out of many countries, and the fact that many of his participants are return customers, he said a large number simply pushed bookings to next year. In cases where they could not do that, Edwards issued full refunds.
In addition to the travel difficulties in getting from Europe to the Plains, Edwards pointed out that “stay-at-home orders are everywhere and restaurants as well as hotels will be difficult to find last-minute and may not be sanitized properly.”
Eric Meola, author of a new chasing book and famed rock music photographer, is a frequent guest of Tempest Tours. He told me a number of his chaser friends are going through various levels of angst about the upcoming season.
Speaking of the pursuit more broadly, Meola said he “gets the sense that [chasers] emphasize safety almost to a fault.” Despite that fact, Meola described himself as “alarmed and disappointed” that several storm chasing groups were still planning on chasing “no matter what.”
Bill Reid, a partner in Tempest Tours, indicated trips were on but that they will decide whether each trip goes forward “a week or so prior to each tour.”
Tempest Tours seems prepared to follow state guidance across the region. Reid said he believes if the states are easing restrictions of previous stay-at-home orders, “there won’t be too much of a problem as far as lodging and meals.”
He also indicated they may take additional steps such as having guests wear masks.
“It is not possible to ‘social distance’ on a tour van,” Reid said via email. He also made clear guests were aware of this risk.
Martin Lisius, a Tempest Tour owner, agreed. While he plans for an unusual season because of continual changes in everyday life, he has said, “we won’t operate unless state and local agencies allow.”
The grueling several-month chase season is how some make their living. With at least 26 million recently unemployed in the country as part of the coronavirus-related fallout, the financial impacts of this crisis could also burn through the chase community.
Storm chasers are a lifeblood to the local economies across the Plains. They fill hotels and restaurants for weeks on end. The loss of that income will be noticed, if chase numbers indeed plummet.
All this in mind, chasing has long been a game of compounded risk, considering the chances of a car accident to an errant lightning strike or unexpected turn from a fickle tornado.
At a certain point — and it’s a different point for each chaser — there are too many risks stacked on top of one another.
In addition to potentially being a carrier that helps spread the coronavirus, a chaser may require medical assistance for a multitude of reasons that could divert resources from a virus response. Access to medical resources is severely lacking in the rural areas where much of the storm chasing activity takes place.
As chasers such as Meola emphasized, regardless of the declarations by each state, the pandemic is unlikely to completely end during the chase season. For many, that is all they need to know.
As someone who is not headed out to the Plains this year — planned before the virus but set in stone by it — I’ll be spending more time gawking skyward locally.
There is a lot to see, wherever you may be.