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More women are becoming storm chasers, defying convention and breaking barriers

Like many extreme endeavors, storm chasing has a heavy gender imbalance. There are signs that this is shifting.

Supercell thunderstorm floating by Faith, S.D., on July 8, 2021. (Jen Walton)
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As with many extreme sports and adrenaline-fueled hobbies, storm chasing has a demographics imbalance.

Although Helen Hunt played a starring role as a chaser in the box office blockbuster “Twister,” male chasers have historically grabbed much of the spotlight. When a viral tornado video pops up on the evening news or on social media, it’s almost always produced by or featuring a man.

But there are signs that the ranks of women storm chasers are growing, with more women attracted to the pursuit by both the intrigue of the science and the adventure. And they are having a positive influence on the endeavor.

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A spark at a young age

The draw of storm chasing often starts with a spark of inquisitiveness. Maybe it’s the strange thunderstorm that disrupted a childhood birthday party, or perhaps something more complex later in life.

With the sky as a laboratory, storm chasing presents opportunities to learn and discover and viscerally connect with phenomena that ignited a passion.

Plenty of meteorology students interested in chasing choose a college at least partly based on the ability to chase, either on their own or as part of the school for class credit. As is common with many STEM fields, the gender imbalance is often quickly apparent.

“When I showed up to Valparaiso and looked around the class of 60 or so meant to study Meteorology, I saw only one other woman. I was not intimidated … [but] I was surprised,” Ginger Zee, a veteran storm chaser and the first female chief meteorologist at ABC News, wrote in an email.

Kathryn Prociv, senior meteorologist and producer for NBC News, said that most of the chasers she’s worked with have been men. She started chasing with the Hokie chase team out of Virginia Tech in 2010, while researching tornado behavior in mountainous areas.

Prociv has remained connected to the Hokie team — which has roots going back to the 1990s — returning to help lead expeditions since she graduated. She’s mentored additional women chasers and shared much insight. She said chasing has helped her professionally.

“Every time I go out, I learn something new and that makes me both a better meteorologist and communicator,” she wrote in an email.

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Supporting female storm chasers

Jen Walton took a winding journey in founding Girls Who Chase, an initiative focused on supporting, recognizing and publicizing the efforts of female chasers.

She had spent much of her adult life as a communications and public relations professional. Applying some of that knowledge, she and partner Melanie Metz — a pioneering woman chaser — are building a community for girls and young women to explore the information they had trouble finding themselves.

Walton said ideas for the initiative started swirling almost at random, when she was browsing Instagram and noticed that the nature photography pages tended to focus almost entirely on male photographers. She noticed the same thing on television and other social media platforms.

“It didn’t seem readily apparent that there were any female chasers. Period,” Walton said.

As a result, the public face of storm chasing is mostly that of young thrill-seeking men. The cycle feeds back when the most viral videos tend to come from testosterone-fueled guys sometimes putting themselves and others in dangerous situations.

Girls Who Chase seeks more visibility for the efforts of women chasers.

“It’s time for us to receive equal airtime, sales opportunities, engagement, and respect for our talent,” its website says.

To support aspiring women chasers, Girls Who Chase is creating growing library of information for various age groups and convenes regular online meetings.

At a March 15 Twitter Spaces gathering hosted by Walton and Metz, women chasers spoke on various subjects, ranging from recent chases to photography side projects, and the best brackets to mount a phone on your windshield. The participants showed a deep interest in learning before jumping in — a wise yet frequently overlooked approach to storm chasing.

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Prominent women scientists and chasers face barriers

ABC’s Zee says women scientists, including those who chase, sometimes aren’t taken seriously by some. Harassment isn’t uncommon among those in the limelight. On social media she’s received disparaging comments about her outfits and body in ways her male peers do not.

“People do not see women as scientists without explanation and proof,” Zee said.

She has been a leader in driving the field toward a place of equality and respect. On Twitter, you might catch Zee “snapping back” on someone basically calling her a pretty face in a skirt.

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Although perfect equality in storm chasing and meteorology more broadly seems like a long shot, leaders continue to push for change. They also aren’t afraid to lean on those who helped get them there as well as act as mentors themselves.

“I want all women chasers out there to know they can come to me for support if needed,” Prociv wrote. “[T]here are so many more women chasing now than when I first started more than a decade ago … and we have just as much a right to be out there.”

Zee similarly pointed to women who helped pave her path.

“There have been so many unbelievable female meteorologists before me [at] local levels and in cable that have built the base and I am forever grateful for them,” she wrote.

Zee, who also authored the three-book children’s series “Chasing Helicity,” about a girl who encounters harrowing weather extremes, hopes to offer more icons for young girls and women who love science. She expressed a wish that the next big “entertainment scientist,” like Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye, would be a woman. One might even imagine her filling that role.

“We can change the image of what a scientist looks like. It can look like a woman, who loves fashion, is a mom, wife, a dancer, a singer, a fitness enthusiast and adventurer,” Zee said.