"All we really know about tornadoes and storm chasing is from the movie Twister," Becky confessed as we sat down in the control center of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. We really didn't have much of an idea at all about the world of severe storms, but were eager to learn.
"It is really not that glamorous," replied Rich Thompson, a forecaster at the center. "There would be nobody left alive if it happened like [the movie]."
Rich is a fifteen-year storm chasing veteran who assured us that chasing tornadoes could in fact be quite boring. "So what does chasing a tornado entail?" we wondered. A whole lot of driving, according to Rich. Hmm, sounds surprisingly like the U.S. Trek. Would Becky and I have what it takes to become expert storm chasers? Rich gave us the full scoop.
Besides driving, the other half of chasing is the prediction aspect. You need to try to figure out if a storm will form, if it will rotate, and if it will eventually produce a tornado. A typical tornado lasts for only five minutes. Hours and hours of driving and predicting in hopes of catching those five minutes--this is definitely a case of being at the right place at the right time! Of the approximately 200 chases Rich has been on, he has observed only about 25 storms that produced a total of over 50 tornadoes.
So what attracts people to becoming storm chasers? For some, it's an adrenaline rush--being close to an intense tornado can be exhilarating. Some people can even become obsessed, wanting to go after everything, even if it involves making a 12-hour drive! But since storms can be few and far between, if you're just in it for the adrenaline, you're probably not going to last. The greatest danger of chasing is not being gobbled up by a tornado. If you are within the size of the tornado (i.e. the tornado is 1 mile wide and you are 1/2 mile away from it), there might be behavior erratic enough to catch you off-guard. Generally, though, storms that produce tornadoes have patterns and are pretty steady. The dangerous parts are instead the long driving in wet and unfavorable conditions and the lightning!
For Rich, a deep-down interest in natural scenery and the atmosphere is key to surviving as a chaser.
"I've always been a weather nut," he tells us. Rich is also lucky because his hobby allows him take vacation AND get better at his job at the same time.
What is Rich's job anyway? Does he just drive around all day waiting for a storm to brew? Actually Rich is part of a team that monitors and forecasts thunderstorms, tornadoes and other extreme weather phenomena across the continental U.S. every hour of the day and night, every day of the year. The staff at the Storm Prediction Center works in eight-hour shifts preparing both "mesoscale" forecasts for up to 6 hours in advance and outlook forecasts that go two days in advance. Many people rely on these forecasts, including the National Weather Service, local meteorologists, private weather forecasting companies...and of course, other storm chasers!
For me and Becky, the prediction center was a room bursting with computers and monitors and radar screens rather indecipherable to our untrained eyes. Mostly what we saw on the screens was a bunch of colors and lines and dots and movement. Some of the screens were labeled so we could get a basic understanding of what was going on... the water vapor monitor, the national lightning monitor, and the national radar to show everywhere it is currently raining. These amazing meteorologists however, were able to study the symbols on the screens, and find the patterns, make calculations and come out with regular, accurate forecasts.
When a severe storm is actually in the forecast, the prediction center works on a "Ready, Set, Go" model. "Ready" refers to the outlook or forecast stage, whether it be a slight, moderate or severe risk of storm. "Set" means that a tornado watch is issued to alert the public of increasing danger. When severe hail (over 3/4 inch in diameter), damaging winds (over 50 knots) or a tornado appear imminent, the "Go" stage kicks into gear and local weather offices will issue a Severe Storms or Tornado Warning so people will know to find safe shelter.
There are 1,000-1,100 tornadoes each year in the United States, more than in any other country! The worst case in recent history was an outbreak on May 3, 1999 that traveled 43 miles across Oklahoma, destroying 9500 homes and businesses and killing 38 people. Tornadoes can occur anywhere at any time of the year. Yet why is it that the Plains seem to be so hard hit? In Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, tropical air drawn up from the Gulf of Mexico interacts with currents coming from the northwest causing the air to rotate. It is rotating storms, or supercell storms, which actually produce tornadoes. Thus people in places like Norman, Oklahoma are more likely to be affected by severe storms and tornadoes than my family out in California where the Rockies prevent the swirling wind from moving westward. Although the Storm Prediction Center has the technology to do its job from almost anywhere, a place like Norman is a great location for it because it is easier to find people there who are experienced and passionate about severe storms.
And what about our storm chasing buddy, Rich? What's the worst or most dangerous tornado he's ever spotted? In June of 1995, Rich and a crew of a couple other hard-core chasers were in the Texas panhandle when they spotted a tornado that was growing way too big way too fast... and was moving towards them. "It was the biggest, nastiest wall of clouds we'd ever seen," he assured us. The monstrous F-4 tornado eventually grew to be 1.3 miles wide, stripping the shrubbery bare, removing asphalt from highways and even taking out the root systems of hundred-year old trees.
Mostly though, Rich stressed again, storm chasing could be "surprisingly unexciting." The best part for him is when he is able to see how well the forecasts are working and get a different perspective than when he is just staring at radar and computer screens all day. Chasing and spotting storms gives him first hand verification of all the hard work they do at the prediction center.
Well, we'll take Rich's word for it. As for me and Becky, we'll keep on driving, but not towards the storms. I think we'll try to stay out of the way of any tornadoes as we travel along!
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