When chasing storms, it’s vital to keep your eyes open – and keep an open mind.
For someone who doesn’t want to risk life and limb and likes predictability, storm chasing sounds like a terrible hobby. But this safety-conscious planner loves to storm-chase. How do I harmonize these traits?
First, I put the emphasis on the “chasing” part of storm chasing; it is not called “getting chased by the storm,” though certainly a number of people act as if it were. I make certain that the storm is always moving away from me. When I was a child, the stock line that a tornado can “form with no warning” struck terror into my heart. I imagined sitting outside looking in one direction and feeling a tap on my shoulder; turning around I discovered a huge tornado had, as the National Weather Service threatened, formed without warning. In fact, with a good understanding of storm structure, and a willingness to stick to some basic rules about where to position yourself relative to the storm, it is pretty easy to stay out of harm’s way.
This often means that you lose the storm, particularly if the storm is moving at an angle to the available road network, but that principle has kept me safe. I will admit that I did get hailed on once after my navigator misidentified a road, but I have never come close to being hurt by a tornado, in part because while I have seen dozens of them, I have never been within about a mile of one. My goal is to SEE the tornado, not TOUCH the tornado.
As for the planning element, while it is somewhat against my instinct to drop everything suddenly and head out on a good chase day, sometimes it is good to push your personality a bit. Occasionally, surprises are actually fun. Some of my best chases have happened on days when tornado development looks improbable, and the days with the highest anticipated risk have almost always resulted in me seeing nothing but blue sky. Mother Nature has the power to surprise, and that uncertainty is actually part of the appeal to me.
Storm chasing has also offered a great lesson about the benefit of enjoying the process, even if it doesn’t yield the anticipated result. While I have seen some spectacular tornadoes, some of the most amazing scenes on chases have featured other natural phenomenon.
Crossing a warm front can take you from conditions that are foggy, with almost no visibility and temperatures in the 40s, to bright sunshine and 70-degree air in literally the course of a mile. I have stood in a field under a low pressure center and watched the clouds pinwheel above me, with the clouds to my east moving north, and those to my west moving south, as if the entire sky was a record spinning above my head. I have seen seven lightning strikes within a few hundred feet of me, all within a minute. A huge flash with a simultaneous boom every 10 seconds is most definitely memorable.
Lightning is actually a bigger risk than tornadoes during my storm chases, and I usually stay in the car. While many people think that tires of the car offer lightning protection, it is actually the metal frame, which functions as a “Faraday cage” (Google it), protecting occupants, unless you opt to chase in a non-metallic car. Basically, the electricity is shunted around the outside of the car. And while lightning can seem scary, the biggest risk on a chase, by far, is traffic. Driving on rural roads is always more dangerous. (40,000 Americans die on the roads each year. While that’s far fewer than have died annually in the pandemic, for someone my age, car accidents carry a higher risk of death than stroke.) That danger is heightened when people are distracted by storms. In one deeply troubling video posted following recent storms in Iowa, a terribly irresponsible storm chaser blew through a stop sign while filming himself. I am far more worried about getting killed by a bad driver than a rogue tornado.
One of my favorite images from a chase doesn’t even feature a tornado. Instead, while my son Zach and I were on a chase, we saw one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever encountered. That day didn’t yield a tornado. But it featured a great chat with my son, and an amazing display of the beauty of nature. (I am a bit more mixed on the deer that leaped in front of the car moments before we captured that image. It was pretty, but also a bit closer to crash than I prefer!)
A few photos (or, for the first three, video stills) are attached. The first two, from Mayville, Mo. on April 15, 2006, show a multi-vortex tornado on the ground, with spectacular lightning above it. I would never chase at night, because the ability to see the storm is a key to safety. My chase friends and I came upon that storm while driving home from a chase that had taken us to Beatrice, Neb. When lightning gave us a strobe view of what looked like a wall cloud, we realized that for safety, we should stop and let the storm pass (poorly named, a “wall cloud” looks nothing like a wall. Instead, it is a lowering from an otherwise flat base of the storm. Learning to identify a wall cloud, which signifies the updraft of a storm, is probably one of the hardest parts of storm chasing.) In the second photo you can see an example of a wall cloud on the left side, though that particular wall cloud was actually a smaller wall cloud under a large one. You can see a tornado on the ground very near the road. The brake lines visible on the car are likely because that driver was being pelted with debris. That illustrates both why I won’t chase at night, and why we stopped.
The third photo shows the storm that later hailed on me. While it never dropped a tornado, it is another example of the beauty of nature. Finally, of course, is the sunset. And that provides a good way to end the story. With the realization that sometimes you don’t find exactly what you set out for in life, but that doesn’t mean what you found wasn’t really, really great.