Chasing storms is not for everyone. Thunder and lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe storms send some scurrying for cover. The lives of storm chasers can change from boredom to excitement in the blink of an eye. Waiting for the rush of finally observing a severe storm, such as one involving tornadoes, can try the patience of the average person. There is a lot of waiting and even more driving when a person is storm chasing.
Types of Storm Chasers
There are many types of people who chase storms. Over the years, the practice has become more popular for the average Joe. Discovery channel exploited the popularity by airing a series for several years, but the show was recently canceled in part because of the rising cost of gas. Storm chasers can travel thousands of miles in a week, traversing the mid-west states several times. In the sub-culture of storm chasing, there emerge nine classifications of chasers according to the National Association for Storm Chasers and Spotters (NASCAS). Many storm chasers may fall into more than one category.
Researchers and/or scientists: These are individuals or groups who are from major universities or government agencies and are involved in specific research projects. Usually they have support personnel and the project is legitimate and currently active. These researchers are generally chasing storms short-term, either seasonally or on occasion. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) may be such an agency to fund teams of scientists and researchers to conduct studies about specific severe weather conditions.
Amateurs and Hobbyists: This category makes up the largest group of storm chasers. They are not in the official capacity of, for example the scientist; these people chase storms strictly for the enjoyment of the pursuit and anticipation of witnessing Mother Nature at her wildest. The majority of hobbyists, or recreational chasers as they are sometimes called, video tape or photograph their discoveries for their own records. Occasionally they sell photos or footage to help defer the cost of their hobby. Some amateurs also serve as spotters who relay important information to various authorities. These people come from all walks of life, from retired men and women to meteorologists. Most of these people chase storms in a responsible and professional manner and some have customized their vehicles for optimal experience and practicality for storm chasing.
Stunt and Drama Chasers: Unlike the hobbyists, these storm chases tend to be reckless and irresponsible. The lure of the storm is all about self-promotion and entertainment. Competition between these chasers is often enacted to see who can get the best clips to post online or who can experience the most life threatening act. Unfortunately, the media at times promotes the irresponsible behavior and falsely present these chasers as scientists or even heroes. According to the NASCAS, these chasers have negatively impacted their viewers by desensitizing them to the actual dangersCredit: Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) of storm chasing. These individuals are closely monitored by state officials and law enforcement agencies due to numerous close-call driving incidents.
Media, Editorial, and/or Artistic: Personnel of bona fide news gathering agencies make up this category. These tornado and other severe weather chasers are generally part-time or seasonal. Some of them are professional photographers, videographers or cinematographers. Often the materials gathered by these folks are used for educational, safety, scientific or news purposes. These people chase storms in a professional and responsible manner.
Spotters: These chasers are seasonal. They are usually local volunteers and they observe the weather and report any threatening weather to the proper authorities. Most of the people in this category are amateur radio operators. Spotters are generally trained, though the actually training and experience varies with each. In some areas, fire personnel and law enforcement officers are used as spotters.
Tour Guides and School Groups: During the spring severe weather season various locations throughout the United States offer storm chasing tours. For the inexperienced person who wants to chase a storm, this is a good option. Of course there is a fee charged, usually starting at about $3,000 for a legitimate tour guide; but, if it is a legitimate tour, the group is led by an experienced storm chaser. This category includes school groups as well. At times the meteorology departments of universities or smaller colleges conduct group chases. Both sanctioned and club or non-sanctioned field trips fall into this category.
Locals: There are two categories of locals. In both categories, these chasers stick to their own communities and local areas. They have little or no experience in chasing severe weather. The first category identified by NASCAS is referred to as the “Klingons.” These locals follow experienced or scientific teams without permission. They may misrepresent themselves to gain access to areas closed off or evacuated. The second category is referred to as simply “locals.” These chasers often get their target information from live television reports and go out on their own to chase the storm. Both of these categories of local chasers can impede the work and endanger the lives of the legitimate storm chasers.
Hurricane Hunters: This is a specialized team of storm chasers from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. They are comprised of the 403rd wing Air Force Reserve pilots and crew personnel and their job is to fly special planes into tropical weather and report data to the Tropical Prediction Center.
Professional: According to the NASCAS, a professional is considered a storm chaser who does it for a living year round in the capacity of a well-established occupation and background. Given this definition, professionals may exist in other categories.
Equipment Needed for Storm Chasing
The amount of equipment needed to chase a storm depends upon what categoCredit: photo by RadarSean uploaded from Wikimedia Commonsry the chaser falls into. All chasers use some type of weather monitoring device. The majority have a NOAA weather radio for this purpose. In addition, laptops, mobile phones, and portable TVs are used. Chasers also need documentation, navigational, weather instrumentation, and communication equipment.
A GPS device (or a simple map) and a set of binoculars definitely come in handy and no chaser would be without a camera. Items some neglect to consider are things such as flashlights, first aid kits, auto roadside repair kits, extra batteries and rain gear. As to be expected, the researchers and professionals carry a large amount of equipment and generally have customized vehicles to support the activity.
Risks of Chasing the Storm
It may come as a surprise, but it is not tornadoes that are the highest risk for storm chasers. The number one danger is the possibility of an auto accident. As can be imagined, the congestion that can occur around the storm can be a potential hotbed for accidents. On top of that, the attention of drivers are generally divided and they tend to exceed posted speed limits. In addition, the weather itself can cause the roads to be treacherous. Thus the potential for a vehicle accident is a higher risk than being swept up by a tornado. Lightning and hail are also more common threats to the lives of chasers than tornadoes. Perhaps it is because the tornado garners more respect that causes people to move more swiftly from its path. Experienced tornado chasers take calculated risks, but they keep safety in the forefront.
Every responsible storm chaser thinks of safety first. Chasing the storm is not nearly as important as the life of the chaser. Currently there is no agency or organization to monitor or police the activity. However, as storm chasing gains in popularity, it is perhaps only a matter of time before storm chasers must adhere to a set of written rules and guidelines.
The copyright of the article “The Lure of Storm Chasing” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.