Storm Chasers Face the Powerful Forces of Nature

Herb Stein
University of Oklahoma
June 11, 2001

Tornadoes are actually rare in any given area, even in "tornado alley." That is why storm chasers have to log many miles in pursuit of their subject.

The window of opportunity for research is small, usually only about eight weeks a year. That is why we find ourselves taking chances on road trips even if there is only a slight chance a tornado will occur somewhere in the region.

A classic example is our one-day road trip to Des Moines, Iowa. We left Norman, Oklahoma, at dawn to intercept storms in Eastern Nebraska. As we drove north, however, the part of the storms that appeared to present the greatest risk moved eastward.

Our efforts were rewarded with one marginally interesting storm and a long drive home.

Our next road trip, in New Mexico and Texas, was four long days. New Mexico is not an area where we usually would look for tornadoes to happen. But the high terrain in the northeast corner of the state has all the ingredients for rotating storms, known as "supercells," which develop into the most powerful tornadoes.

A scarcity of roads and the prevalence of hills that blocked our radar scans posed a challenge to our ability to intercept storms that were building.

All was for naught, however, as the storm we were monitoring rotated, but did not grow into a tornado. Instead of acquiring scientific data, we got a stunning view of the beautiful storm dying beneath the sun [see photo].

Luck Left Behind

Two days later found us fighting trees in eastern Oklahoma, and the day seemed poised for an outbreak of tornadoes.

Luck—more than skill and experience—is a storm chaser's best friend on days when tornadoes seem likely to occur. On days that are ripe for tornado outbreaks, there may be several strong storms to choose from. Sometimes, deciding which one to pursue is just a coin toss.

In Oklahoma, as it turns out, luck was not on our side. The storm of the day was just beyond our reach.

Continued on Next Page >>




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