While most people flee in terror from tornadoes, hurricanes, gale-force winds and other ferocious forms of weather, storm chasers happily plunge themselves directly into Mother Nature's treacherous pathways. Not only do they do this for the adrenaline rush and their quest for knowledge, but for the advancement of atmosphere-related science, through the use of both simple and sophisticated equipment.
The 1996 movie, "Twister," raised public awareness about storm chasers but was rife with inaccurate sensationalism. The characters, portrayed as obsessive and competitive, devote an entire day and night to perilously and recklessly pursuing enormous and fierce tornadoes. In reality, storm chasers – who are often trained meteorologists – may invest 12 or more monotonous hours into seeking tornadoes, and may witness the funnel clouds for only a few minutes, or mere seconds.
In 1981, one of the first tornado surveillance devices, the Totable Tornado Observatory (TOTO), was constructed by the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Little more than an oil drum replete with scientific instruments, it would be placed in an oncoming tornado's path to acquire information from outside the funnel, or even from inside the tornado. Unfortunately, TOTO was never sucked up into a tornado so that the storm's whirling insides could be observed. Another smaller variety of TOTO, the Dillo-cam, was successful in documenting tornadoes' interiors.
In the past five years, scientists have discovered more about tornadoes than they've learned in the past 50 years. Much of that knowledge can be attributed to breakthroughs in equipment used by storm chasers. However, even the most commonplace equipment – such as cell phones and laptop computers – enables communication with authorities to inform the public about the storm, so that residents can adequately prepare for it or escape from it.
If storm chasers are on a limited budget, they can still have the bare essentials of weather pursuit gear – which often constitute the basics of highly funded teams – at their disposal. When filming a documentary, crews can use a high definition video camera, or utilize several, to capture the action from various angles. Every storm chaser has an insatiable appetite for severe weather, so even solitary individuals in pursuit of a visual trophy can tote a video camera.
Digital cameras and smart phones with photographic abilities are also essential storm-chasing staples for minimalists, as well as for teams using a multitude of sophisticated equipment. These devices can often capture subtle storm details that videos overlook. And digital images can be quickly and easily uploaded to Internet sites to be used for entertainment, education or scientific study. They can also be incorporated into news and weather sites, or used for on-air broadcasts.
Cell phones, the most prevalent chaser communications devices, are necessities that allow storm chasers who are in separate vehicles to communicate with each other. These phones can also be invaluable for getting help, calling in reports, conversing with the media and being readily available if a fellow chaser encounters trouble.
In addition, storm chasers can receive National Weather Service (NWS) warnings that can give them a heads-up on storms to pursue. Conversely, storm chasers can report severe storm structure and motion to the NWS. GPS (global positioning system)-enabled cell phones and vehicles – or even a good map – are essential, since storm chasers must often travel very long distances into unfamiliar territory.
Laptops – another storm chaser staple – can receive up-to-the-minute weather information, so that storm chasers can be alerted to their next quest. These portable powerhouses can provide weather maps, in addition to analyzing and displaying data such as wind speed and temperature. In the late 90s, the Internet experienced a boom in weather data and free weather software, as well as the emergence of GPS for civilians. Along with all of these advancements, GPS units could now connect to computers, which greatly assisted storm chasers in the field, and freed them from relying on nowcasting – short-range weather forecasts with a restricted geographic radius.
The next huge technological development was a system based on XM Satellite Radio and Baron Services weather software. It deviated from preexisting cell phone services because there were no dead spots, so storm chasers in the most distant realms still received a live data feed. Next came the Spotter Network, utilizing GPS information to map – in real time – the positions of chasers and spotters. It also permitted observers to report noteworthy weather, in addition to possessing geographic information systems (GIS) layering for such things as navigation maps and weather products.
As technology continues to advance, so has storm chasing equipment. In addition to cameras – or in place of them – crews often operate dashboard-mounted webcams to document violent weather via live streaming video. This satisfies the escalating hunger of a reality show-obsessed public to experience real-time, raw depictions of treacherous, terrifying storms from the safety of home. More importantly, these live images are crucial for use by the media, NWS meteorologists and emergency personnel.
An indispensable tool for serious storm chasers is the Doppler On Wheels (DOW). Mounted on the back of a truck, it utilizes the same Doppler radar technology as the weather maps seen on television. This specialized form of radar uses the Doppler effect to detect the motion and intensity of twisters, providing chasers with instant information regarding them. In 1999, a Doppler truck in Oklahoma documented a record-breaking tornado speed of 318 miles per hour. Many tornadoes whirl at speeds only slightly slower than this, and winds of such velocity pack as much energy as a nuclear weapon.
Storm chaser teams sometimes utilize radiosondes, whose name is derived from a combination of the word "radio" with the French "sonde" or "probe." They're instrument packages, taken aloft by a large balloon, that collect and transmit meteorological information pertaining to tornadoes. These weather balloons escalate through the atmosphere, documenting air pressure, wind direction and velocity, and temperature information.
Computing and transmitting this multitude of data in real time, there are approximately 800 radiosonde deployment stations worldwide. The ultimate goal is to release a radiosonde directly into a tornado to better understand and predict the twister's activity.
Some tornado chasing enthusiasts use possibly the most remarkable types of equipment – the TIV2, or Tornado Intercept Vehicle, and the Dominator 2 – formidably customized vehicles that look like a fusion of a tank, an armored car, and a futuristic "Road Warrior"-type vehicle. Before they were modified, the TIV2 was a Dodge Ram 3500 truck, and the Dominator 2 was a GMC Yukon XL. In order to deflect dangerous airborne debris, both vehicles are outfitted with an exterior made from bulletproof sheet metal and thick plate glass that's often used in race cars.
To combat high winds that could topple them, the Dominator 2 weighs in at four tons, and the TIV2 at seven and one-half tons. As extra insurance against intense winds finding their way under the vehicles and flipping them, the Dominator 2 has a hydraulic suspension system that lowers it to the ground, and has spikes that anchor it in place. With a higher ground clearance, the TIV2 incorporates armored panels that slide down to the ground, shielding the TIV2's underside from overwhelming air assaults. The dashboards of both vehicles are wired with an abundance of electronic gadgets, including communications gear and weather analysis equipment.
After the horrific losses of homes, businesses and lives caused by enormous multiple tornadoes that slammed through Oklahoma this year, the need for storm chasers is more profound than ever. With continual advances in technology, open communication with disaster officials and their own ever-increasing knowledge and selfless bravery, storm chasers may hold the keys to unlocking the mysteries of these storms and their interception or prevention.