Weather watchers know that there’s nothing like seeing a fascinating storm first-hand. Storm chasers take that fascination a step further. For them, it’s not enough to wait for a strong storm to come to them. They’ve got to go out there and chase it themselves.
However, there’s a reason severe thunderstorm warnings, tornado warnings and hurricane warnings are issued. These storms aren’t safe. All good storm chasers try to mitigate the risks of chasing a deadly storm, but there’s still always going to be a risk. Even the best, most careful, storm chasers can be killed by the storms they love. Everyone knows that the risk is real. So what’s the draw that keeps bringing these storm chasers back again and again?
Lots of storm chasers see their mission as providing up-to-the-minute information about the storms they chase. That kind of information’s always valuable, especially if the storm chaser is also a certified weather spotter.
However, there’s information and there’s information. A lot of storm chasers come from local TV stations. Sure, they’re looking for the story, but they’re mostly looking for great footage, the kind that keeps you from switching channels to a rival network. There’re only about a hundred hard-core tornado chasers out there, but after you add in media and tourists, it goes up to over a thousand!
Tornadoes make the kind of pictures that keep people coming back. Many storm chasers are driven by the desire to get the best tornado and storm pictures they can. Some people are looking to capture the awesomeness. A lot of people are looking to sell good pictures or video clips. And some just love the art of the storm.
Some storm chasers work on research projects. Those kinds of storm chasers usually work together with a local university or government. They’ve got all kinds of custom-built equipment, and you wouldn’t believe the extremes they sometimes have to go to to try to find some of that equipment again!
Still, there are really not a lot of storm chasers who do serious research. Most storm chasers have a barometer, a portable Doppler radar system or uplink and a few camcorders, and call that research. They’ll send spotter data to the local weather service, but that’s about it.
But there are also other kinds of storm education. In the words of Mark Sudduth, a veteran hurricane chaser and educator, “I guess since seeing is believing that we have to do something to further convince people of how bad storm surge can be.” He specializes in chasing hurricanes to set up webcams and other instrumentation in their path, so that people can see directly what a hurricane is all about. That way, they’ll have an educated idea what to expect and they’ll be able to prepare for it properly.
A lot of local people respect that kind of attitude, backed by that kind of experience. When Sudduth turned up in Belmar, New Jersey, just before Hurricane Sandy made the turn inland, the local people who knew him quickly made sure that he’d meet with Governor Chris Christie. Everyone recognized that his experience made Sudduth the local expert on what a hurricane or extratropical storm really means on the ground.
Like Sudduth, a lot of storm chasers are careful to respect the feelings of the people who were just hit by the tornado or hurricane they went chasing. Unfortunately, some aren’t. That’s where you get the tours gawking over the shattered remains of people’s lives. Is that really the kind of person you want to be? If you don’t live in tornado country and you want to go tornado chasing, look for a reputable company that’s upfront about their ethics.
A lot of people chase tornadoes to “have fun and enjoy the travels.” That’s the kind of attitude that keeps professional storm chasing companies in business. Seeing a tornado from close up (but still a safe distance away) is one of those life experiences you’ll never, ever forget.
A different spin on the fun is thrillseeking. That’s where it starts to get really dangerous. A professional company will play it safe and be respectful of the locals and of the other drivers in the area. However, there’s something about storms (and, sure, the money you can earn for a good video) that makes all kinds of people into temporary stormchasers and thrillseekers, sometimes making them just plain reckless. When a lot of these people start going after the same storms, it turns into a chase crowd that’s as likely to cause accidents as get good pictures. Sooner or later, someone's going to get killed in a car accident because of that kind of behaviour.
If you want a small, safe taste of the thrill, why not check out the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers online game? It’s a lot of the fun, with none of the risk.