By Vlad Alforov
Matthew Thompson hoped “the weather would look good enough.”
The OU meteorology junior from Atlanta texted Oct. 18 saying, “Sunday keeps looking better & better :)”
Thompson is one of those who do not think about staying safe in bad weather. Instead, they try to get as close to it as possible.
Two days later, on gloomy Sunday afternoon, he jumped into his sporty gray Honda Civic with a cracked front bumper.
He started the car, rang the National Weather Service, identified himself as a storm chaser and inquired about the probability of storms that night.
A voice confirmed that, yes, it would start raining in Norman and other parts of Oklahoma in a couple hours. But the same weary voice said that the Weather Service had no reason to expect any tornadoes, if that was what he was looking for.
Storm chasing, nearly native to Oklahoma, is not entirely a new thing, but the recent technological developments — including the Internet, radars and drones — are transforming the activity beyond recognition.
Thompson said thanks and hung up. “They always downplay things like this,” he said. He opened a weather map on his phone and drew a circle on the screen with his finger, right around an intimidatingly red cluster of pixels.
“You see,” he said, “it’s looking very good.”
Thompson’s Civic sharply pulled out from the parking lot and rushed toward Holdenville, Oklahoma. During the two-hour ride, he explained his reasons to chase severe weather.
Thompson had family in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina happened, he said.
“After seeing the … force of destruction left behind,” Thompson said, “I had a new goal in mind: to give people enough time to take action and get to safety.”
At age 8 he started looking more into weather: why certain systems act a certain way and what influenced them.
Now Thompson, 21, does some storm chasing “on the side,” he said. OU’s School of Meteorology does not directly encourage chasing, but it cannot ban it either, since one of the school’s main goals is to educate students to forecast weather.
“The University of Oklahoma’s College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences does not condone or encourage storm chasing by students,” according to the school’s official policy. “Storm chasing is not part of the School of Meteorology course curriculum nor should such activities take precedence over … coursework and attending classes and seminars.”
There are two types of chasers, Thompson said as the first peals of thunder rolled out.
The first type do it for science. They seek to gather data that will further scientific understanding of which storms produce tornadoes and why.
Those who get close enough to a developing tornado with the necessary scientific tools have a shot at what chasers call “ground truth” — information provided by direct observation and situational awareness.
“Any type of point observations like that,” said Dylan Reif, OU meteorology doctoral student, “especially when shared with the (National) Weather Service in real time, are very helpful.” The Weather Service can use such reports to issue weather warnings.
The second type of chasers do it as a hobby. They are lured into chasing by its extreme appearance.
“A lot of people will get in over their heads,” Thompson said as the Civic approached Holdenville. “They’ll see something on the news and be like, ‘Oh, there’s going to be a tornado today, I don’t know anything about weather but it would be cool to see one’.”
That puts a bad reputation on more experienced chasers, Thompson said. “Some of them drive carelessly and even spread fake storm reports.”
The presence of rogue, sensationalist chasers is not a new phenomenon. The U.S. Code has a whole section on false weather reports, making them a federal offense punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment of up to 90 days.
Such behavior can be extremely dangerous, especially if the chasers are not trained in reading weather models and radar. They are not only putting themselves at risk but also everyone around them.
Thompson knew how to read those models. As he drove, he kept zooming the map in and out, drawing circles around purple and red pixels and deciding on an optimal route to get ahead of the storm.
Reportedly, the most dangerous part of storm chasing is not the weather. It’s driving.
There are 15 recorded fatalities in the history of storm chasing, according to a thread from Stormtrack.org. Only three of them are believed to have been caused by weather and not human behavior.
Thompson reached Holdenville after sunset, but before it got hit by a storm. He parked his car in an empty church parking lot and waited.
Several minutes later, the Civic was rain-wrapped. The wind was so strong that it looked as if the water was flowing not from top to bottom, but from right to left.
Then the whole parking lot was lit up by an unnaturally blue flare.
“Power is out,” Thompson yelled.
Although the rain was strong enough to muffle the screams of police sirens, their flashes could be seen disappearing in the direction of the exploded power lines.
Then everything went quiet. The storm had moved on.
Thompson tried to check for more storms in the area, but cell service had dropped out. He pulled the car out of the parking lot and darted after the police cars.
At the nearest intersection, Thompson had to avoid driving into big pieces of wood scattered across the road. They used to be the power pole that he saw exploding.
Academia that chased first
Storm chasing is not all about sporadic driving in search of thrills and chills. Its fundamental purpose has always been science.
OU School of Meteorology has approximately 250 undergraduate and 85 graduate students, making the school the largest meteorology program in the nation, according to the OU School of Meteorology website.
“The University of Oklahoma is the number one school in the nation for meteorology,” Thompson said. “Both National Weather Service and National Weather Center are here, too.”
Michael Biggerstaff, one of the more experienced professors at the OU School of Meteorology, is also the director of the Shared Mobile Atmospheric Research and Teaching radar program — a collaboration between OU and the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
“Storm chasing … envisions people crowding in a car, chasing after storms and potentially driving through hail and floods to get a glimpse of a tornado,” Biggerstaff said. “That’s not really what I do.”
He calls his field work “storm intercepts” because it implies that his team really knows what is going on.
“We’re trying to get the instrumentation out in a field ahead of the storm and allow it to come over our area, so we can collect the measurements that we need to test scientific hypotheses on how tornadoes are formed.”
Biggerstaff recalls that the first time he got involved with storm chasing must have been during his first graduate student field campaign, around 1985. Back then, the radars they used were deployed and stayed put.
“We didn’t really go moving around trying to find (storms),” Biggerstaff said. “We just set up a network of observing systems and let the storms come to us.”
While working at Texas A&M, where they had a 10-cm Dopler radar on top of the meteorology building, Biggerstaff again had to wait for the storms to come to him.
“It’s so frustrating, you see storms at the distance and think, all right, come on,” Biggerstaff said. But most of those storms would die or move in other directions.
The frustration drove Biggerstaff to consider the need for mobile radars — the need to go after the storms.
In 1997, OU, National Severe Storms Laboratory, Texas A&M and Texas Tech jointly turned two decommissioned 1974 weather surveillance radars into mobile weather radars designed “for storm-scale research and to enhance graduate and undergraduate education in radar meteorology,” according to the project report written by Biggerstaff.
It took years to build the first SMART radar. Its first deployment was in 2001, for a NASA project studying tropical thunderstorms in the Florida Keys.
The team wound up deploying their radar to collect 12 hours of continuous coverage during the landfall of Tropical Storm Gabrielle on Sept. 14, 2001, according to the report.
With this type of C-band weather radars, Biggerstaff said, researches study not only tornadoes and hurricanes but also lightning and other severe weather.
Despite the apparent contrast in expertise, Biggerstaff and Thompson have similar takes on unethical storm chasing.
Biggestaff said that while out chasing on a federally-funded research project he once had to slam his brakes when an armada of chasers ignored a stop sign on a side road intersecting his highway.
“I’m in a $2-million vehicle that will take me six or seven years to rebuild,” Biggerstaff said, “and they are not thinking about that — they just see a tornadic storm and trying to get to it.”
He added that researchers like him spend considerable amounts of taxpayers’ money and years of planning to do their work.
“With modern technology, if you are finding that you have to break the rules of the road to try to get in position, you are a terrible forecaster, flat out.”
Data sets are available online in real time, which gives anyone enough time to find storms in their area and get in the best position for observation and data collection in advance, without a need to act illegally.
“With 146 tornadoes confirmed (as of Oct. 30), 2019 holds the record for the most Oklahoma tornadoes in a year,” according to the official NWC Norman tweet.
“There are plenty of other storms out there,” Biggerstaff said. “Why risk your life for one of them?”
Future of storm chasing
As weather patterns continue to shift due to climate change, the need for storm chasing will increase. Chasing, being a relatively young industry, will keep evolving and transforming.
“We can’t really control how powerful the weather’s going to get down the road, but hopefully we can (control) how much time we give people to prepare,” Thompson said.
Biggerstaff said that social media will play a crucial role in the development of storm chasing. In fact, they already do.
Many chasers stream their observations live or make recordings to share later. Regardless of their motivations, they essentially provide valuable ground truth insights to the community for free.
However, other chasers attempt to capitalize on their adventures.
In Thompson’s opinion, the most viable way to monetize your chasing is to sell the footage to media brokers, who charge a percentage to deliver your videos and data to news sources.
He plans to continue chasing after college, but his main job, he said, will be forecasting severe weather outbreaks at the Storm Prediction Center. Alternatively, he considers working for the Weather Service as a warning coordination meteorologist.
“It’s hard to make (chasing) a full-time job,” Thompson said.
“It can be done; it’s been done, but the market is already (getting saturated,)” Biggerstaff said.
Apart from news features,TV shows and documentaries about chasing, the industry has seen a rise in commercial tornado chasing tours.
Stormchasing.com, for instance, offers six-day “storm chasing adventure tours” for $2,200. Their June 7 – 12, 2020, trip based out of Denver is already sold out.
No information about governmental regulation or certification of storm chasing tours was found on stormchasing.com.
“The benefit of those is that it reduces the number of (chasing) cars on the road,” Reif said. “Plus, the drivers of those vans are usually the more experienced chasers.”
The public enjoys being in the heat of the moment, Biggerstaff said. Tornadoes are dangerous and frightful, yet they are mesmerizing and newsworthy.
Although the money to be made off tornadoes is limited, its “scientific value never ends,” Biggerstaff said. Even six months after the tornadic event, meteorologists will be able to use the gathered materials for research.
Biggerstaff said he hopes as social media continue to grow more chasers will make their videos of tornadoes available to the scientific community by putting them on social media for free.
In addition to making social media possible in the first place, technology may soon have another unintended consequence on the storm chasing community.
“Insurance companies and storm chasers usually aren’t the best of friends,” Thompson said.
Many chasers do not think twice before heading their vehicles into devastating storms. They take pride in hail dents on their car.
They will see it as a trophy, a story to tell to others.
As of now, you can storm chase without the insurance industry knowing about it, unless you drive recklessly, Biggerstaff said.
“I suspect that it won’t be too many more years before the insurance industry lobbies the Congress to pass laws making it a requirement that all cars have monitors that report (the speed) and GPS location,” he said.
But developing technologies will make chasers’ lives easier, too.
“I think in the future you’re going to see maybe an opportunity there for people who are pilots of unmanned aircraft,” Biggerstaff said. He predicts that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will gradually relax its policies enforcing and limiting the commercial use of drones.
“Drone usage … can give us a perspective on tornadoes that we usually don’t see,” Reif said. He also said that some research drones are already used in investigations of meteorological phenomena.
In spring 2019, the Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells (TORUS) field project studied temperature and wind profiles ahead of storms. The project is an ongoing partnership between OU, CU Boulder, Texas Tech, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the National Severe Storms Laboratory, according to the CU Boulder webpage.
“Drones are a critical component of the project because they sense data from inside the storm,” according to the webpage. In this way, the scientists gain access to regions of the storm that are too dangerous for people.
As a result, we are now able to see and analyze more storms than ever.
“Storm chasing will never go away because people are so excited about the opportunity to see Mother Nature, particularly the powerful aspects of (it,)” Biggerstaff said.