Storm Chasers: A Close-Up View of the High-Stakes Job

storm chasers

We talked with pro storm chasers about one of the most exhilarating and dangerous jobs in the world.

Storm chasers. They don’t curl up on the couch and wait for a storm to pass or head for the basement when a twister’s coming; they jump up and get outside, excited to witness what Mother Nature has cooked up. Storm chasing isn’t a modern-day phenomenon. In 1755 Benjamin Franklin chased a tornado on horseback, according to the American Meteorological Society. Storm chasers may seek out hurricanes, lightning and hail, but the main objective appears to be witnessing tornadoes. They can happen anywhere if the conditions are right, but living in or near Tornado Alley, which encompasses eastern South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas and eastern Colorado, is ideal to catch supercell thunderstorms, which often produce violent (EF-2 or greater) tornadoes. Even with the destructive nature of severe weather storms, they’re inexplicably exciting to behold. KFOR storm tracker Mike Scantlin and Ben Holcomb, of the Oklahoma School of Meteorology, have proven that for Crixeo by sharing their insight from years of experience as storm chasers.

Into the Storm without Hesitation

At seven years old, Scantlin moved to Oklahoma and was not a fan of stormy weather. That changed after a “couple good porch chases” with his cousin. On his eighth birthday, Scantlin received a “gigantic” VHS video camera so he could film storms — from his bicycle! “God, I miss that feeling!” he said of his childhood storm chasing. It wasn’t until 2003 that Scantlin began “real” storm chasing in northeast Oklahoma, but it took four years before he saw a tornado. It was well worth the wait, he said. Scantlin loves all types of weather, having chased everything from dust devils to blizzards. “Experiencing extreme weather is what it’s all about,” he said, but he admits that “tornadoes are the holy grail” and that he loves hurricanes too.

The draw of storm chasing is getting to experience “such powerful phenomenon firsthand,” Scantlin said. “Wind so strong you can’t stand up, the sound of a softball-sized hailstone smashing the roof of your truck, or being so close to a tornado that you can feel the ground rumbling. There are no words to describe that kind of power.” One such indescribable moment happened in 2014 during a twister in Nebraska. He said being close to something so powerful and potentially destructive is awesome. “It’s amazing enough that my entire life revolves around doing everything possible to relive that experience over and over.”

storm chasers

The rotating updraft from a storm in New Mexico. Shot with a GoPro by Mike Scantlin

Holcomb, who thinks “tornado chaser” is what he should probably call himself, said his number-one supercell occurred in Bowdle, South Dakota (and it was hungry). “That storm dropped many tornadoes and even ate a box of Gushers fruit snacks from the vehicle we were in. We were sitting there as the tornado touched down about three-quarters of a mile away with the [SUV’s] tailgate…open, and the inflow winds somehow caught [the] box of Gushers and the storm ‘ate’ them as they flew away, never to be seen again.” His story brings to mind the sensor balls in Twister that were deployed into a tornado funnel, although fruit snacks won’t provide scientific readings. Holcomb estimates there were 10-plus tornadoes that day. “Great day and amazing storm! I have yet to see one as truly magnificent as that.”

storm chasers

A tornado in Bradshaw, Nebraska, captured by Ben Holcomb

A Dangerous, Emotional Profession

You can see a storm coming and make assumptions as to what it may do, but you can never really know. And more often than anyone would like, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc., cause tremendous destruction. Scantlin has feared for his life “too many times to count” since “being so close to tornadoes is extremely dangerous, even for seasoned, veteran expert storm chasers.” It can also take an emotional toll. “Everyone handles this sort of thing differently, but I have definitely been affected by the things I have seen,” Scantlin said. “I’ve seen the worst thing that happens on Earth. A lot of us have.” The destruction these “beautiful monsters” can cause only emphasizes how important timely warnings are, he said. Some storm chasers assist weather service agencies by setting probes and sensors, for example, in a tornado’s path. The data acquired is used to issue warnings to nearby communities.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average lead time for tornado warnings is 13 minutes. These warnings do save lives, but they can’t stop a tornado from wreaking havoc. Scantlin urges storm chasers to “do the right thing” for victims. “Every second counts in the moments after a tornado. There will be plenty of other tornadoes to chase, and someone may need your help.” Historically, the weather event is what causes injury and even death to those in its path, but there’s an unfortunate new reality facing storm chasers today: the roads are getting too crowded and accidents are occurring.

The Rise of Amateur Storm Chasers

In March 2017, three storm chasers in Texas lost their lives when one of their vehicles ran a stop sign, colliding with the other. Two were veterans; they were featured on the Weather Channel’s Storm Wranglers and were live-streaming when the crash occurred. It was a tragic accident that doesn’t occur often in the storm-chasing world. But now that (nearly) everyone has a smartphone and access to social media, amateur storm chasers are growing in numbers. The traffic congestion under storms has made Scantlin consider “giving up the ‘chase everything’ lifestyle,” noting that storms chasers “really suck at driving safely. It’s not worth the risk of being run over.”

Amateur storm chasers are not professionally trained — they presumably just want the rush of witnessing a storm up close and sharing it (some even sell their footage to the media). It’s something Holcomb can surely relate to, since being an adrenaline junkie looking for adventure is what drew him to storm chasing in 2007. But he does not recommend just anyone head out to capture a storm. There are tour groups for “safe chasing,” Holcomb shared, such as Brandon Ivey’s Storm Chasing Tour and Charles Edwards’ Cloud 9 Tours. He’s even taken people with him and would not hesitate to do it again.

Scantlin has a slightly different response for newbie storm chasers: “I’m supposed to say, ‘No! Don’t do that!’ but I’m not a hypocrite.” He suggests getting outside and looking at the sky because it’s amazing, but “be sure to keep your distance, and always have an escape route.” Holcomb found the need for an escape route while in South Dakota, yet it proved problematic. He was running from tornadoes on a road that ended suddenly because a farmer had decided to plow over it and plant crops. With nowhere left to run, Holcomb had no choice but to bail into the farmer’s field.

storm chasers

Supercell over Kansas. Photo by Ben Holcomb

Storm chasing clearly isn’t for everyone, yet some people are compelled to experience the unstoppable force of a hurricane or tornado. Holcomb has driven as many as 22,000 miles in one year to witness storms, adding that for some, storm chasing is an addiction. Storm chasers are experiencing something profound and beyond comprehension to outsiders. As Scantlin remarked, “The videos and pictures just don’t do it justice.” And with that, it’s hard to ignore the desire to sign up for a tour, right? end

 

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