Adventures of a storm chaser.
Did you ever plunge down a roller coaster? Heart pounding, you're filled with joy, fear, and overpowering excitement. That is how storm chasers feel when they spot a funnel cloud. Storm chasers devote their lives to the study of thunderstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes. They are trying to save lives and property loss. These costs can run into millions of dollars.
One storm chaser told us about one of his scariest chases that took place in Texas. The area had been hit with an outbreak of tornadoes. A team mapped out the likely strike areas. Each driver had an assigned position to reach for the afternoon outbreak.
The storm chaser had other passengers in his car. These included a computer/weather equipment operator in the front seat and a cameraman in the back seat. As they were traveling to their assigned spot, they realized something was wrong. All of a sudden, it was dark as night. The wind was blowing 50 miles per hour. There was golf-ball-sized hail. The rain was so heavy, they couldn't see. They were inside the core of the thunderstorm. This was the most dangerous place they could be.
They stopped to get their bearings. They had lost all radio contact with the command vehicle and the Doppler radar. The team had received reports of tornadoes ahead of them coming their way. That was the last information they had.
The team inched forward. The wind was throwing debris and more hail at the car. As they cleared the worst of the rain, they were confronted with an awesome sight. Right in front of them was a 1.3-mile-wide tornado. It took up half of the horizon. The funnel was rotating faster than it was moving. It was four times as wide as it was tall. The team was only 500 feet away from the monster. They started taking pictures and videos as fast as they could.
Then their radio was restored. They sent the tornado coordinates to the lead car. The funnel was moving away from them. The team thought they were out of danger. But then, a small tornado came around and whipped right in front of them, spinning into the main tornado.
Trees and telephone poles were snapping behind them. Although they knew large tornadoes can spawn smaller satellite funnels, this was the first time this storm chaser had been between a smaller tornado and the main one.
This was the most dangerous spot the storm chaser had ever been in. The amount of energy in a strong storm like this is more powerful than an atomic bomb. Fortunately for the team, they drove out of it and were unharmed.
You can be a storm chaser without driving toward a tornado. Just use your eyes and ears and watch the sky. You can be a dedicated weather observer without even leaving your neighborhood.
illustration by Deborah C. Wright * colored by Gaurakisora Tucker