OKLAHOMA CITY – Imagine standing at the side of the road as a rope-like tornado churns across a grassy field in the distance. Or dodging baseball-sized hail and torrential rain as your vehicle skirts the dark, roiling clouds of a supercell thunderstorm.
It’s all in a day’s work for the dozen or so operators of storm chasing tours in the expanse of the Central U.S. known colloquially as “Tornado Alley.”
And it’s a dream come true for weather junkies like Brian Spencer of London, Ont., who travel thousands of kilometres for a chance to witness one of nature’s most awe-inspiring and least understood forces first-hand.
“To see [a tornado] live was miraculous, really,” said Spencer, 43. “It was absolutely phenomenal.
Every spring, hundreds of people converge on this broad swath of the Great Plains that stretches from Texas to South Dakota in hopes of hitting the twister jackpot. The odds are good. About 1,000 tornadoes touch down in the United States every year – more than anywhere else on earth – thanks to a potent brew of atmospheric instability, moisture and wind shear.
“The storms that we get here are completely unique to the world,” explained Charles Edwards, owner of Cloud 9 Tours. The Shawnee, Okla.-based meteorologist has been chasing severe weather systems since 1990, and was the first to establish a storm chasing tour company in 1996 to help pay for his pursuit.
His timing couldn’t have been better. That was the year the Hollywood blockbuster Twister hit the big screen. The movie’s action-packed, albeit distorted version of storm chasing sparked a fast-growing interest in the pastime.
Edwards now runs three two-week tours a year during prime storm season from early May to mid-June, and hosts visitors from as far away as South America, Europe and Australia.
His goal is to expose them safely to some of the most spectacular and photogenic storms that Mother Nature can muster up, and educate them about the natural forces at work.
“When people leave, they get to say they’ve experienced some good storm – whether it’s lightning, hail, great rainbows or tornadoes,” he said. “It’s something that 99 per cent of the world population does not get to see.”
On a typical day, Edwards will start early by analyzing the latest meteorological data from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. That determines whether the group will chase, reposition for potential storms the following day, or have a “down” day to visit local tourist sites.
On chase days, Edwards relies on up-to-the-minute radar images and his years of experience to hone in on a target area. Then it’s a matter of driving several hours to get in position by the time the storms start “firing,” usually in late afternoon.
If you’re lucky – as we were on several days – the atmospheric conditions will align just right and a funnel cloud will start descending. The moment it touches the ground, it becomes a tornado – and few natural sights are as fascinating or exhilarating.
“I think it’s amazing how every single one is different,” mused Tara Hilderhoff of Pickering, Ont. “It’s almost like a snowflake. No two tornadoes are the same.”
Contrary to popular belief, only one per cent of tornadoes are the super-violent, devastating EF4s and EF5s that garner mega media coverage. Most twisters are weak and last only a few minutes, and occur in vast, unpopulated stretches of open field.
In fact, the greatest danger during storm chasing is not tornadoes at all.
“Driving and traffic is actually the biggest hazard out here,” noted George Kourounis. The Toronto-based storm chaser and adventurer should know. He’s been driving and guiding with Cloud 9 Tours since 2004, and logs more than 20,000 kilometres each season.
Over the years, Kourounis has encountered massive wedge tornadoes, intense lightning shows and softball-sized hail. But safety is always a priority. He stood close as we marveled at an ominous-looking supercell near O’Neill, Neb. that sounded like thousands of billiard balls clacking together.
“Hear that constant thunder? That’s all hail. It’s all being held aloft and cracking into each other,” explained Kourounis. “It’s coming this way, though,” he added, before ushering us into the safety of the van.
Exciting, yes. But storm chasing can also be frustrating. Sometimes the storms don’t fire at all, resulting in a “bust” day. Or they’re moving too quickly to catch. Or the road system prevents you from getting into position at the right time. Either way, it’s all part of the adventure.
“By coming on the tours they get a really good immersion into the lifestyle of a storm chaser,” said Kourounis. “By showing them the beauty and the majesty of nature they can hopefully appreciate our place in it a little more.”
For those who criticize storm chasing tours as nothing more than thrill-seeking or “disaster tourism,” Kourounis is quick to point out that chasers play a vital role in tornado research, real-time warnings and even search and rescue.
“Whether we’re there or not, the storms are gonna happen. We try to be there to document the storms, to show people what the storms are capable of doing,” he said. “If we see a tornado heading for a town, we have a system in place that we can send our reports directly to the National Weather Service. That gets relayed to people on the ground in terms of a tornado warning.”
The first tornado we encountered was a massive EF5 tornado that devastated Joplin, MO.
It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. Or for those who can’t tolerate long hours on the road, a steady diet of gas station snacks and energy drinks and bedding down in a different motel every night.
And in the end, there’s no guarantee that you’ll see actually see a tornado. The two-week tour before ours didn’t see a single one.
But storm chasing can be addictive. Just ask Brian Spencer. He’s heading back to Tornado Alley this spring to experience a new round of storms – and to remind himself of the sheer power of the natural world around us.
“I like being humbled,” he admitted with a smile.
Cindy Burgess is a Toronto-based multimedia journalist.