In 1996, Universal Pictures brought us something incredible – Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt chasing (or more appropriately, being chased by) CGI tornadoes while moping around in a terrible B-plot love triangle. That movie, of course, was Twister. The film followed a rag-tag group of so-called ‘storm chasers’ racing around the central plains of the United States in order to gather data on nature’s most violent phenomenon, tornadoes. Despite the massive scientific inaccuracies present in the film, Twister did achieve one thing – raising the profile of the practice of storm chasing as both a hobby for adrenaline junkies and a legitimate scientific endeavour.
I’ve been fascinated by the weather for as long as I can remember, severe weather in particular. There’s just something about a thunderstorm – the flashes of lightning, the deafening crackle of thunder, the brutal winds and rain, the fact that chunks of ice come cascading out the sky – that are without a doubt one of the few ways that we can truly experience the power of nature. Then of course, there are tornadoes; the most powerful winds on Earth, capable of reaching nearly 500 kilometres per hour. They are also an incredibly destructive force, capable of leveling entire communities.
I blame my interest in storm chasing on two factors – Twister, and the disaster of July 31st, 1987 here in Edmonton. Although I wasn’t born until four years later, it was an important part of city history that I found very interesting. The tornado that day was unusual, at least for this part of the world, reaching F4 intensity with winds of 416 kilometres per hour and lasting for over an hour. The storm devastated the east side of Edmonton, killing 27 people, injuring over 300, and causing over half a billion dollars in damage (adjusted for inflation as of 2012).
While not unique to North America, the vast majority of tornadoes occur here. The United States suffers the most by far, often recording well over 1000 tornadoes per year. Canada has the second most tornadoes in the world, averaging about 100 per year. Despite the fact that tornadoes are fairly common in North America, they remain largely an enigma in atmospheric science. While advances in weather radar has allowed for significant progress to be made in tornado research, there is still a need for data to be collected in the field – which is difficult when the object of interest is capable of removing a building from its foundation simply by passing over it. This is where storm chasing comes in.
I am by no means an adrenaline junkie – I didn’t ride my first roller coaster until I was 17 and spent the time in the line trying not to vomit – but I always wanted to go storm chasing, to experience a tornado. In my first year at the University of Alberta I finally got that chance. I’m a Political Science major, tucked safely away in the Faculty of Arts, far away from anything ‘science-y’. We’re scared of it. It’s complicated and uses formulas and math and stuff. Even though I was an Arts student, I decided to sign up with the University of Alberta Atmospheric Science Students group, after reading that they were planning a trip to the U.S. central plains that May. For those who don’t know, that part of the U.S. is known as “Tornado Alley”, and sees by far the most tornadoes out of any region on the planet. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
After more than a few planning meetings (with mandatory viewings of Twister) we headed down south in May 2010. First of all, storm chasing involves a lot of driving. It’s about a seven hour drive to the U.S. border from Edmonton (not counting a necessary stop at Peter’s Drive-In in Calgary). We pushed even further, reaching Billings, Montana on the first night – over thirteen hours of driving. The next day we reached Boulder, Colorado, after about ten more hours of driving. Another issue with storm chasing is that it is of course, completely dependent on there being storms. With no stormy weather in sight, we ended up staying in Boulder for a few days.
Boulder is home to the Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, an institute funded through the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the National Science Foundation. Perched above Boulder on a plateau alongside the Rocky Mountains, the Mesa Laboratory is one of the most important centres of atmospheric and climate research. The picturesque laboratory is home to a vast array of supercomputers, which are primary used to generate climate and weather models, which form the basis of modern forecasting. The Bluefire supercomputers, pictured below, are individually capable of a processing speed of about 76.4 teraflops and have 12 terabytes of memory. When combined in the array, you’ve got a whole lot of processing power – enough to generate models of one of the most complex natural systems in existence – the weather.
Weather models are central to storm chasing. They provide enormous amounts of data, giving you an idea of what not only tomorrow’s weather will look like, but also next Friday’s (granted, accuracy drops off precipitously looking more than one or two days into the future). TwisterData.com is the amateur meteorologist’s go-to place for model data, providing information on things like temperature, wind speed, and precipitation. For storm chasers, particularly those interested in tornadoes, there are two main data points to look at – CAPE and wind shear. CAPE stands for “convective available potential energy”, which is essentially how much ‘juice’ there is in the atmosphere for a storm. Wind shear is vital to tornadic development as well – it provides the ‘spin’ that causes the thunderstorm to rotate. It’s that rotation of the overall storm that can eventually focus down into a narrow, rapidly rotating column of air – a tornado.
After we left Boulder, we traveled across Kansas and Oklahoma, eventually reaching our target of Norman, Oklahoma, a suburb just south of Oklahoma City, home to the University of Oklahoma. OU is well-known for its meteorology program; not surprising, given the fact that Oklahoma is in the heart of Tornado Alley. On OU’s campus is the National Weather Center, which serves as both an educational institute for meteorology students and as a functioning office for the National Weather Service.
Finally, storms began to fire. Late April and early May is the peak time for tornadoes in the central plains, so we were right on time. We first chased a nocturnal thunderstorm in Kansas, but failed to see anything other than an amazing lightshow from our motel on the Interstate. However, things were brewing in the atmosphere, and we soon found ourselves looking at a significant tornado outbreak across Oklahoma. We set up in a small town in northern Oklahoma named Kingfisher, and waited. By early afternoon, the radar maps began to explode. Weather warnings popped up across the map as the storms began to rotate and funnel clouds began to drop. The National Weather Service placed most of Oklahoma under a “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch, meaning that there is a high chance of a major tornado outbreak with strong tornadoes.
We set off after a storm that blew up and rapidly intensified just north of us. Soon enough, the storm became tornado-warned, meaning that the storm was likely producing a tornado or one was imminent. The storm was moving too fast for us to catch it, but we did manage to get in a good position just behind it. We were parked on a dirt road on a hill, looking into the black, violent core of the thunderstorm. In the distance, a level of low cloud was rapidly rotating, and a small funnel began to drop down from the black clouds above. The winds were intense, and they were being sucking into the storm, not away from it. It was a surreal experience. I was in Oklahoma, in the midst of a tornado outbreak, the winds roaring around me, looking at a funnel cloud in the distance.
And now for the anti-climatic part. The funnel cloud dissipated without touching the ground, and the storm quickly weakened. We tried to chase a few more, but they were all moving too fast for us to catch up. Storm chasing is filled with disappointment – only a handful of thunderstorms will ever produce a tornado, and placing yourself in the right spot at the right time can be exceedingly hard to do. Over 60 tornadoes were reported that day, including a number of powerful ones in the Norman area, where we had just been a few days before, including one just across the street from the National Weather Center that we visited, as seen in this video.
Storm chasing is an intense experience, and one that I’ll never forget. While we didn’t see a tornado on the trip, I wasn’t disappointed. Although I went storm chasing because of my fascination with the weather, I’ll reiterate that a significant amount of serious science is done by storm chasers, which allows us to gain a better understanding of nature’s most destructive force, and as such improve warning times for communities that may be threatened like Edmonton was in 1987. Storm chasing is also inherently dangerous, so do not do it without any experience or knowledge of severe weather – I was lucky since I was with a group of Atmospheric Science students. Keep your eyes on the skies and stay safe!
Graeme Archibald is a fourth-year Political Science student who enjoys science and the weather. Ask him for a forecast on Twitter at @gajarchibald and he’ll give it to you, though it’ll probably be wrong.