Dispatch: Once More Unto the Breach
(Photo: Samara Fogel)*
Why Chasers Chase
For more than two decades, I have been drawn every spring to the heartland of the United States. It is there, across the tabletop landscapes of the Great Plains, that I hunt my quarry: the tornado.
I am a stormchaser. An uncommon personality fueled by a lust for Nature's most violent creation. One that is almost impossible to predict, only peripherally understood, and capable of a ferocity that cannot be truly comprehended unless experienced in-person and at close range. Placing oneself in the path of such a thing is often judged to be suicide. Chasers see it differently, though. Few chasers I know have a death wish, nor are they motivated by a reckless thirst for thrill. For most chasers, the pursuit is about a deep yearning to be near severe storms and the tornadoes they sometimes spawn—to experience the raw emotion of being so close to a natural force so powerful.
For me, and most veteran chasers, the roots of chasing grow in the soul; the fascination with storms is born to our nature. When one of my regular chase partners was very young, he remembers toddling toward the window whenever he heard a distant blast of thunder. At seven, another of my longtime chase partners taught himself how to calculate the distance of an approaching storm by counting the time between a flash of lightning and the ensuing thunder. The awakening of my own storm jones had more to do with uncommon occurrence—a tornado in, of all places, New Jersey that sawed through the street behind my childhood house (while tornadoes do occur in New Jersey, they are rare and typically weak). I was ten at the time and had, less than hour earlier, been playing baseball in the park at the end of the block, where the tornado concluded its brief rampage and dissipated—but not before tossing several large trees onto the baseball field.
My reaction to that tornado was intensely visceral. From that day, my appetite to learn about them was voracious. I wanted to know how and why they formed. I wanted to understand the weather conditions that made the area of the United States known as Tornado Alley home to more tornadoes than anywhere else in the world. Most of all, though, I wanted to see them.
Just saying the words "Tornado Alley" excited my young mind. It seemed such a mystical place, akin to Alice's Wonderland or Tolkien's Middle Earth. Traditional Tornado Alley is an area in North America's midsection, consisting of most of the northern half of Texas (including the panhandle), the western two-thirds of Oklahoma and Kansas, the eastern two-thirds of Nebraska, the eastern half of South Dakota, far eastern Colorado, and extreme eastern New Mexico, western Iowa, and south-central North Dakota.
The U.S. sees approximately 1,000 tornadoes per year, with the majority of them occurring in Tornado Alley in late spring (the south, unofficially known as Dixie Alley, also receives its fair share of tornadoes; e.g., from April 25 - 28, 2011, 358 confirmed tornadoes thrashed across Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and other parts of the southern and eastern U.S., killing 348 people and doing $11 billion USD in damage). This is, by far, more than anywhere else in the world. By comparison, Canada experiences the second highest frequency of tornadoes, about 100 annually. Other areas of the world where tornadoes occur with varying regularity include Japan, Australia, China, Bangladesh, Europe, and parts of western Asia. It is interesting to note that England—although far fewer tornadoes occur there than in the U.S.—experiences the most tornadoes in the world proportionate to its size. Rarely, however, do violent tornadoes strike the U.K. The U.S. owns the ominous distinction of consistently being home to the deadliest tornadoes on earth.
Tornadoes are the most elusive form of weather. Whimsical as it may seem, sometimes it feels as if they dare chasers to correctly forecast where they will occur and then find them. This is the draw for many chasers—the challenge of successfully tracking such an exciting unknown. Where will the storms most likely to produce a tornado form? If there are multiple storms with the potential to produce a tornado, which one represents the best chance? And further, is the storm you want to target moving into an area with a favorable road network? After all, chasers require a path to a storm, and a way to escape it. All of this is the stuff that transforms a boy with an interest in weather into an adult who spends multiple weeks, sometimes months, each year attempting to steal beneath tornado-bearing thunderstorms.
Initially, the lure is the tornado itself. The thought of seeing, hearing, and feeling earth's most powerful natural force. To be a successful chaser, to become adept at forecasting tornadoes and intercepting them, however, one must learn the science behind them. Mastering the science—the anatomy of tornadic storms and the deep forecasting knowledge required to pinpoint the optimal atmospheric conditions—must become an equal obsession. Even though the latest in mobile technology makes it possible for almost anyone to track a storm, there is no replacement for years of hard-earned knowledge and the educated instincts that come with experience. This can often mean the difference between seeing a tornado or not, and in certain cases the difference between knowing how to get close to a tornado and being killed by it.
Another virtue of the pursuit is the catharsis found in roaming the Great Plains—especially for someone like me who lives shoulder-to-shoulder in New Jersey and works in the car horn madness of New York City. When I think about my daily existence in a human mass over eight million people deep, it is easy to find beauty in the solitude of a place so open and empty. The appeal of wandering a vast, flat land is best summarized, I believe, by the title of a book by Gretel Ehrlich: The Solace of Open Spaces. For many chasers, a line of sight that vanishes at the bending horizon is a form of freedom.
Ultimately, though, the truest inspiration a chaser knows is the mystery. What will I encounter at the end of each chase day? If a tornado, what were the meteorological ingredients and storm scale influences that made it possible? For the chasers who love the hunt and not just the attention it receives, a heavy priority is placed on understanding tornadoes and the storms that create them. Each new chase becomes a case study for future reference. What did you think was going to happen? What actually did happen? Why was your forecast spot on that day? Why were you 100 miles from the closest tornadic storm on another day? The chaser who learns from every chase is the chaser who can apply that knowledge effectively to future storm pursuits.
My grandfather used to say that the only way to make sense of a child's behavior is to get to know the parents. A tornado is child to a rotating thunderstorm known as a supercell, which is the rarest, largest, and most ferocious of all thunderstorms.
In the relationship between a supercell and a tornado, the entire parent is rotating and the child is the much smaller, more concentrated offspring of that rotation. The majority of the old guard, me included, are so fascinated by the behavior of these storms that, no matter how many times we see them, our enthusiasm for documenting and understanding them never fades. Even as chasers witness the same processes repeat themselves over and over, it is never enough. We are never sated. The hunger runs so deep that during the winter months, as chasers wait impatiently for spring to arrive with its fresh possibilities for severe storms and tornadoes, we collectively suffer a condition known as SDS, or Supercell Deprivation Syndrome. Many chasers genuinely languish in the extended absence of supercells from their lives. The despondency is understandable, considering that the window to see supercells and tornadoes is so small and the wait to do so again so long. This is the reason why every spring we spend such great quantities of time, money, and energy, and exercise such obsessive precision, playing audience to a supercell's array of deadly deeds.
Scientists and Tragedy
Not all stormchasers are unfunded recreationalists. There are legitimate scientists doing crucial research to build a better understanding of supercells and tornadoes. Ultimately, the hope is to translate the accumulated knowledge into increasing advance warning times for the public. There have been numerous field projects over the years with this objective. VORTEX (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment ) One and Two were the largest of these endeavors and returned the most significant findings. Both of the VORTEX projects (One in 1994 and 1995, and Two in 2009 and 2010) consisted of a massive armada, the many moving parts of which spread out around tornadic supercells to sample the different regions of these mega-thunderstorms. Much was learned about the conditions and interactions that conspire to incite tornadogenesis, the process responsible for the formation of tornadoes. But this was only the first layer of understanding. What we do not know still far exceeds what we do. Many details remain to be discovered. For example, if there are four thunderstorms that form in relative proximity, in the same environment, why does one spawn a tornado while the other three do not? What causes some tornadoes to last longer than others? What causes a mature tornado to weaken and ultimately dissipate?
Tim Samaras was a scientist who dedicated himself to answering these questions. An engineer and inventor by trade, Tim spent 30 years studying tornadoes, tirelessly working to uncover their most arcane subtleties. His passion for his ambitions inspired Tim to found TWISTEX (Tactical Weather-Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes EXperiment ), a research project that pursued tornadoes with an absolute focus on understanding them. Recognition of the impact and value of Tim's efforts manifested itself in the 18 grants he received over the years from National Geographic as partial funding for his field work. Tim was one of tornado science's most tenacious and well-respected frontline soldiers.
During my many annual springtime wanderings across the Plains, I often ran into Tim. It wasn't unusual to see him parked on the side of a nowhere road, with a tornado in the near distance, scurrying to haul an instrument probe out of his truck. Tim's mission was to deploy his probes, which he designed and built himself, in the path of tornadoes, with the goal of measuring their internal dynamics. His greatest triumph came on June 24, 2003 near Manchester, South Dakota when he successfully placed a probe in the aim of an oncoming tornado. His probe recorded the largest drop ever in atmospheric pressure (100 hPa) in less than one minute. This achievement was significant enough to find its way into the Guinness Book of World Records, cited as the "greatest pressure drop measured in a tornado."
Then came May 31, 2013. Tim, his son Paul, and longtime chaser partner, Carl Young, were taken from us—their lives lost near El Reno, Oklahoma to a true monster among tornadoes. The ground circulation grew to a width of 2.6 miles, the widest tornado ever recorded. At the same time, the tornado also intensified to EF5 strength (on the Enhanced Fujita Scale of Tornado Damage), the highest categorical rating assigned to tornadoes. A nearby mobileRaXPolradar (Rapid-scan X-band Polarimetric Radar) measured wind speeds in the tornado in excess of 296 MPH just 500 feet above the ground.
Northeast of the tornado, the three TWISTEX members were battling through extreme wind and a dense barrage of rain and hail to position themselves for a probe deployment. When the deadly tornado took an unexpected left (northeast) turn, right at them, and accelerated to near 50 MPH, Tim, Paul, and Carl were too close and without the roads necessary to escape. It is believed that the tornado itself, or one of its intense sub-vortices, lifted their vehicle, a Chevrolet Cobalt, and hurled it nearly a half-mile. The car was rendered unrecognizable, with the engine torn from its moorings:
The deaths of Tim, Paul, and Carl represented the first time in the known history of stormchasing that chasers were killed by a tornado. It was a devastating day for the entire stormchasing community and, in the opinion of some, a day that has inflicted an unmendable wound on the chasing collective. Among active stormchasers, Tim was regarded by his peers as one of the safest and most responsible. After his death, the prevailing sentiment was: if it happened to Tim, it could happen to any of us.
Tim's death affected me deeply. For a while, I considered walking away from chasing. I realized, though, after giving it months of honest thought, that I love chasing too much to leave it. But it will never be the same for me. In part because of Tim's death. More, though, because my team could have easily suffered the same fate as Tim. A half-mile and about a minute was all that stood between us escaping and not.
That day, we were approximately 2.5 miles southwest of Tim's position on Oklahoma 81. We made what turned out to be a life-saving decision, opting to flee south just as the main part of the broad, diffuse tornado emerged beneath a low, very dark storm base about three-quarters-of-a-mile to our southwest.
We realized too late that the tornado was rapidly growing much larger and that weak tornadic winds had already begun to engulf us on Route 81. It was at this point that the tornado was beginning to make its hard hook to the northeast and increase to its maximum width and intensity. We were able to dash south just before the tornado made its dramatic transformation, which it did as it crossed Route 81 less than a mile to our north. So quickly was the tornadic wind field expanding that it reached a house on the road not far to our southwest. In the following clip (taken by a GoPro unit affixed to the top of our vehicle), you can see the house explode (right side of road) as we approach it.
Approximately a mile north of us on 81, Mike Bettes of the Weather Channel and his crew were attempting the same route of escape as us. Their location a fraction further north, however, resulted in a very different outcome. Their vehicle was picked up by a violent tornadic sub-vortex and hurled 200 yards. In the following clip, you can see the multiple vortex tornado overtaking 81 as Bettes and his crew attempt to race south out of the path.
Thanks to the vehicle’s side-curtain airbags, Bettes and the other passengers sustained only minor injuries.
We ended our flight in Lindsay, OK, where we stopped to catch our breath. I set my hands against the side of our truck and stared through my arms at the ground for several minutes. My cousin, her fifth year out on the Plains chasing with me, began to cry; never in her short chase career had she experienced anything so terrifying. Everyone around us in the large gas station, other chasers and locals alike, were wandering the parking lot, all with the same vacant expression. We had no idea at the time what had happened to Tim, and in fact did not learn he had died until two days later when his car was found and his body, still buckled inside, was identified. I came away from that day with a sobering reminder of something vital I think I had forgotten: no matter how much chasing experience, knowledge, or expertise you own, the storms still make the rules.
For the minority of stormchasers who are still drawn to the pursuit by the passion to learn, understand, and bear witness—rather than by notoriety and self-aggrandizement—the common goal remains discovery. That is, discovering a storm that deigns to do something remarkable while you are there to witness it. For my team, and all the chasers I wander the Plains with each year, this is what, in large part, compels us to push ourselves to the brink of exhaustion. Why we undertake such a grueling, expensive, and often fruitless venture, each day of which is a test of endurance and spirit.
The day begins in whatever town and whichever motel we ended up the night before. Invariably, our first order of business, before even showering or eating, is to pore over the latest weather data and generate a forecast. We rely on weather charts and a variety of forecast models to construct an idea of what the atmosphere holds in store for the afternoon and evening. Once we are satisfied that we have a handle on what is likely to occur and where, we pack the vehicle, grab a quick breakfast (if there's time), and begin rolling toward our target area. Sometimes we wake up right where we need to be, other times we have to dash to another state, covering hundreds of miles in a single day.
While in-transit, we use mobile broadband to refine the target by analyzing new data as it comes in.
(Photo: Ross Weitzberg)*
Since severe storms don't typically occur till late afternoon or early evening, many hours of a chase day are often spent waiting in a parking lot or on the side of a backcountry road . . .
. . . watching the lives of the locals pass by.
And taking time to appreciate the lonely beauty of the flatlands.
By early to mid afternoon, the story the data is telling usually becomes much easier for us to read. Sometimes the play is obvious, other times less so. We often look to the sky for a tell—the cues and hints of a churning atmosphere. Much can be discerned from the clouds stirring high above sights common to the Plains.
As late afternoon approaches and atmospheric instability reaches its peak, we keep a close eye on satellite imagery and the sky to clue us in to where the first storms of the day are most likely to form. A tell-tale sign of storm initiation is the strong vertical development of cumulus clouds. Sometimes this upward motion is sudden and explosive—in just minutes, a small, flat cumulus becomes a floating white mountain (cumulonimbus).
A fast-maturing storm looms imposingly in the distance. We have a target.
With an active storm in our sights, we do a quick map analysis. The goal is to plot the fastest route that presents the least resistance (e.g., as few towns as possible between us and the storm). En route, we closely monitor the storm on real-time Doppler radar to evaluate its health and motion.
We want to make sure that the storm we are going after is worth chasing. If the cell continues to maintain itself or, better yet, intensifies, storm motion becomes key—we must calculate the forward speed and the distance, and consider the quality of the roads available to us. The target is the supercell’s southeast inflow side. This is known as the updraft region, where the storm’s rain-free base is located and tornadoes usually form. This is not true of High Precipitation (HP) supercells, which often have no discernible rain-free base and the storm's core rotation (the mesocyclone) is enshrouded by rain. HPs are the most dangerous supercell variant as dense precipitation often obscures the tornado from view.
Once the storm’s base becomes visible, we adjust our course with the intent of positioning ourselves as close as possible. The idea is to stay out of the storm’s main region of rain and hail (known as "the core") and remain ahead of the mesocyclone. In most cases, this perspective affords the best view of a tornado in-progress or the area of the storm where a tornado is likely to form. If there is no imminent tornado threat, we often focus on taking in and photographing the unique grandeur of which only a supercell is capable—the flanges, striations, and wildly swirling cloud matter that steals breath and leaves mouths agape.
Stormchasers Keith Brown, David Fogel, and Ross Weitzberg (SF)
I am no less awed today, two decades after seeing my first supercell, by these rotating marvels. Everything about a supercell is pure atmospheric art, from the corkscrew reaching for the heavens to the bleached light that squeezes between the earth and the storm's underbelly.
Average chasers see a tornado on one out of ten chases. Skilled chasers two-to-three. Some chases end in complete busts beneath a sunny, cloudless sky. Many result in unremarkable, garden-variety thunderstorms that are uninspiring to most chasers, especially those who are distinctly tornadocentric. When, however, the right atmospheric recipe comes together, the results can be surreal.
As soon as a storm gets its act together and looks like it means business, we scurry to plant the cameras and start shooting.
A large, destructive tornado moves through Moore, OK, a heavily populated south suburb of Oklahoma City.
The strategy is to stay out ahead of the tornado—essentially in its path (I suppose this makes the moniker "stormchaser" something of a misnomer, since a chaser's intent, more or less, is to be chased). This perspective often provides the clearest view of the tornado without the obscuring effects of intervening rain and hail. Dangerous as this may seem, as long as the parent storm is not moving at excessive speeds (50+ MPH) and there are ample road options, it is not tactically difficult to stay adjacent to the tornado's path and avoid placing yourself in peril. In our intercept of the violent Moore, OK tornado of May 20, 2013, which took us through the heavily populated suburbs of a metro area, we were forced to position southeast of the tornado and allow it to pass off to our north:
As the video betrays, chasers are not without compassion. We suffer genuine conflict over our desire to observe tornadoes when they so often results in destruction of property, injury, and death. I would rather never see a tornado than watch one drill through a populated area. When I am witness to this, however, I tend to be effusive in expressing my hope that the people who live in the disintegrating houses are safe.
Chasing raises some obvious questions of morality. The most common one is: "Don't you feel guilty that your hobby revolves around hoping for natural disasters?" My response is as honest as it is unapologetic: I never root for tornadoes to do terrible destruction or kill people. If I had my way, every tornado would occur out in open land, where it would touch and hurt nothing. The bottom line, though, is that tornadoes are going to happen, whether I'm there to document them or not.
Sometimes we struggle with subjects that compete for the camera’s attention. The solution is to back out a little, making it possible to capture both storm structure and the tornado.
Tornadoes comes in all different shapes and sizes. This one, shot in southeast Colorado, is known as an "elephant’s trunk."
Tornadoes are not the only peril that seizes our concern.
At the end of a fruitful chase day, we reward ourselves with a fine dining experience beneath a sky that still belongs to the storms.
Chasing Today, Tomorrow
In the last ten years, stormchasing has suffered some inauspicious growing pains. I was once new to chasing. I am sure there were times that my inexperience and imprudent decisions incited skepticism and concern among the veterans. I also realize that all things evolve. When I started out, though, the world was a much different place. Today, we live in a vastly narcissistic age, where most people seem to believe that their every thought is important enough to share online. The newest batch of chasers, those that have started out in the last few years, have, in large part, been shaped by this condition. They have been drawn to the pursuit by an element in the chasing community that did not exist when I joined the fray.
The late 1990s saw the arrival of a renegade breed of chaser—hyperactive, screaming cowboys who are as focused on attracting attention to themselves as they are on stormchasing. They get as close as possible, seek to capture the most extreme video, and, in some special cases, actually attempt to drive into tornadoes in homemade, questionably-engineered tank-like vehicles. These gas-guzzling eyesores are the contrivance of chasers who demonstrate no regard for responsible behavior, safety, respect, or the public perception of stormchasers at large.
The newest generation of chasers strive to emulate these self-involved personalities. More and more chasers have become creatures of self-promotion with an unhealthy hunger for attention. Far from remaining true to a genuine love of storms, in many ways they have turned stormchasing into a competition to capture the ultimate mind-blowing footage—the pièce de résistance of a chaser’s personal video library. The knockout punch in a dog-eat-dog contest of one-upmanship. Discretion and subtlety are virtues of the past. You cannot be near a storm without spotting countless chase vehicles bedecked in instrumentation (much of which is non-functional and strictly for show), garish signage that advertises the occupants as stormchasers, and even flashing rack lights that are usually exclusive to emergency vehicles. This past spring I saw a particularly memorable placard that spanned the entire hatch of an SUV. It read: “Caution: Stormchaser–Stay Back At Least 300 Feet.”
It is also now common for chasers to have dash-cams aimed both outside and inside the vehicle that feed live streams to an array of host websites. This ensures that the world sees their faces and their dramatic reactions to the most intense moments of the chase. These same chasers also love to tell the camera that they are instrumental in saving lives, providing ground truth of a tornado in-progress and relaying timely tornado reports to the National Weather Service. There are still many chasers who are authentic in remaining loyal to this unspoken duty (since chasers are often first to a storm and closest to it, calling in tornado reports is a valuable public service). It seems, though, that the notion of saving lives is rather subjective. For the glamour-and-glory chasers, their image and bank accounts are of primary concern.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of videos online and shown by news outlets of frenzied chasers flipping out in front of their "selfie" cameras. This has cast chasers in an unflattering light—instead of level-headed stewards of the pursuit, the public probably wonders if they are watching escapees from the local asylum.
I have no problem with genuine expressions of enthusiasm. Spirited elation is a natural byproduct of passion. The intense excitement chasers exhibit over an inspiring storm has been coined a stormgasm. This unbridled exuberance manifests as screeches, grunts, shrieks, guttural exclamations, and often bunches of unmatchable words that are only understood by other chasers (we all speak the same language of storm ecstasy). This is not, however, the modus operandi of the cowboy chasers. They go far beyond merely gushing excitement. Their enthusiasm releases in wild, manic outbursts that imply madness more than a love of the experience. In most cases, these crazed eruptions have nothing to do with inspiration. Rather, they are expressions of pure terror; cowboy chasers often come far too close to ending up on the wrong side of tempting death.
With this brand of chaser fast becoming more the norm than the exception, it is difficult not to be concerned for the future of stormchasing. It would be melodramatic to say that the future is bleak, but there is a palpable darkness gathering. The most significant issue is the sheer number of chasers active in Chase Alley (the area of Tornado Alley preferred by chasers based on visibility, frequency of severe weather, favorable topography, the best road networks, and the fewest trees) every spring. Early in my chasing career, there were approximately 200 chasers traversing the Plains during this time. Now there are thousands. Add to that the many curious locals who, when they hear a tornado warning, get in their cars and drive toward the storm rather than get underground. This creates dangerous crowding around severe storms. Worse, a disturbing number of the offending parties have little to no knowledge of storm anatomy and the telltale behaviors that often inform the decisions an experienced chaser makes to safely navigate the immediate storm environment.
In the heart of severe weather season out on the Plains (early May into mid June), it is common to encounter traffic jams near a tornadic supercell that rival New York City on the day of a presidential visit. This occurs in rural areas where you would expect to drive miles without seeing anyone. Imagine finding yourself stuck behind hundreds of slow vehicles in the path of a fast-moving storm, with a deadly tornado tracking in your general direction. This is the current state of chasing. It has become frustrating and daunting enough that many chasers no longer plan their annual "chasecations" during the peak time for tornadoes. The crowding issue has even driven a number of veteran chasers to call it quits. If it is now impossible to avoid impenetrable crowds around tornado-bearing storms, it begs the question of whether chasing them still constitutes manageable risk.
The truth is, I do not think the risk is manageable anymore. To be fair in making that statement, not all storms attract chaser mobs and not all road networks are so limited that every chaser ends up on the same piece of pavement. Sometimes there are multiple areas of "action" with hundreds of miles between them. Sometimes there are several storms in the same region that are worth intercepting. In either scenario, the storms tend to spread chasers out and crowding becomes less of an issue. More often than not, however, chasers cannot avoid becoming ensnared in some form of bottleneck. The peril in that is considerable. Enough so that the joy I once found in chasing has been stripped away.
Yet I persist.
I’m not sure where chasing will go from here. I do know that the current dynamic cannot continue without consequences. Foremost, there will be more chasers killed by storms. While I hope I am wrong, vehicular congestion near violent storms all but guarantees future tragedies. Casualties attract scrutiny. It is not unrealistic that state and local government may soon attempt to impose regulations on stormchasers. The profusion of poor chaser behavior will only bolster the arguments of those lobbying for regulations. Chasers who break laws and act recklessly—speeding, passing long lines of traffic uphill and around curves, running other chasers off the road, setting up tripods in the middle of a highway, etc.—draw the ire of law enforcement. The more police who witness chasers endangering themselves and others, the more inclined they are going to be to crack down on all chasers, even those who obey the law and conduct themselves responsibly.
There is another repercussion of the crowding problem that is perhaps the most disturbing of all. With tensions escalating between chasers, the potential for an increase in chaser-on-chaser violence exists. In the heat of the moment, when a storm is about to do something memorable, and too many chasers are vying for too little space, tempers ignite. I have seen chasers, myself included, become so exasperated with each other that they exit their vehicles in a rage. Sometimes even leading with their fists.
This past spring, in Nebraska, we arrived to a storm on a state highway saturated with chasers. We spotted a cul-de-sac farm road off the highway with an empty patch at the head of the half-circle. Only, a pick-up truck filled with chasers had parked lengthwise across the cul-de-sac’s entrance, claiming the entire road for themselves. I stepped from our vehicle and approached the pick-up with one of my chase partners. We asked politely if they wouldn’t mind allowing us by so we could park on the road’s unoccupied purchase. One of them, perched in the bed of the pick-up, informed us that they were there first and that we would be wise to just move along. The combination of unrepentant hubris and the challenge written on the guy’s face elicited reactionary anger in my chase partner and me. In the space of a few seconds, the confrontation escalated toward becoming physical. Had the storm we were all there to watch not hurled a CG stroke (cloud-to-ground lightning strike) harrowingly close to our location, I am confident the heated exchange would have led to blows. Instead, we all dove for the ground, a perfect distraction from a dispute about to turn ugly. It was as if that stab of lightning was a warning; the storm was not going to tolerate such acrimony between chasers.
Ridiculous as the notion may be, it seems that the Plains are no longer big enough for all of us. With the number of chasers increasing every year, the problems are only going to grow worse. Much as I wish I had the power to stop the bad seeds and the damage they are doing to chasing, there is nothing I can do to control or change their toxic behavior (what I should not do is allow myself to be lured into pointless altercations). The only control I have is over my own actions and my commitment to being a respectful, responsible, and safe chaser.
Although chasing for me is not what it once was, it is still a big part of who I am. I could never walk away from it, because I know I would look back. Chasing has deep roots in me. There is something about standing so small in the shadow of a supercell, or close enough to a tornado to hear its waterfall rush, that is the lifeblood of a beating heart, and a reminder of the virtue in being utterly humbled. This is why, in the Spring, the Great Plains is my home. I have to be there. For the love of the chase.
May 15, 2014
*Copyrights are held by Samara Fogel and Ross Weitzberg. Photographs used with permission.
For more than two decades, veteran stormchaser David Fogel has hunted severe weather across the Great Plains of the United States, also known as “Tornado Alley.” Every spring, Fogel spends a month forecasting, tracking, and documenting violent thunderstorms and the weather extremes associated with them. He lives in New Jersey and works in New York City as a writer/editor.
Samara Fogel is an avid hobby photographer, specializing in storm photography and landscapes. In 2009, when Fogel stormchased for the first time, she discovered that her lifelong love of photography had a found its perfect match in her new love for observing severe weather. She has been shooting storms and tornadoes ever since, photographing numerous major tornado events in her first six years as a stormchaser. Samara lives in Montclair, New Jersey. Her catalogue of photography can be viewed at: www.samarafogelphotography.com.
Ross Weitzberg has followed his passion for stormchasing and photography for 15 years. He is based in Los Angeles, where he owns and operates an exhibit design company. You can see more photography by Weitzberg at his website: www.rosseliotphotography.com.