While most of the nation is watching for news of hurricane Isaac’s advance on TV and across the Internet, there’s a small cross-section of the population that is gearing up to hit the road and experience those gale-force winds firsthand. These storm chasers, as they’re called, are a rare breed. There’s danger in every extreme recreational activity, but it takes an especially adventurous spirit to attempt to stare down Mother Nature at her full fury.
There are scientific research reasons for chasing storms, but a great many storm chasers engage in the practice as a recreational pursuit. Some appreciate the unparalleled photography opportunities that inclement weather conditions offer. Others simply treasure the opportunity to witness the full might of nature’s force in person. Storm chasing is rarely a solo endeavor, so there’s typically a shared group bond driving everyone forward.
Humans have been tracking weather on the ground for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Roger Jensen made a name for himself as a storm-shooting photographer during the 1950s, though many credit a man named David K. Hoadley as the first proper storm chaser.
Hoadley first developed an interest in adverse weather conditions when his hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota was ravaged by a thunderstorm in 1956. He spent portions of the years that followed chasing storms around the midwestern United States before founding Storm Track – first as a newsletter, later as a magazine — in 1977. He had recently connected with a small community of fellow chasers, and the regular mailing served to connect them all in a pre-Internet world.
Interestingly, neither Jensen nor Hoadley engaged in the practice specifically for scientific purposes. The first known researcher to follow in their footsteps was Neil Ward, who began chasing storms in Oklahoma in 1961. This on-the-ground experience earned him a research scientist position at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in 1964, its first year of operation, and he remained there until his death in 1972.
Photo Credit: PedalFreak / Flickr.com
The actual practice of storm chasing is, in many ways, more art than science. Committed practitioners will undoubtedly want to set up a home base in a convenient location, mainly the middle region of the United States that is commonly referred to as “Tornado Alley.” Storms like Isaac are easily predicted, but spotting a tornado – the goal for most storm chasers – is generally much more difficult given how unpredictable their appearances can be.This region is also a popular locale for storm chasers because its wide-open, flat spaces offer excellent photo opportunities.
Photo Credit: twig73010 / Flickr.com
There’s no set assortment of gear that you’ll need, though most storm chasers will bring along a sturdy, all-terrain vehicle (with driver) and suitable protective wear, including goggles and hardhats to protect against flying debris. If you’re chasing storms in the pursuit of good photo opps, then you’ll also want to bring along camera equipment — still or video — preferably fitted for some degree of all-weather protection.
Communication devices and weather measurement tools are also important. While some storm chasers do what they do for personal reasons, it’s important to be socially responsible and report any findings to local weather and support services. You don’t have to be chasing a storm to be caught in one, so bring along a cellular phone at the very least, and possibly a CB or ham radio. A weather radio also isn’t a bad idea. There’s a vast range of equipment available, for recording and other purposes, so just set a budget and go with what makes the most sense.
A wide variety of resources are available online for those who would like to learn more. Self-proclaimed storm survival expert Warren Faidley maintains a great library of information and photos at stormchaser.com. Another solid resource for budding enthusiasts is StormChase.com, which maintains a library of photography, videos, and information aimed at educating the public about extreme weather conditions.
Photo Credit: SteveBrand / Flickr.com
Once you feel like you’re well-versed in the particulars of storm chasing, the next logical step is to set out on an adventure yourself. While going it with a small, hand-picked crew of your own is certainly an option, the more appealing bet for newcomers will be to sign up for a proper tour led by experienced storm chasers.
StormTours.com is one such option, with 6- and 10-day adventures typically available during the May/June months. Expect to spend more than $2,500 on the trip when all is said and done, though it’s worth noting that StormTours’ 2013 season is currently booked to capacity. There’s also Storm Chasing Adventure Tours at stormchasing.com, which offers similar pricing and timing availability. As is the case with any extreme activity, just make sure you do your research and prepare carefully for your adventure.