Storm chasing: Science, thrill-seeking or tourism?


Story highlights

Most people run away from tornadoes; storm chasers drive toward them

Meteorologist: Data collected by storm chasers helps increase warning times

Droves of amateurs put scientists at risk, some longtime storm chasers say

A niche tourism industry has sprung up around storms, with chasers as guides

CNN —  

A menacing tornado churned behind Mike Eilts as the storm chaser’s truck sped away.

It seemed like the perfect escape, until Eilts realized he was barreling toward a dead end.

The team from the National Severe Storms Laboratory had two choices: one bad, and the other worse.

“The decision was either to get out of the car and jump in the farmer’s yard,” he says, “or to try and beat it.”

Driving toward the tornado was the only way out.

The truck shook as the edge of the tornado pushed it, Eilts recalls. But he floored it and somehow made it to safety.

That was more than two decades ago. But even now, the sight of the dirt swirling and the sound of screams that day are memories that remain fresh in Eilts’ mind.

It was a close call – the kind of thing Eilts says you don’t forget.

The deaths of three storm chasers in Oklahoma have sparked a surge of questions about people who drive toward tornadoes when others run away.

Who chases storms? Why do they do it? And what makes it worth the risk?

Visiting the ‘tornado zoo’

Some say storm chasing provides valuable scientific information that helps increase warning times for people in harm’s way. Some argue it’s a dangerous hobby for thousands of inexperienced onlookers searching for a thrill. But others stress that there are safe ways to chase tornadoes, a kind of tourism that one company compares to a cruise vacation.

Eilts, who once worked as a government researcher and now is the president and CEO of Oklahoma-based Weather Decision Technologies, says he’s seen both sides.

It used to be that the only people going toward tornadoes were trained scientists, he says.

These days, a different kind of sight makes Eilts turn around and head home – not the ominous funnel clouds, but throngs of drivers parked on highway shoulders trying to capture the “money shot.”

Not the ominous funnel clouds.

These days, Eilts says what he fears are car after car, parallel parked on highway shoulders, with droves of people stretching their arms into the air, trying to capture the “money shot.”

“I call it ‘tornado zoo.’ They think they can just drive up like it’s a lion on the other side of the cage,” he said. “They take a picture or video of it, not thinking that the whole thing can expand in literally seconds, a new suction spot can come out, and you have no time to react to that kind of thing.”

Martin Lisius, who’s been chasing storms since 1987, said he thinks the 1996 movie “Twister” spawned a generation of thrill-seeking storm chasers who have no idea what the real risks are.

Opinion: Why we chase storms

The 1996 film, he says, spawned a generation of storm chasers who search for thrills with no idea of the risks.

“They’re acting like they’re in a movie,” he said.

Some of them seem to be motivated by fame or fortune, he says, or maybe even the hope that their video can land on television.

For years, CNN and other national news networks have purchased tornado videos shot by freelance storm chasers. The fees can be in the hundreds of dollars and even more than $1,000 for editorially important images

Eilts said he worries about a severe storm striking potentially thousands of people stuck in traffic jams caused by storm gawkers. Already, he said, professionals have a harder time collecting data, and emergency responders struggle to reach areas that are in danger.

“I think it causes a lot of problems for scientists that are trying to do their jobs, for scientists that are trying to get sensors in the right place,” he said.

Breakdown of the storm fatalities in Oklahoma

Studying the science of storms

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that storm chasers have given valuable research to the government.

And many storm chasers say there’s serious science behind their efforts.

Probes and sensors placed directly in a tornado’s path, they say, detect things research can’t reveal from afar.

“It’s very hard to understand what’s really going on in that small area near the ground of a tornado,” Eilts says.

But observing details like wind, temperature, pressure and humidity in that area, he says, help scientists understand how and why tornadoes form, and developing warning systems that are more accurate and give people more time to take cover.

“You can’t measure it with radar. You can see things aloft. You can’t measure what’s on the ground. And so (these are) very dedicated people that have risked their lives to do that,” he said. “There’s value created by that. We understand. We’ll be able to model tornadoes better.”

When storm research started out, forecasters had no lead time to warn people that tornadoes were approaching. Now, the average lead time is 14 minutes, Eilts says. Someday, with the help of scientific research from storm chasers and others, he says, warnings might be more precise and people could have up to an hour to take cover.

Tornado tourism

Lisius now runs Tempest Tours, a company that offers storm-chasing expeditions for tourists – and a chance to photograph storms from a much closer vantage point.

“It’s like a cruise, you know,” he says. “We have a schedule. We have a departure and return. We have a port city, which we call our base city.”

These port cities don’t have ocean views. Arlington, Texas; Oklahoma City; Denver; and Phoenix are among the spots where Tempest Tours take off.

“There’s a fishing season and a hunting season. And the best time to see tornadoes for us is in the spring,” he says. “And the best places to see them are those places.”

Some chasers in the niche tourism industry that has sprung up around storms take risks. But not Tempest Tours, Lisius says.

“It’s all about education and teaching them about the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s not a thrill-seeking tour. That’s not us.”

When the storm struck El Reno, Oklahoma, last Friday, Lisius said he was leading a tour about a mile away, observing from the field with more than a dozen people.

The storm formed rapidly, and turned quickly toward the southeast – both unusual signs, he says, that showed it was time to take cover.

Lisius said it’s easier for a tour group watching a storm from afar to change course than it is for researchers.