So if you attended my talk at Eastercon I probably answered this for a lot of you, but for those of you who were unable to make it, I wanted to answer a question I get asked a lot. How do I become a storm chaser?
On one hand it’s a pretty simple answer, but delving a bit deeper requires a more detailed explanation.
Let’s start with the basics first: It’s a bit like writing: there’s no exams, no secret initiation. If you want to be a storm chaser, then all you need to do is chase storms. Yeah, you can go and do the NWS Storm Spotter training, even if you aren’t based in the US, but it’s not required.
The more detailed answer is about safety.
Make no mistake, tornadoes kill. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend the safety element, especially in the current world where someone is always culpable and there are proper checks and measures to keep us safe. If you go on a rollercoaster, you may scream and feel like you are going to be flung off the track, but the reality is that you know that’s not going to happen. Yes, there’s a little scare that something might go wrong and that happen. That can be a turn on or a turn off.
Likewise, if you jump out of a plane with a parachute, there’s a chance the parachute won’t open. It’s a small risk but it does happen.
Chasing tornadoes is a bit like jumping out a plan with no parachute. If things go wrong, and they can do, even for the most experienced of chasers, you are on your own. I found this out when I did my spotter training. You may not know it but one of the worst myths spread by films and TV is that you should seek shelter under underpasses. Problem with that advice is that studies have shown that wind speeds actually increase from being funnelled under the pass. As a result, taking shelter there can actually increase your risk of coming to serious harm.
I’d heard some chasers say it’s far safer to jump in a ditch, but I’ve heard stories (I don’t know if they are true or not but the risk definitely exists) of people getting buried under debris and then the ditch filling with flood water. Even belting yourself into your car and hoping the rollcage will save you is no guarantee. People have been sucked out of their car and found quarter of a mile away.
Now my aim isn’t to scaremonger, or try and big up the risk. It’s to make you understand that if things go bad, there’s no safety net. There’s no spare chute, there’s no bar to pull down over your lap on the rollercoaster.
That said, if you are careful and know what you are doing, you can chase storms relatively safely. Some people will see a supercell or storm front and believe that any part of it can put down a tornado. If you take time to learn the science, you’ll know where to look for the wall cloud, you’ll know to look for rotation.
But it’s one thing to watch youtube videos of chases, it’s another to be there actually doing it.
And it’s for this reason that if you’ve always wanted to go storm chasing that you first go with a tour.
Now, I know what you think, a tour sounds… tame. You want to be actually chasing rather than just be a tourist. Before my first tour I assumed that we’d be miles away from the actual chasers, that what we’d be doing wouldn’t be storm chasing.
It is! And yes, a bad road meant we got side-swiped by a tornado. A tour is no guarantee against things going bad. But if you’re crazy enough to want to go see one of these great whites of weather up close, I heartily recommend a tour.
Even after watching and reading just about everything I possibly could about storm chasing, what surprised me was the mileage you’ll cover. In 10 days we did about 4,500 miles – 750 of those on just the first day. If you think of just how big the mid-West is, it’s the equivalent of working out to within five or ten square miles where you need to be in Europe at what time for your best chance to see a tornado.
It’s like trying to find a needle in a field of haystacks.
Even the best of the best get it wrong sometimes. Some chasers bust all season long. So if you have no forecasting experience, you stand very little chance of being able to find one by yourself. Far better that you are with people who know their stuff and will probably pick the best location for storms, even if they don’t end up producing a tornado.
One reason tours are so good is because they are a great opportunity for chasers. Driving all those miles costs a LOT of money, so being able to chase all season long with your only worry being the six extra people you take along, is a fantastic deal for most chasers. Plus, there are usually more than one of you – one driving, one forecasting / navigating – so you have company. And the tour guests are people who are so into weather that they paid for the opportunity. You at least have that common interest.
I have to admit that I had reservations about going on a tour before I did. I then went chasing on my own afterwards and didn’t find it half as much fun. Maybe I just had a good group, but I’m doing a tour again. I don’t claim to be a particularly good storm chaser, I just want to chase storms and see tornadoes, and going on a tour is going to give me the best chance of that.
So how do you select a company?
There are a lot out there, some affiliated with the big chase teams, some not. Often tour operators will have chased with some of the larger teams or tour companies for a number of years before breaking off on their own. Do some research on them. See what other people have said about their experience. See if people have gone back year after year.
That said I tend to go with Extreme Tornado Tours (http://www.extremetornadotours.com). I decided to go with them last year as they are affiliated with Team Dominator (the ones with a fleet of armoured cars) and had such an enjoyable experience I see no reason not to go back. However, one of my guides from last year has formed her own company (http://www.twistedskytours.com) and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending her to people as well
As to costs… all that gas isn’t cheap. You’ll be looking at around $2500 for a 7 day tour and $3500 for a 10 day. Personally I’d recommend the 10 day. My reason for this is that if there’s a major outbreak it can sometimes wipe out the energy in the atmosphere. If you’re unlucky enough to start your tour the day after the outbreak, you could go 7 days without seeing anything other than mostly blue skies. 10 days maximisies your odds
Keep in mind additional costs when you budget. You’ll need to pay your own airfare, usually to Oklahoma City or Denver if later in the season. Remember that storm systems can mean delays and diversions. Give yourself a buffer and get in a day or two early, so that you don’t miss the start of your tour. You’ll need to budget a night or two in a hotel for that.
Food also isn’t included. You’re unlikely to be eating anywhere fancy but those costs will mount up over 10 days.
You are going to be spending a LOT of time sat in a minibus. If the concept of a road trip sends you to sleep then, you are probably not suited for storm chasing. The motto is hurry up and wait. You’ll want to get to your target ahead of time so you are ready and waiting when the storms start to fire. That can sometimes mean early mornings. It can sometimes mean late nights.
On days when there are no storms, your guides will often take you to various tourist locations. You might do the Twister Museum or go down to the Wichita mountains. Be prepared that these downtime days happen. They’re usually just as fun as chase days, although maybe not quite as exciting.
The storms are not going to wait for you, so don’t be the person who’s always 20 minutes late back to the van. That can be the difference between seeing a tornado and missing it.
Now you can quite easily, just sit back and not worry about the science. You can just watch the countryside roll by and marvel at the storms when you get there. But I think taking an interest in what’s happening and why, making an effort to understand the science, will increase your enjoyment. Don’t worry if you don’t know things, even the most basic of things. Your guides are storm nuts, so will happily chat for hours about tornadoes and supercells.
Whilst your guides are being effectively paid to storm chase and babysit you, this isn’t what you would call a career. Many will take low pay seasonal work the rest of the year in order to be able to keep tornado season free. So budget to tip them, especially if they’ve gone out their way to may your trip an enjoyable one.
You’ll find that by the end, you’ll leave as friends with a lot of people, including your guides. You’re stuck in a minivan for 10 days with them so it’s bound to happen. They’ll always be some hijinx as well.
Tornado season runs from mid-April to late June, so plan your holiday to coincide with those times. As much as you might want to chase in September when you can get time off work, the weather will not co-operate. Bookings will occur up to a year in advance, with May filling up incredibly quickly. Don’t worry if you find you can only get a late April or early June tour. In 2014, the two big outbreaks happened in those months.
And remember, just because you’ve researched and found what you think is the best tour company in the world and have booked with them for late May, you still might see nothing but blue skies. It would be unlucky, but it could happen.
The way I looked at it was to say that I was going on a road trip around the American Mid-West and might see a tornado or two along the way.
If you want to see a tornado and experience storm chasing then I would heartily recommend a tour. Not only will they increase your chances of seeing one but you’ll have a ton of fun as well!
Hope to see you on the Plains!