Sky Fall: Meet the Storm Chasers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Meet the band of storm chasers who love extreme weather, going where few do, for art and adrenaline, for science and survival. Hold on tight!
By Sohini Das Gupta
Storms are strange things — truly tempestuous in how suddenly they can shift shape and space. Even as we grapple with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and its devastation, Hurricane Nicholas barreled into Texas this week, flooding the Gulf Coast as it weakened. And then there are the long-term effects: Scientists found that 12 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana, 1 in 6 survivors still had symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet there are those who run toward the storms, pulled by a magnetic force to extreme nature widely documented in journals, documentaries and literary classics. This Sunday, join a band of storm chasers as they go where few do, for art and adrenaline, for science and survival. Hold tight!
Storm Chasing 101
Storm Chasers, Who?
When a storm gathers, typically a tornado or a hurricane, most of us head for cover. But some people head straight into some of nature’s fiercest meteorological events, hoping to observe and record them live. Among them are meteorological experts who pursue storms for scientific research. Getting close, often in a hurricane’s direct path, allows professional storm chasers to document crucial on-field data impossible to obtain from afar. These findings help scientists develop a better understanding of the dynamics of storms, enabling accurate forecasts and earlier evacuation. Others are hobbyist storm chasers, often photographers and artists hoping to capture the beauty and power of these phenomena live.
Birth of a Subculture
Scottish American naturalist John Muir was known to “chase” storms long before it was common to race after often deadly winds. The pioneer climbed up a lanky Douglas spruce in the middle of a windstorm one December day in 1874 to feel what treetops feel. In the 1950s and ’60s, meteorologist Neil Ward and photographers David Hoadley and Roger Jensen emerged as modern American trailblazers of storm chasing. Ward, often dubbed the first scientific storm chaser, intercepted atmospheric vortices and relayed the information via the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s radio. Hoadley and Jensen were both from North Dakota — the storm-prone state that’s now part of the holy grail of chasers, aka “Tornado Alley.” Hoadley also founded and ran a first-of-its-kind magazine called Storm Track. In the 1990s, internet access and tornado cult classic Twister helped further elevate the profile of storm chasing.
Science Meets Ethics
Storm chasing isn’t all edge-of-your-seat action, and there’s certainly some method behind the madness. For tornadoes, it involves hours of driving around in specialty vehicles and waiting, steered not by adrenaline but calculated decisions on how to intercept the storm. Chasers then position themselves and their equipment. There are standard safety guidelines — don’t chase alone, for instance, and avoid using cellphones amid lightning. A set of ethics — be courteous to other chasers — is also widely embraced within the community. But flying into the eye of a hurricane, which forms over warm tropical oceans, is different and usually undertaken using specially equipped aircrafts carrying scientists, or by weather squadrons of the U.S. Air Force such as the Hurricane Hunters, who conduct tropical storm reconnaissance.
Meet the Storm Chasers
Her Instagram page is a stunning art gallery dedicated to the chaotic beauty of skies and storms. Waves of blue, gray, orange or purple . . . shocked out of symmetry by sudden flashes of white. Walters isn’t a traditional storm chaser, but she does with a paintbrush what researchers do with fancy equipment: capture the essence of these weather phenomena. It started in the summer of 2016, when she was in the midst of a blinding battle with chronic migraines, the 29-year-old tells OZY. “Glaring lightning and pounding rain were visuals I wanted to tie metaphorically to the pain I was faced with,” she recalls. Five years later, she has found steady refuge in the volatile element most run from, often observing and painting live from her Dallas studio.
In April 2014, Jim Tang rented a car and headed to eastern Oklahoma with no mobile data and plenty of rookie luck to “find a storm, witness hail fog and watch a spectacular lightning display,” he tells OZY. He knew he was hooked for life. A software coder by day, the 30-year-old storm-chasing photographer (@thewxmann) uses his skills both to capture gorgeous images of weather phenomena and to explain their curious quirks to fellow enthusiasts. He splits his time between San Francisco and Denver, depending on the storm season, traveling with his trusty Honda CRV, a phone and a camera. He’s watched a barrel-shaped supercell and seen lightning strike a power pole next to him. As he says, “Storm chasing is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’ll get.”
It’s what anyone in the path of a storm would hope for — a timely heads-up that can save their life. African SWIFT, a collaborative project between some of the continent’s leading meteorologists and researchers at the University of Leeds in the U.K., makes accurate, super-short-range hourly forecasts while a storm is approaching, using a satellite-aided technique called “nowcasting.” The meteorological agencies of Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal are among the project’s partners. Nowcasting has helped in the successful evacuation of communities impacted by flooding and mudslides in Kenya and could save the lives of thousands of people who die every year in storms on Lake Victoria.
Feathered Storm Chasers?
Even without a forecast system, birds have their own means of surviving storms. Songbirds like cardinals and buntings secure spots in dense foliage, while woodpeckers hang on to the downwind side of tree trunks or take cover inside cavities. But some migratory birds actually piggyback on headwinds to launch their big journey. Other seabirds aim for the calmer eye of the storm so as not to get ravaged by its spiral, effectively “eye-riding,” much like their hurricane-hunting human counterparts. In 2011, satellite transmitters caught a tagged whimbrel flying directly into Hurricane Irene, a neat but taxing survival tactic later noticed in other members of the species.
When the Table Turns: Storm-Chased People
Annual Asian Evacuation
But it’s not always wise to try to befriend the storm or outrun it. In South and Southeast Asia, millions of people are accustomed to regular evacuations. “Super-typhoons” and cyclones batter Southeast Asia annually, with over 100,000 people evacuated last April as typhoon Surigae swept past the Philippines. In South Asia, Bangladesh and India are subject to particularly brutal lashings. Both countries were faced with the double whammy of COVID-19 and the violent cyclone Amphan last year. In May 2021, Cyclone Yaas swamped villages on both sides of the border.
Extreme weather, typically in the form of all-decimating hurricanes, is familiar to this part of the world. Just last month Haiti wrestled with two destructive elements when rescue efforts in the aftermath of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake were hampered by tropical cyclone Grace. As densely packed places, often with inadequate infrastructure, the nations in this belt often take the hardest hit of hurricanes that also strike the U.S. That vulnerability is compounded by socioeconomic factors and because of rampant deforestation — and consequently, mudslides — on many islands. Climate change will only make things worse for the Caribbean and Latin America, warned the World Meteorological Organization in August.
North of the Caribbean, the U.S. averages over 1,150 tornadoes each year — more than Europe, Australia and Canada put together. Tornado Alley, a part of the Great Plains in the central part of the country, is so named because it sees the most tornadoes. Texas, Florida, Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska are the states most vulnerable to the annual onslaught. Alabama sees the highest annual average of tornado-related fatalities, while other Southern states such as Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas also suffer. And then there are the hurricanes that make their way up from the Caribbean. Hurricane Ida, which has claimed at least 82 lives in the U.S., chose a poignant day to make landfall in Louisiana: Aug. 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Life, Loss and Art
Remembering Tim Samaras
The legendary storm chaser’s many contributions to tornado science shine brighter than the tragedy of his death in the 2013 El Reno twister in Oklahoma. His famously cautious pursuit of storms was aimed at helping scientists understand how shifts in pressure, air temperature, humidity and winds collude to create a phenomenon so powerful and unpredictable. Known to those outside the meteorological world for his time on the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers, the 55-year-old Samaras first earned the public’s recognition in 2003 after a probe he deployed in Manchester, South Dakota, survived and recorded findings from a high-intensity tornado. The tragic fate he met 10 years later, when he perished along with his co-chasing son, Paul, and his colleague Carl Young, served to reinforce the truth Samaras lived by: There are things we don’t know yet about the sky.
Unforgettable Storms in Literature
From the haunting mystique of “thunder and lightning” arriving in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Hurricane Ophelia being the force that pulls New Yorkers together in Danielle Steel’s novel Rushing Waters, storms figure prominently in the literary sky — as decorative backdrops, metaphors for human emotions or narrative devices. Violent weather is described with poetic abandon in Louis MacNeice’s “June Thunder.” And in Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights, frequent moorland storms reflect the intense love between protagonists Heathcliff and Cathy, as well as the forces of fate that human passion cannot defy. Mellow or sweeping, sinister or sweet, literary storms add punch to the plotline.
Alongside the wealth of stormy reads, there are plenty of movies and documentaries on the topic too. For a highly condensed visual history of North American storm chasing, check out the 2016 YouTube documentary The Storm Chasing Anthology. Or consider Oklahoma: Tornado Target, a decidedly unnerving 42-minute film that captures a reality for the residents of that state — both a chronicle of the challenges and resilience of Oklahomans and a cautionary tale about storm chasing. The award-winning Trouble the Water and the Spike Lee-directed When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts are accounts of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Difficult to watch — harder to look away.
- Sohini Das Gupta, OZY Author Contact Sohini Das Gupta