Storm-chasing tourists seek to learn amid thrills, MU study says

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 | 5:17 p.m. CDT; updated 12:48 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tornado Alley has become a vacation destination of choice for white, educated, high-earning singles, MU researchers say.

The stretch of land that spans from the Texas panhandle up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota has become a tourism breeding ground from April through August, when tornado season is at its peak.

Meteorologists and photographers have turned their chasing vans into sightseeing tours and are supplementing their hobby by charging up to $5,000 for the experience.

Lanny Dean, owner of Extreme Chase Tours, said the pastime’s popularity has caused traffic jams heading toward the funnel rather than running for cover. He witnessed one vehicle pull off the road to get a better look at the parent tornado and subsequently get hit by a small spin-up because of traffic congestion when trying to get back on.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Dean said. “While I benefit and we are a successful company, there’s a part of me that almost hates what chasing has become today. I miss the whole one-on-one with nature, spiritual side.”

A research team at MU found that the typical storm-chasing tourist wants more than an adrenaline rush out of the experience and gets a high from the educational extras that are included in the tour price tag.

“It’s not the thrill, but the learning and experiencing nature that motivate most chasers,” said Sonja Wilhelm Stanis, assistant professor in the department of parks, recreation and tourism at MU.

She and fellow assistant professor Carla Barbieri were lead researchers for this study.

“We were surprised to see that sensation, or thrill-seeking, motivators weren’t very high,” Barbieri said. “Maybe a little bit low.”

Wilhelm Stanis and Barbieri asked five storm-chasing companies to distribute surveys among their customers. Fifty storm chasers responded to the survey, which focused on socio-demographic characteristics, tour behavior attributes and motivations for seeking the storm.

More than a quarter of the respondents, 25.6 percent, reported having an advanced degree, and 60.5 percent had at least a college degree. The survey suggests that the respondents' high salaries, paired with a tendency to have no children, means they have more disposable income to pursue such an expensive hobby.

Nearly three-quarters, or 71.4 percent, of participants did not have children, and 29.3 percent reported a gross annual income of at least $75,000.

The number of female participants lagged behind the men, representing  38 percent of the respondents. Mark Lingl, owner/operator of Weather Gods Inc., said he was not surprised by this statistic, as his stock of men's T-shirts has been depleted.

"As a matter of fact, my first tour in 2010 we called a 'manly bonding tour,'" Lingl said. "It was all guys, including a nuclear engineer and two doctors."

Lingl said the fun part of storm chasing is getting to share the nature and his storm knowledge with his passengers.

"Everybody wants to learn, and everybody is interested," Lingl said. “That makes the tour easy.”

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