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MU storm chasers seek twisters, often find disappointment

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:57 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Peter Speck stands in the Weather Analysis and Visualization Lab in the MU Agricultural Building. Speck, a member of the Mizzou Storm Chase Team, has been chasing storms since 2011.

CLINTON — It's 1:03 p.m. April 27. Three members of the Mizzou Storm Chase Team sit in a parked Chevrolet sedan. A vicious thunderstorm rages outside. Dime-size hail hammers the windshield, and lighting arcs across the angry, gray sky. Trees bow to 60 mph wind. On the wind’s command, a lone shopping cart dashes across the parking lot and strikes the rear of an SUV.

Wearing a buzz cut and Walmart sunglasses perched on his head, driver Peter Speck stares at his Samsung smartphone’s screen. In the passenger seat, Seth Colston stares at his tablet PC. Both storm chasers monitor RadarScope like hawks, waiting to pounce at the slightest hint of tornadic activity. In the back of the car, Trevor Rice reads "Beloved" by Toni Morrison to pass the time.

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The trio has been chasing storms for four hours. No luck spotting a tornado so far. But Speck spots a potential twister on the radar and reports it to his base team in the MU Agriculture Building. Then he drives south on Highway 13 to catch the storm. About 15 minutes later, disappointment sets in: another dud.

Soon, the swirling colors on the weather map indicate another possible tornado. Speck drives toward El Dorado Springs because a storm there might start rotating. Eighteen minutes later, the trio spots a huge gray rotating mass in the sky, forming what looks like a funnel. But then the rotation stops. Disappointment. Again.

Speck stops at a Casey’s General Store and calls base team member Luke Victor.

“Urgh. I have a feeling it’s going to be a big bust of a day,” Speck says. “The only tornado that’s happened is in Nebraska.”

Whether dangerous or serene, storm chasing isn't for those seeking cheap thrills. It's hit-and-miss. Frequently, a chase ends as a hybrid of a countryside road trip and a tour of gas stations.

“Well, I guess it turned out to be a lightning show." Speck says.

Little did Speck know that he would get to see more than just lightning on this trip.

A love for weather

An average storm chase lasts about 12 hours and starts early. On April 27, Speck and his companions left Columbia at 8 a.m. The routine involves picking a city where tornado-conducive weather will exist, then driving there and waiting for his base team at the office to update him.

Electronic gadgets are vital to chases, so the night before, the team makes sure it has extra batteries, antennas that are hooked up properly, a mobile hotspot, extra cameras and flash cards for pictures.

Speck is aware of the absurdity of choosing to drive toward tornadoes, while most people drive away from them. He justifies doing so because of his love for weather. As someone who chases tornadoes in the name of academia, Speck differentiates himself from what he calls amateur chasers.

Amateurs "are just going for the thrill of it,” the atmospheric sciences graduate student says. “They are not going for any kind of special research or class like we are. There’s a lot of potential for fatalities because of these amateurs being on the roads.”

Speck always takes photographs during storm chases for educational purposes. He thinks amateur chasers take pictures for glory.

“You know how you want to ride a roller coaster that looks really scary? That’s a comparison,” Speck says. “(Amateurs) do it to be a part of history. They will be history if they get killed in (a tornado like) El Reno.”

On May 31, an erratic tornado in El Reno, Okla., which ranked EF5 on the enhanced Fujita scale, killed three professional storm chasers and one amateur. The deaths of the professionals were the first in history. At 2.6 miles, the twister was the widest known to date.

“Originally, it was moving east-southeast, and as it was going along, it just suddenly turned and hit them,” Speck says.

Amateurs vs. pros

The difference between professional and amateur storm chasers is fuzzy. Zach Paul, chief meteorologist for KRCG/CBS, Jefferson City, said in an email that there is no official distinction.

“The unofficial distinction, as thought of by meteorologists, is that professionals are those ‘trained’ persons who are actively trying to save life and property,” Paul said. “This could be by acting as a spotter for a community to activate outdoor warning sirens. It could also be those in academia doing research on storm environments.

“Amateurs would be those individuals who are not trained. This is going to include most individuals who see a storm nearby and decide to go chase it. They bring no real value by being in the field following those storms.”

There also are “storm spotters.” Jim Kramper, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said in an email that a storm spotter is not the same as a storm chaser.

“A storm spotter is someone who has attended a NWS storm spotter training class,” Kramper said, referring to the National Weather Service. “They agree to voluntarily contact the local NWS office when they see or experience certain types of severe weather. They are performing a public service by assisting the NWS.”

On the other hand, a storm chaser is “someone who goes out and chases storms in hopes of seeing a tornado or some other weather phenomena,” Kramper said. “For the most part, they do it for fun, the thrill, or to capture video they later try to sell. Some storm chasers have attended NWS spotter training classes. Some have not.”

While dangerous and unpredictable, tornadoes are short-lived creatures. Most last less than 10 minutes. In contrast, storm chasers are durable; they can be on the road for hours on end.

Generally, chasers prefer hunting tornadoes from 2 to 5 p.m., the warmest time of day when most storms form. Heat, however, is not the determining factor in tornado formation. Four ingredients — moisture, wind shear, atmospheric instability and a trigger such as a cold front or dry line that will cause vertical motion in the atmosphere — are necessary. Storm chasers are always on the move, looking for the right mix; they're also prepared for disappointment.

'That's a funnel'

At 6:04 p.m. on chase day, Speck cruises along a hilly road toward a gigantic wall of dark clouds. He's excited because the weather radio has just announced a tornado warning for the area.

“Yeah, we’re on the wall cloud right now. We’re directly southeast of it. I’ll put up a picture of it once we stop somewhere. This is nuts,” Speck tells Victor over the phone.

“We’re directly west of Rich Hill, it…. Oh my goodness!”

“Is it dropping?” Rice asks.

“Yeah. ... We’re in a perfect spot. We’re not moving. We’re in a flat spot,” Speck says.

Looking at the plain ahead, Speck remembers a similar but more fruitful chase. On May 28, he watched the formation of a violent but oddly stationary tornado in Bennington, Kan. With a dangerous rating of EF4, the monstrous tornado began as a deceptive cumulus cloud before it sprouted multiple vortexes that eventually combined to form a single large vortex.

“The fact that we were able to observe it as it started out and follow it as it produced the monster tornado was amazing,” Speck says. Storm chasers seldom have such good days.

At 6:08 p.m., Speck pulls to the side of a deserted gravel road. No trees or houses block his view of the black sky. Speck quickly gets out to snap photographs of the wall cloud extending from the main thunderstorm.

The strong, cold wind howls, as if warning Speck not to move any closer. A minute later, a heavily armored SUV known as an urban tornado assault vehicle bearing the name “ExtremeStormChasers.net” catches up with Speck’s sedan. It turns right and heads onto a long, straight road that leads to the raging wind..

“Oh geez, look north! Look north!” Speck shouts as he spots a funnel cloud. Victor calls again and suggests the team head north on Interstate 49 to get a better look at a new wall cloud that's producing the funnel.

Speck drives to a gas station for a better view.

“Ooh! Do you see it?” Rice says. “You see that lower ring in the cloud right there where my finger’s at?”

“Right there! Oh my goodness. That’s a funnel,” Speck says before checking the storm radar again. “Yeah, there’s a hook!” He's referring to the hook echo on the radar that indicates a tornado is likely forming.

Speck stands in the chilly wind, staring at the colossal cloud about 3 miles away, near the town of Prescott. It is nearly 500 miles north of Little Rock, Ark., where a tornado about an hour later would drop and kill 17 people.

To his trained eye, Speck easily spots the funnel, a dip in the floating dark gray mass. A minute passes with no tornado. Like a defiant child, the funnel seems determined to avoid getting grounded. Still hopeful, Speck asks his teammates whether they want to go north.

“Yeah, it’s going to Kansas City, isn’t it?” Colston asks. “There’s one south and west in Butler right now. It’s still in Kansas.”

“Yeah, that one’s looking good, too. There’s a whole bunch of them,” Speck says.

A brief silence fills the air as Colston becomes irritated.

“There’s a freaking tornado in Nevada (Mo.) right now.”

“What? You serious?” Speck says in disbelief. “We just came from freaking Nevada.”

Just 35 minutes earlier, the trio had left Nevada in search of windier pastures. They were too impatient.

As much as Speck wants to catch the Nevada twister, he decides it’s too late. Night will soon blanket the countryside, and no reasonable storm chaser chases a tornado in the dark.

The trio is more than 100 miles from Columbia, too. Speck has to start driving back if he wants to get home before 10 p.m.

The chase is over.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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