You’ve probably seen the movie Twister, for which a sequel is now in production. You’ve probably wondered why anybody would want to get close to violent storms.
I chose to go storm chasing a couple of weeks ago with Roger Hill. He holds the Guinness Book of World Records for sighting and documenting more than 820 tornadoes.
He’s been storm chasing for 37 years. His tour vans are loaded with equipment for monitoring the atmosphere, which helps him figure out where to be when storms start cooking.
On one of these storm chases, I asked him what we were looking at on his laptop.
“A cluster of high based thunderstorms,” said Hill, who owns Silver Lining Tours. “They are steadily growing. They could produce high winds. They should be producing lightning. I’m surprised they’re not. My radar says there have been a few lightning bolts. Hopefully they’ll start becoming visible shortly. They are growing and intensifying.”
The first storm we encountered was west of Lubbock, Texas, near the New Mexico state line. It did not generate a tornado, but it put on a thunder and lightning show that lasted for hours. And then came torrential rain and hail that flooded roads and filled up the pool at our hotel.
People come from all over the world to watch storms in the Midwest. On this tour there were people from New Zealand, England, Canada and the eastern seaboard.
“The energy that a supercell produces is like nothing else on earth. Mankind can’t control it. I love it. We have no control over the weather, that force of nature. It just gets me buzzing and I love it,” said Helen Anderson, from Wellington, New Zealand.
I was the only one from the west coast on this particular tour.
“One time we went out on what was called an arrival day chase. We got in the vans. We left. We went for about an hour. We got out. We were standing there, kind of chatting and twin land spouts—one tornado,” said Donna, from Cocoa Beach, Florida. “It looks like a tornado, but they call it a land spout. And right next to it is another one. It had just finished raining. It was bright out. We were just kind of in awe. No one really expected it. Our guide sort of did but he wasn’t really sure. But he knew where to stop and wait and then it happened, and it was amazing.”
My impression of storm chasing is that it’s a lot of driving. You get somewhere and then you have to move because you’re not in exactly the right spot.
“One thing about storm chasing you have to be ready for is, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not for a lightweight. It’s hard. You ride and you ride and you ride and then you get out and you stand there and then they say ‘get in.’ And then you ride some more,” Donna said. “But if you understand that weather is going to do what weather will do, then you expect that and you just wait for that moment. It’s great.”
We chased storms across Texas into Oklahoma, driving an average of 500 miles a day, looking for supercells.
The towering cumulous clouds reach 40,000 to 50,000 feet into the atmosphere. Planes go around them because the cells are loaded with violent winds, baseball size hailstones, prodigious lightning and incredible amounts of rain.
And if all the conditions are right, tornadoes — which I did not personally see — will touch ground.
“The supercells have been amazing. The one thing I’ve loved are the lightning storms. They’ve just been beautiful,” said Gillian Hall from County Durham, England.
Hall said they don’t experience this kind of weather in England.
“Nothing like that at all. We don’t get the level of lightning, the frequency and it’s not as violent in the UK.”
One storm we followed dropped an ominous wall cloud down to near ground level and triggered tornado warning sirens in the town of Bowie, Texas.
Another storm we followed dropped 8 inches of rain and hail in less than an hour on Bartle, Texas causing flash floods and closing roads.
“This is my sixth tour and it is definitely addictive. It’s just great. I’ve learned so much,” Donna said. “The first time I came I knew I loved the weather. I understood basic weather patterns. But that compared to now… It’s totally different. It’s a learning experience. It can be spiritual. If you love weather, it can get you really close to yourself. It’s great.”
There’s beauty on the Texas plains. The roads are lined with wildflowers, seeded by the state highway department, nurtured by the rain.
“I’ve done one tour previously in 2018. I was determined to come back in 2020 but couldn’t because of the pandemic,” Helen said. “I’ve come back this year 2023. It’s a long way from New Zealand. It’s expensive. I thought this might be my last opportunity, that’s why I’m doing two tours back-to-back. But even now I’m already thinking about when I will be back again. I can’t stop this.”
If you like violent weather, the rush of the chase and the awesome power of nature, storm chasing is a heck of an escape from the ordinary.
My advice is do it with somebody who knows what they are doing.