Weather: The Chase

The Chase

Weather people enjoy bad weather. Something about a turbulent sky makes their day. I often half-jokingly tell people that if I wake up and the sun is shining, my day is ruined. The excitement of the weather—the storms, the changes—attract a certain type of individual, sometimes called a weather nut, who actually enjoys chasing violent weather. Recently much attention has been given to these storm chasers, including at least one major Hollywood film, about the personalities involved. Of course, there's a scientific side to storm chasing, too.


The first official tornado forecast was issued on March 25, 1948. Air Force Captain Robert C. Miller and Major Ernest J. Fawbush predicted the storm. Precautions were taken based on the forecast, which preceded the storm by several hours. Although the storm slammed through Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and caused considerable damage, this warning saved many lives.

Meteorologists at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, have elevated storm chasing to a science. An instrument package called TOTO is placed in the path of a severe thunderstorm or tornado. (No, it's not named after Dorothy's dog in The Wizard of Oz. It stands for Totable Tornado Observatory.)

The goal is to collect wind, temperature, pressure, moisture, and electrical data as a storm approaches. The activity is filmed and tracked on sophisticated radar systems. The data will be analyzed after the storm has passed. Unlike the Hollywood version of tornado chasing, the real-life effort does not involve people heading directly into the storm. The information becomes important in understanding how these storms develop.

One storm-chasing project is called Subvortex. Two mobile radar units are mounted on two flatbed trucks. In addition, a number of vehicles equipped with instruments and computers set out for the target region. That location is initially determined by satellite data, and the team drives hundreds of miles to be at the right place at the right time. Hydraulic stabilizing legs try to keep the trucks steady as the storm approaches. After the storm moves away, the equipment is quickly packed up, and the chase continues.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weather © 2002 by Mel Goldstein, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.