How to Chase a Tornado

Illustrations by mckibillo

The Rationale

Texas soil is arguably Mother Nature’s favorite dance floor: More twisters touch down here annually than in any other state (132 on average). As a result, storm chasers consider the Panhandle and Red River Valley requisite destinations during tornado season (April through June). This activity won’t suit the lily-livered and shouldn’t be pursued lightly. Cyclones can rip up paved asphalt, carry two-ton tractors across fields, and level entire towns in minutes. So why chase? “It’s like seeing pristine wilderness,” says Martin Lisius, who’s been chasing storms for 22 years and who founded the Texas Severe Storms Association in 1993. “Chasing isn’t only about watching the great movie in the sky; it’s about being able to successfully forecast and intercept a storm.”

The Forecast

Since most tornadoes last less than ten minutes and travel only a few miles before dissipating, proper forecasting and mapping are paramount. “People think we just hear a tornado warning and jump in our car, when really we’re leaving hours ahead of time and making dozens of forecast decisions,” Lisius says. Listen to National Weather Service broadcasts for hail, lightning, and strong-wind advisories, all indicators of tornadic activity. Once you locate a promising storm, chart a course with optimal viewing vantages and several escape routes. Tornadoes are relatively slow moving (they average 30 miles per hour) but mightily capricious.

The Gear

Your vehicle is key. Four-wheel-drive SUVs are reliable in hazardous weather conditions and on treacherous terrain, but if they fail, the quest fails, so stock your car with auto-repair basics—jumper cables, tire jack—and situational necessities like spare wiper blades and headlight bulbs. Pack equipment such as a camcorder, a laptop, a GPS tracker, and a weather radio. Electromagnetic interference may compromise your signal, so keep your old-school tools (maps, a compass, a list of local radio stations) close at hand.

The Chase

With coordinates established and gear safely stowed, the chase can begin. First, designate a driver. His job is to keep his eyes off the horizon and follow the rules of the road (contrary to popular belief, most chasers aren’t erratic drivers). Then nominate a forecaster: He’ll watch the weather radar and scan the skies for a “supercell,” an immense thunderstorm containing a rotating updraft. If you’re really lucky, the supercell will spin out a twister, and you’ll get to witness the touch down. Always maintain a safe distance from the funnel (this will depend on atmospheric conditions and the available road network). Tornadoes are violent events, but one has yet to suck up and spit out a chaser, so don’t worry (any more than usual) about the freshness of your underpants.

For more information about storm chasing tours, go to tempesttours.com.

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