Your group has just received a forecast briefing, outlining the day’s chase target locations. Based on that information, you are all ready to depart at a moment’s notice. You’re anxious for your turn at working the radios, and checking the maps, as you and your small group of fellow passengers jump into vehicles specially equipped for 'the chase.’ Then, the moment comes... the chase is on! What are you chasing?
You are looking for towering Cumulus clouds, two air masses ready to clash, or a supercell thunderstorm.
You are looking for...TORNADOES!
Sounds a little like the movie, “Twister,” doesn’t it? Only this is real. You are THERE and you are in the company of climatologists, meteorologists, weather photographers, weather videographers, and professional storm chasers on a tornado chasing adventure!
Image Courtesy of William Reid/Tempest Tours
And your adventure takes place in the heart of “Tornado Alley.”
Storm Chasing Tours
For the adventure traveler who has always wanted to experience storm chasing, how can anything be more exciting than chasing tornadoes with a professional team of storm chasers who know their business. Their expertise in storm chasing can bring you right to the threshold of some of the most severe weather in the world... safely. Each company has its own unique take on storm chasing – each has its own qualified professional staff and expertise on this storm-chasing thrill ride.
Storm Chasing Tour Companies
According to Gregg Potter of F5, “When you're on the road chasing tornadoes for a week or two, the vehicle you ride in becomes extremely important. Ever since our inception in 1999, F5! has been driving the most comfortable and safest vehicle on the road, the Suburban. As a result, our tours have limited seating as we only allow up to four clients per Suburban, along with one meteorologist and a driver. This setup offers our valued clients much more comfort, safety, and personal exposure to our staff of expert meteorologists. Our chase team includes experienced storm chasers who are also degreed meteorologists or military trained forecasters. Our staff of meteorologists uses a balance of significant chase experience, technical knowledge, higher education, and our seasoned gut feelings to put ourselves in the right place at the right time. Our on-board real-time Doppler radar imagery means we don't depend on The Weather Channel or outside services that cater to amateur chasers. We depend on our F5! team of experts in the field along with our network of in-house meteorologists. A combination of real-time weather support and on-board technology means our meteorologists and clients get the best chance to see the next big storm up close and personal!” F5 added Geoff Mackley to their team in 2002. Geoff is a world-famous storm-chasing photographer and filmmaker who has been on Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel as well as other shows that featured his video and photos from tornadoes, hurricanes, and volcanoes across the world.
What's it like chasing with Tempest Tours? Watch "Chasing a Tornado Outbreak with Tempest Tours" 8 minutes “Tempest Tours is operated by a team of experienced and respected storm chasers who understand every facet of storm chasing. Our goal is to share our knowledge and appreciation for storms with others. We conduct tours in May and June, to coincide with peak tornado activity in Tornado Alley. Guests travel to our base cities where they join us. Tours are typically comprised of 6-13 guests. Guests ride in roomy, smoke-free vans, with a limit of 5-6 guests per van for comfort. Each tour is led by our Tour Director and a staff of experienced storm chasers. Upon arriving at our base city hotel, guests receive a pre-tour orientation that provides information on tour itinerary and guidelines. We emphasize safety, education, and responsible conduct. We track storms close enough to view tornadoes, but far enough to be safe. We do not 'drive into’ dangerous weather and do everything possible to avoid these hazards. In fact, it is common to see other motorists driving into large hail, etc. when we are safely out of the way.”
The Chase “The goal of each chase day is to forecast and intercept the most significant weather that we expect to develop on the Plains later in the day. We operate primarily in the Tornado Alley states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. We concentrate on forecasting supercell thunderstorms, our initial objective. Supercells are thunderstorms with long-lived rotating updrafts. When supercells develop as forecasted, the group will intercept and view them from a safe distance. Some chase days continue after dark when Mother Nature provides us with a spectacular lightning display. Guests are afforded many opportunities for photography.”
Tornado Alley “There are some days when no storms occur on the plains of Tornado Alley. Atmospheric physics require 'recovery’ days in between stormy periods. It is the 'order follows chaos’ principle of weather. We use these days to reposition for the next storm intercept. Along the way, we visit as many points of interest as time allows. Some of the sites on our maps include: the National Severe Storms Laboratory and Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and other weather-related facilities, and the Twister Museum in Wakita, OK. At the end of each chase day, we head for a clean, comfortable motel where guests can recharge for the next day's chase. Lodging is paid for by Tempest Tours during the tour. Tornado Alley is home to some of the best cooking on the planet! Whenever possible, we lead the group to eateries specializing in local cuisine such as chicken fried steak, fried okra, baked squash casserole, Tex-Mex, BBQ, steak and eggs, homemade pies, and cobbler.”
According to Storm Chasers, “The tornado season will begin in late April and run through mid-June. Please remember, this adventure is a working situation. Severe weather is a serious but exciting business. As a team member you will be required to follow specific rules to ensure your safety and the safety of others. You will not simply be a tourist, but a working volunteer tornado chaser. From the morning briefing to the excitement of the storm chase – you will, only if you want) work the radios, check the maps, and learn firsthand what's it is like to be a part of the team and not simply a tornado tour passenger in the adventurous world of storm chasing and tornado chasing! It is likely that your boots will get muddy, a few mosquitoes might bite, and your hair will be wind-blown. However, not a single person who has participated has not had a total blast. Since Warren makes his living by getting as close to the action as possible (in a safe manner), you are guaranteed the best chance of witnessing amazing events. After all, he has been chasing for over 20 years! If you are a photographer – you will be traveling with the most successful storm photographer in history. Remember the poster, promotional and DVD artwork for Twister? That was Warren's!
We use advanced, real time GPS tracking and live Doppler radar systems to chase in a safe and productive manner. Doppler radar has three levels of redundancies for back-ups. We also use satellite, wireless, and hard copy mapping.
Our typical chase day includes a morning briefing and safety discussion. After going over a checklist of equipment and radio checks we load-up and head out. Once our target is chosen, the excitement begins. As the day progresses we will narrow our chase target until we are engaged with one or more storms. At the end of the day, nothing beats relaxing with a cool drink and talking about the day's chase. Your mind will race from all the excitement as you look over the pictures and video. But don't relax yet – there is always tomorrow!” So what can the storm chasing adventure traveler expect from a tornado chasing tour?
Once again, from F5 Tornado Chasing Safaris, “Our daily ritual always begins with the morning forecast. Our on-board meteorologists will look at the current conditions across the central plains and then we look into the future to find out where the best chance for tornadoes will be later that day. F5! feels the key ingredient to tornadic development is upper level support, or super-fast winds in the upper levels of the atmosphere. Although tornadoes can form without strong upper level support, we look for this key ingredient to increase the chances of tornado viewing later in the day. After a complete analysis and forecast is produced each morning, that day's "Target City" is announced.
The first sign of tornado development comes out of the clear blue sky. When the conditions are right for thunderstorm development, the first cloud we see is a puffy Cumulus cloud (see fig. 1). These types of clouds are very common across the country, but typically they do not grow into monster thunderstorms that drop tornadoes. For that, you need much stronger instability in the atmosphere. The setup in the central portion of the United States, known as 'tornado alley,’ is perfect during the spring months as cold, dry air moves south out of Canada and the warm, moist air moves north from the Gulf of Mexico.
As the two air masses clash, the atmosphere becomes even more unstable, meaning the parcels of air in a certain area become more buoyant than the surrounding air, so the Cumulus clouds begin building vertically. We call these towering Cumulus or TCu (see fig. 2). Since all clouds require upward moving air, you can imagine that a TCu requires even faster moving air to allow it to shoot up that quickly, often rising hundreds of feet in less than 20 minutes.
Usually we'll see several TCu's building around our target city in the afternoon hours. The next step is to find the best updraft to begin inspecting more closely. As the towering Cumulus clouds continue to grow, they begin to bulk up and, with luck, turn into supercell thunderstorms (see fig. 3). Although only a small number of cumulus clouds or towering cumulus clouds become supercells, we look for supercells to increase our chance of witnessing a tornado.
Supercells are the perfect parent thunderstorms for tornadoes because they already include strong updrafts that often are rotating. A supercell thunderstorm develops its own complete system with an updraft and a downdraft, which provides a nice generator for tornadoes. These supercell thunderstorms are responsible for most of the tornadoes that drop in any given year.
As the supercell continues to churn, we watch for a lowering under the updraft, where the updraft becomes more focused, and drops closer to the earth. This visual representation of a tighter updraft is called a wall cloud (see fig. 4). Updrafts in supercells typically rotate, but wall clouds always rotate.
The tornado will then drop out of the wall cloud (see fig. 5). However, we have witnessed several occasions where a tornado drops out of the updraft right next to the wall cloud! Every storm is different, so this is not a hard and fast rule, but typically, the tornado will drop out of a wall cloud. A tornado is a connection from the earth all the way into the upper levels of the atmosphere and the stronger the upper level support (jet stream), the more potential for a larger and more destructive tornado.
After dropping to the ground for an average of a few minutes, most tornadoes will begin to die in what we call the roping out phase (see fig. 6). Rather than simply disappearing, tornadoes will typically rope out and dissipate under the thunderstorm.
As we mentioned, there are many ways tornadoes can form and dissipate, but the typical situation is as outlined above. The best way to understand the process of tornado development is to join our tour and witness it yourself – with a full education from our meteorologists! Any questions you have will be answered and you'll be able to watch the next tornado touchdown along with the experts!”
So, do you think you are man enough? Woman enough? Thrill seeker enough for the chase? Did the movie, “Twister,” thrill you enough to make you want to climb through the screen and join them? This can be your dream adventure-travel vacation!
What are you waiting for? Dream big! And go chase that dream!
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