Thousands of people roam the U.S. Plains
each year searching for tornadoes and other severe weather.
It's a thrill to immerse yourself in nature's most extreme
atmospheric conditions, and so you'll see thrill-seekers
side-by-side with professional scientists all along the road when a
tornado roars across the land.
The inherent dangers in being outside in severe weather,
coupled with the crowds that often form around tornado-producing
thunderstorms, make for very dangerous conditions. So you need to
know some safety rules before you head out for your first chase.
The #1 most dangerous part of
chasing tornadoes is driving on the highways.
this: You're driving in unfamiliar territory, often along
back roads. You're focusing much of your attention on the
skies around you, at the expense of attention you should be
focusing on your driving. To make matters worse:
there are dozens of other vehicles in your vicinity doing the exact
same thing. So here are ways to make your chasing and driving
experience much safer:
- Always chase with a partner. One of you focuses on the
weather and skies and the communications. The other one
focuses on the driving.
- Watch for the weather that's right in front of you.
Severe storms often dump heavy rain that can create dangerous
water on the road.
- Avoid chasing in cities. Your danger factor goes up
tremendously when you combine heavy traffic, congested freeways
and limited sightlines to the sky because of city buildings.
- If you pull off the road to watch something in the sky, pull
all the way off the
road. Make sure other drivers can safely get
- Always make sure you have plenty of fuel. Experienced
chasers will not let their tanks get below 1/3 of capacity.
You never know where the next chase will take you, and you don't
want to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
Tornadoes aren't the #1 threat to your
safety while chasing, and they're not #2 either. Keep in mind
that tornadic thunderstorms also produce other types of deadly
weather. Outdoors in a thunderstorm, your biggest safety
Lightning can strike anywhere in or near a
thunderstorm - there is no safe place to be outside when lightning
is present. Storm chasers accept that risk, but there are
ways to mitigate it.
- Stay in your vehicle as much as possible, especially when
you're in an open and unobstructed area.
- Stay away from metal objects such as towers and fences.
- If a cloud-to-lightning bolt strikes within a mile of you,
get inside your vehicle immediately. Be thankful the
lightning didn't strike you, because it most certainly could
You don't need us to tell you tornadoes are
dangerous. Heck, that's why so many people chase them.
Truth is, there are many ways you can get hurt. But some
simple guidelines will give you a better chance of coming home with
only stories and photos and no scars.
- Know what types of storms to chase. Look first
for "discrete supercells". Supercells are the types of
storms most likely to produce tornadoes. "Discrete" means
the supercell is by itself and not side-by-side with other
storms. Finding a discrete supercell will allow you room to
watch the storm from a safe location. Also, since nearby
storms can compete with each other for their "food" (warm moist
air), a discrete cell has a better chance of developing a tornado
and will give you a better chance of seeing that tornado from a
- Avoid chasing squall lines (a long line of storms).
Chasing a squall line almost assuredly means you'll have to
experience a storm head on. Second, squall lines are less
likely to produce tornadoes that are easy to see.
- When chasing a traditional supercell, the best and safest
place to look for a tornado is to the south and east of the
storm. The southeast quadrant keeps you out of the main
part of the storm and gives you the best view into where a
tornado might form. In the diagram below, note the dangers
from other viewing angles relative to the storm.
- Always remember that storms are constantly changing, and no
storm will behave exactly as you predict it will.
- Always keep looking at the sky in all directions. Even
if you're looking straight ahead at a tornado a mile or two away,
keep in mind the same storm may be trying to form another
tornado, perhaps right over your head.
- Always, always, always have an
escape route. This means having a good map (and a
GPS unit if available) and knowing in advance where you would
drive to safety if a storm suddenly turned toward you.
Even the experienced storm chasers will tell you this - don't
chase at night unless you really know what you're doing and
unless you accept the additional risks. The storms
are much harder to see, and so are the other obstacles you'll
face, especially the roads and the traffic.
There are many great sites
that discuss the specifics of tornado-chasing safety.
This article was intended only as a summary. Please click
on the related links posted on the pages of this story to learn
a lot more. Safety first!
Copyright 2009 The E.W. Scripps Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.