Tornado Alley in the United States is a loosely defined area where intense storms happen most frequently. It covers Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and and Kansas, and by some definitions, extending to eastern Colorado, western Pennsylvania and all the way north into Canada. It is here that you will find a large number of storm chasers, hunting for storms to gather meteorological data, acting as storm spotters, shooting video footage of the storm and of course, there are the ones there purely for the thrill of chasing.
Storm chasing has humble beginnings in the 1950’s, by individuals looking to gather data and help predict and understand tornados better.
While storm chasers are generally interested in any severe thunderstorm (and some chase tropical cyclones/hurricanes and waterspouts), the goal is to find a supercell storm. These are the storms most likely to spawn a tornado, the ultimate goal for many storm chasers.
People have always been fascinated by severe weather – we have had to be, our lives and livelihoods often depend on understanding and predicting the weather. It is no surprise that Hollywood would take advantage of this, releasing films like Twister (1996) and Into the Storm (2014). The Discovery Channel sponsored a reality television series called Storm Chasers from 2007 – 2011. Each time, an increase of interest in storm chasing happened. Veteran storm chasers have said that they’re seeing upwards of 200 people at a crowded storm, opposed to just 20 people 15 years earlier.
Part of this popularity has spawned a tourist industry specific to storm chasing. For a few thousand dollars (plus food, accommodation, road tolls and incidentals, depending on your tour operator), you can join a storm chasing crew and hope to get up close and personal with a monster tornado.
Storm chasing is, of course, a dangerous hobby and occupation. You are chasing storms which claim the lives of dozens, even hundreds of people each year. Storm chasers have figured out the safest ways to chase tornados, by following them instead of driving into them, but that doesn’t eliminate the dangers. A storm can change direction without notice, bearing down on chasers before they have a chance to move. Hail is common with storms and can get to the size of baseballs, without a properly equipped vehicle, hail that size can be disastrous. Downed power lines present one of the biggest dangers, since they are a common occurrence during storms. While your chances of being struck by lightning are slim, chasing storms puts you closer to much more lightning than the average person.
While the number of tornadoes in the US each year has remained relatively steady, there is evidence that tornadoes are happening on fewer days but in larger clusters of more powerful storms. Storm chasing has contributed greatly to our knowledge of how and when tornadoes develop. There are now early warning systems that give people up to 14 minutes warning of a tornado, which may not sound like much, but in Tornado Alley, it’s often the difference between life and death.