Journey to the eye of the storm
tormy weather”. Those are the magic words that lead hundreds of storm chasers and weather lovers to get off their sofas and traverse the roads of the great plains that unfold across the centre of the United States. All are waiting for a storm in the troposphere, and for a big dark cloud that looks like a mother ship, to cover the sun and start the air funnel fury. That is their dream. And the moment comes between April and June, when warm air from the Gulf of Mexico clashes with polar air from Canada, creating explosive storms.
Every year, more than 800 tornadoes occur in what is known as Tornado Alley, a strip that extends across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Dakota and Minnesota. “When every instinct of a ‘normal’ person says to board up the windows, seek refuge in the basement, or evacuate their home and community, storm chasers cut fiercely against the grain and embrace the worst and most awesome of mother nature.” That is how Roger Hill, veteran chaser, describes the impulse that drives storm fans, in his book Hunting Nature’s Fury.
But what if it is sunny?
If the weather isn't on your side, there’s no shortage of alternative options. Depending on where you are located, you can visit the Storm Prediction Center, Norma, Oklahoma; the Twister Museum, Wakita; Palo Duro Canyon, Texas; or Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.
Joining a chase is now one of few holiday plans where rain is the best thing that can happen. Dozens of companies organise expeditions to chase these windy giants. The cost of these meteorological safaris is about $3,000 per head, and they take place in groups of between six and 14 people, divided between two vans that are fully equipped for this type of extreme activity.
Nick Drieschman, from Extreme Tornado Tours, one of the oldest agencies operating in Oklahoma, explains why it is important to use vehicles with 3M protection on the windows: to prevent damage caused by hail and severe gusts of wind. In one day, you may drive more than 400 km, and so the vehicles have Wi-Fi, batteries for electric devices and transmitters, like Sirius XM, with all types of music to keep you entertained in the calm before the storm.
Sleeping stops are in motels, just like on a road trip, and gas stations become meeting points, place for sharing experiences and information with other groups and locals. The Weather Channel is the soundtrack for the journey. If they announce a storm and the Doppler radar turns, the chase begins, which means the group must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Within minutes, the fluffy white clouds transform into an opaque, grey ceiling, which announces a supercell storm, a brutal clash between two air currents, which start turning until they create a tornado.
Safety is paramount and the groups must keep their distance from the vortex of these storms. In an F5 Tornado, the most destructive on the Fujita scale, the wind can be as strong as 500 km/h, enough to strip the roofs off houses, and create lightning and hail the size of golf balls.
The images from the video Vorticity, which photographer Mike Olbinski managed to film after following numerous kilometres and hours of shooting time, show the chaos and power of these air funnels. Being faced with the power of nature offers a big dose of humility. And the one piece of advice that expert chasers always give? “Hold on to your camera and shoes”. If not, then we may just go across to the other side, like Dorothy.