Thursday, January 24, 2008
A trek into the Great Plains to hunt nature’s most elusive predator
By Jenna Blum
OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL EVENING it is in the Oklahoma Panhandle, five miles west of Guymon. The sunset blazes orange, cattle graze on yucca flowers, prairie grasses wave serenely toward the horizon.
At least, on one side of Highway 412.
On the other, a massive Supercell thunderstorm rotates low over the land.
Black and purple, with a bright green heart of softball-sized hail, the circular storm bears uncanny resemblance to an Independence Day spaceship. Vans, Doppler-radar trucks, and emergency vehicles zoom along its periphery like ants rimming a giant carousel.
On the storm’s underbelly, ragged clouds start twisting into a drill bit. Over the CB, on “chaser channel” 146.520 MhZ, meteorologist “Dr. Bob” Conzemius tells four vans of hopeful listeners, “It’s reorganizing.”
Sure enough, the drill bit elongates into a crooked finger pointing toward the ground. All along 412 breath is collectively held. If that snaky green funnel touches down, it’ll become the Great Plains’ most feared and destructive weather phenomenon: a tornado.
Precisely what the clients of Texas-based stormchase company Tempest Tours have traveled 5 days and almost 3000 miles to see.
THE 2000 GLOSSARY OF METEOROLOGY defines a tornado as “a violently rotating column of air…pendant from cloud to ground.” The weakest twister boasts 85 mph winds; the strongest is a 250+ mph blender that liquefies everything in its path—for instance, Greensburg, KS, on May 5, 2007.
Who would willingly seek out these vicious vortices? As Helen Hunt said in the 1996 movie Twister, “Who are these people?”
First you have your experts: there are approximately 200 professional stormchasers in the US, 5 of them leading Tempest’s 2007 Memorial Day Tour. In the off-season, the Tempest boys hail from Pennsylvania to California and range from cabinet salesman to wind specialist. Kinney Adams is a Wisconsin videographer, Keith Brown an insurance analyst from Chicago; tour director and 7-year Tempest veteran Bill Reid is a grocery-store clerk and LAX weather spotter in his other life. What do these men share? In most cases, a meteorology degree—and in all, an extreme love of extreme weather. Every storm season, from May-July, they’re tooling the Plains, guiding one of Tempest’s 7 tours or chasing solo during downtime.
Then there are Tempest’s clients, civilians willing to pay $1895-$2550 per tornado safari. There are 19 guests on this excursion—Tempest’s largest ever; most average 6-11 clients—and, not surprisingly, most of us converging on Oklahoma City’s Wingate Inn for orientation are “weather weenies,” myself included. I’ve been tornado-obsessed since childhood, when I saw one in my grandmother’s farm town. Tour photographer Marcia Perez shoots severe storms from her native Dallas. Rochester, MN resident and Wizard of Oz fanatic Leisa Luis-Grill requested this trip for her 50th birthday. West Virginian Doug Nichols is a SKYWARN spotter.
But 8 clients come from storm-starved Britain and the Netherlands. How did they get hooked? “A Discovery Channel documentary on freak weather,” says Peter Playford, a spry sixty-something Londoner.
“I’ve been waiting 10 years, since Twister,” adds James Connor from Manchester, UK.
“I have no interest in any of this,” says his aunt Melanie Connor. “I stupidly promised I’d take James for his 18th birthday.”
Californian Stacy Williams wins for most creative motivation: “I just like riding in vans with strangers.”
Lucky for Stacy, because as Bill explains, tornadoes are elusive beasts, and
hunting them is more chess than chasing. He projects the US government’s Storm Prediction Center website on the wall to highlight necessary ingredients for “tornadogenesis”: warm and cold air colliding, moisture, wind shear to induce rotation—and an X factor not even top scientists understand. One Supercell may spawn a twister while another, containing all the same elements, might not. Of about 1200 tornadoes that do touch down annually in the US, most occur over rural areas and last about 30 seconds. And this can happen anywhere in Tornado Alley, from Texas to North Dakota. Essentially we’re embarking on an expensive gamble. Tempest president Martin Lisius says Tempest clients typically see tornadoes every 5 of 6 tours and almost always see Supercells. But our tour could travel 500 miles a day to intercept a promising storm—without, as Tempest emphatically emphasizes, any tornadic guarantees.
“Stormchasing involves a lot of patience, a lot of waiting and long hours of driving,” affirms guide Brian Morganti..
In other words, a lot of riding in vans with strangers.
SINCE WE’VE ALEADY SIGNED WAIVERS absolving Tempest of our tornado-related deaths, our leaders brief us on non-cyclonic dangers—rattlesnakes, lightning, too much liquid intake. Then we pile into 4 radar-laden minivans and hit the road. Destination: Hays, KS, halfway to tomorrow’s happy hunting grounds in Nebraska.
We drive, grab beef jerky and Mountain Dew at truck stops, do a 19-person conga through restrooms, then drive some more. Entertainment consists of roadside kitsch—“See The World’s Biggest Prairie Dog!”—and our storm-seasoned guides comparing war stories with the mnemonic memory of baseball enthusiasts. “Weren’t you here in 2001?” asks Bill over the chaser channel as we flash through Hoisington, KS..
“April 21, F4 tornado,” confirms Dr. Bob, our captive PhD.
The next afternoon, near Ogallala, NE, we spot our first Supercell. It hangs over the highway like a giant white anvil, its top sheared characteristically flat by strong stratospheric winds.
“Anyone see a Wheel of Fortune?” asks Keith, referring to the spinning disk that appears on Baron Threat-Net radar when a storm starts rotating.
Before there’s an answer, we crest a ridge and see a translucent column connecting a tiny pointy funnel to a debris cloud. From our distance, it’s the size of a toothpick. We speed into a dip, and when we emerge, it’s gone.
“That was a TORNADO!” Marcia and I scream.
“That wasn’t a tornado, folks,” says Dr. Bob. “That was a landspout.” A landspout, he explains, forms when dust gets sucked up by a storm’s powerful updraft winds, whereas a tornado originates from a Wheel of Fortune Supercell.
Our caravan has strong powers of denial. “I think that was a tornado,” says Leisa, aiming her camcorder toward the storm as it churns over a farm road.
“We could just pretend that’s a tornado,” suggests New Yorker Erik Trinidad of the wedge-shaped rain core. “Nobody at home will know the difference.”
We stand shivering in the storm’s cold outflow winds, gaping skyward as if waiting to be beamed up by the mothership. A fleet of spacecraft-shaped Supercells silently surrounds us on the horizon. But the show’s over for now, and the most exciting event en route to Kadoka, SD is we run over a rattlesnake.
FOR THREE DAYS we’re teased by cruel storms. Near Limon, CO, we chase what Dr. Bob calls “an icemaker,” a huge, dignified Supercell that glows the
astonishing deep blue-green of an Alaskan glacier and bombards us with golfball-sized hail. In lonesome ranchland, we encounter what Keith dubs “the mustache storm of doom” because of two horizontal clouds kissing beneath its base. Over Capulin, a defunct New Mexico volcano, a Supercell inflates and collapses at time-lapse speed, taunting us with a rainbow as it disappears.
We drive through flooding downpours, a dust storm, a grassfire set by CG (cloud-to-ground) lightning, cattle herds, and tumbleweed attack. As British geologist Dan Irwin says: “Everything but the Big T.”
Are the tornado tourists disappointed?
“No, because we’re seeing the America you never see,” explains Peter in the Badlands.
“It’s awesome,” agrees Doug, exploring a Colorado ghost town populated by cow skulls, rusting baby buggies, and a boxcar full of meathooks. “Very relaxing.”
And the occupants of Van 3, the “Kitschmobile,” are in heaven. As we pinball from Pierre, SD to Tucumcari, NM, they discover Orange Crush cake, Frito Pie, supermarket skull rings, and the life-sized brontosaurus guarding I-90’s kitsch Nirvana, Wall Drug.
“This tour is like a trip through your childhood foods,” says Leisa, eating her favorite, Cherry Mash. “I’m having a wonderful time.”
WHETHER IT’S GOOD KARMA OR THE GUMMYWORMS Doug and his van-mates feed an Oklahoman storm on Memorial Day, our 3000-mile effort finally results in a closer encounter. We’ve followed this Supercell for 6 hours, observing its life cycle from cumulus puff to the monster mesocyclone now covering Cimarron County. Around dinnertime, as we’re paralleling it on 412, it produces a big anteater-snout funnel—that quickly feathers apart.
But the storm isn’t done yet. Ten minutes later, Bill allows a short observational stop, and we join the “chaser jam” lining 412 just as Guymon’s sirens go off. The wind punches our vehicles and keens in the telephone wires.The Supercell’s base lowers further, extinguishing all light but a wink of sunset and its own luminous green core. I’m thinking how much my grandmother feared that eerie phosphorescence when a thin funnel snakes from it sideways. It lengthens, crooks toward the ground, and touches down—for a few second. Then, languorously, it retracts and is gone. Our crew stands in silent awe.Or is it anticlimax?
I ask during our post-midnight post-mortem in an Amarillo, TX McDonald’s.
“I’m ready to do it again tomorrow,” says Doug.
“Me too,” says Manchester Melanie—formerly reluctant chaperone, now addict. “It was so beautiful I forgot to be scared.”
There’s enthusiastic agreement. Everyone’s wall-eyed with adrenaline, talking like newly inducted cult members.
“I’ve never been a religious person,” says Leisa as we head out to catch 40 winks before our final day’s chase. “But that storm was like communion—being one with something so much bigger than yourself.”
Jenna Blum’s debut novel THOSE WHO SAVE US has been on the New York Times bestseller list since October 2007, earned the Harold Ribalow Prize by Elie Wisel, and is currently in its ninth paperback printing. Jenna runs novel workshops at Grub Street Writers in Boston, her home city between stormchasing ventures to research her next novel.