June 19, 2014
Your first inclination may be to stay as far away from a tornado as possible. But it’s just this natural phenomenon, no doubt popularised worldwide by the movies The Wizard of Oz and Twister that have made severe storm chasing an increasingly popular holiday pursuit. We caught up with the Kansas City storm chasers to find out about life along Tornado Alley.
Recognised by some as the “severe weather capital of the world,” Tornado Alley occurs across the central Great Plains region of the U.S. – extending from north Texas into Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. It’s so named because it’s here that during mostly the spring and summer months what is called a “dryline” forms, separating moist air coming from the Gulf of Mexico from the dry air of the Southwest. This often results in dangerous thunderstorms capable of producing torrential rain, large hail and gale force (63 to 74 kilometre per hour) winds. And at their worst, tornadoes.
Modern day advances in science and technology have greatly enhanced the intellectual capacity of severe storms and tornadoes. State-of-the-art equipment used today by scientists, meteorologists, educators and others includes radar, satellite imagery, weather maps, lightning detection systems and other technology that together provide valuable scientific information that helps predict their movement, saving countless lives along the way.
Storm chasing along Tornado Alley (and sometimes in areas across New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa and South Dakota) has become so popular, in fact, that a rash of these pheromone-laced adventures have been featured on the BBC, National Geographic Television, CNN, The Weather Channel, and on numerous other worldwide TV and cable networks.
But then there are the adrenaline-junkies who chase storms just for the thrill of it. And they are doing so in record numbers by embarking upon a wide variety of storm chasing holiday adventure tours.
Among these thrill-seeking companies is Silver Lining Tours. Manager Roger Hill says that in the past decade, the number of guests has tripled.
“We run nine tours and average 130 guests each year,” says Hill. “We have people from every walk of life and about 55 per cent of our guests come back year after year. Once you do a tour, it is easy to get hooked on it!”
Hill started storm chasing 30 years ago as a child when a violent tornado in Topeka, Kansas failed to scare him away from severe weather, instead piquing his interest.
“I love the beauty of a storm and how it interacts with the countryside surrounding it,” he says. “I have witnessed 688 tornadoes, and every time I feel like it is the first time watching this powerful force.”
Martin Lisius, President of Tempest Tours, Inc., grew up with storms in Texas. He went from photographing lightning from the family’s kitchen window at age six, to entering weather projects in school science fairs, building a 3D model of a tornadic supercell, plotting tornado watches on large maps using weather radio, and finally, in 1987, to chasing them.
“Tornado chasing was a natural progression for me,” Lisius says. “I was able to switch roles – I became the predator, and it the prey.”
Both Silver Lining Tours and Tempest Tours, like most storm chasing companies out there, find that their guests are not typically extreme thrill-seekers, rather your average guys and girls possessing an insatiable curiosity about these awe-inspiring feats of Mother Nature.
So how close can you actually get to a Tornado? Well, safety – from equipment to procedures, experience of the guides, transport vehicles, and so forth – is always of the utmost importance for any storm chaser.
“Storm chasers can SAFELY get within a mile of a tornado,” Hill says. “Some chasers have specially built vehicles that allow them to get closer, [but] the dangers of getting very close are tremendous.”
Lisius agrees. “Our staff only gets close enough to tornadoes to take good pictures, but not in the path. That is not our mission. Tornadoes are dangerous and attempting to intentionally go into one is insanity.”
Despite this, for some, the exhilaration of the chase is a sort of “roving high” that intensifies the closer you get. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for some tours to traverse up to several hundred kilometres of terrain in a single day just to reach a specific, identified, severe storm or tornado area.
Header photo: Supercell © Roger Hill, Silver Lining Tours
Visiting Kansas City has never been easier with our partnership with Delta with daily flights across the Atlantic.
Have you been on a storm-chasing holiday along Tornado Alley? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.
Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin