Tornado Chasing: Q&A with Veteran Storm Chaser Amos Magliocco
AccuWeather recently ran an article called “Dying to Shoot Tornadoes” in which they discussed a couple in Indiana who filmed a violent tornado rather than seeking shelter immediately. The husband lost his life as the EF-4 giant impacted their house. Included in the piece were various references to storm chasing and a somewhat misleading photo and photo caption about storm chasers.
I decided to write a response to the article, as well as examine some general tornado safety ideas, in the form of an opinion piece on the state of tornado voyeurism (published on the Capital Weather Gang). While contemplating what to write and how to frame it, I sent a few questions over to long-time storm chaser Amos Magliocco with the request to answer whatever he felt like.
Well, he produced a masterpiece on the subject and graciously agreed to have the entire question and answer session posted here. It is reproduced in full below.
Q: How did you become a storm chaser? Do you have any professional training in meteorology?
Amos Magliocco (AM): I started when a PBS documentary and then the movie “Twister” showed that I didn’t have to wait for storms to come to me. I was always fascinated with severe weather and thought that thunderstorms were intensely beautiful from afar. If I could forecast their future location, which was a lot of fun itself, and have a great excuse for a road trip in the bargain, then I was hooked. Most chasers love long drives. You have to. We can tolerate greasy food and bitter coffee from the motel lobby. We enjoy talking to locals about the famous tornadoes they remember.
I met other new chasers who were as thrilled as I was with the weird intricacies of mesoscale forecasting. We were weather geeks, no doubt about it. My friends Scott Blair and Eric Nguyen both became meteorologists and researchers, and with a few others we were fairly obsessed for many years. Some people would say we still are. We spent hours chatting over the mundane details of computer weather models or the advantages of certain “target” areas for road networks and visibility. As those guys finished their Meteorology coursework, I was in an MFA program for fiction writing at Indiana University. I’ve never taken a meteorology class myself. I was lucky grow up in the hobby with people who patiently answered my many questions.
Q: How often do you chase per year on average? Do you always call in reports to the NWS? Does the NWS reach out to you?
AM: I still chase twenty times a year. For several years during the 2000s I went out thirty times, between March and June, then another chase or two in October. I’m more selective now. I also don’t think a trip to Nebraska from Dallas is justified on its own merit anymore. Back then I needed very little excuse to leave on a 1,500 mile round trip. I still love the road, but a little less than before. I always contact the NWS to report severe conditions, either through the Spotter Network software, which is the most efficient way, or amateur radio, or by phone. The NWS will often contact chasers they’re familiar with if they see our icons on Spotter Network near a “storm of interest.” I’ve been called many times and I’m glad to help. Without the NWS and their products, without the research funded primarily by the public through NOAA, the ability to forecast and warn for life-threatening weather would still be as primitive as it was in the 1950s. It’s nice to have the chance to give back. I think about guys like Al Moller and Charles Doswell who found their storms the hard way, and developed the technology and process so that my chase career has been much easier.
Amos Magliocco is a writer and storm chaser who caught his first supercell in 1996. His stories and essays have appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology, The Missouri Review, Re-divider, and other journals. He serves on the editorial staff of the Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology and teaches writing and literature at the University of North Texas.
Q: Do you feel that your interest in chasing has helped you learn more about storms than you otherwise might have? Do chasers seem interested in the science as much as the thrill?
AM: I loved the weather before I chased storms, but now I’m a modestly experienced tornado forecaster and that’s come from necessity. As longtime NWS meteorologist Al Moller once said, “Storm chasing has a built in penalty function. If you fail to properly forecast storms, you wind up sitting around under clear skies with a long drive home for nothing.” There’s no way my weather interest would have become so specialized without the hobby.
As the hobby evolves, a few newer chasers openly disclaim any interest in the scientific aspects. As the NWS and Storm Prediction Center issue more precise, “high-resolution” tornado forecasts, it’s possible for inexperienced chasers or even local citizens to reach the correct general area without knowing why they went there. Then with a simple radar program, you can see a storm initiate and drive towards it. Of course that’s fairly dangerous, because part of the knowledge you lack is basic thunderstorm anatomy and morphology. If you don’t know anything about what you’re chasing, you can’t anticipate what it might do next.
Some new chasers promote themselves as a brand or create what they imagine is a public image, and they’re not as compelled by the science. I’m very glad that I was and that I met other new chasers who were, too. Without the wonderful puzzle of forecasting, I would never have tolerated all the greasy burgers and cold burritos under heat lamps. I think that’s what’s happening to the new chasers who disappear the next year. Their satisfaction derives only from seeing a tornado, which only occurs once in every six or seven chases. If you don’t like forecasting and don’t see even a failed chase as a learning opportunity, those tornado-less trips might seem like completely wasted effort.
Other chasers are focused on photography or video and take an aesthetic approach to the hobby. They also keep in touch with the NWS when they see severe conditions, but these chasers need forecasting skill, too. You can’t photograph what you can’t find. Many chasers have cultivated real artistic talent with their cameras on those long chases when you’re waiting for the storms to erupt. It’s another way to enjoy the experience.
Q: How often do you, or chasers you know, accidentally or purposefully end up in a truly dangerous position while chasing?
AM: In 2007, Eric Nguyen and I were struck by a tornado in Tulia, Texas. It was an accident, a long story I wrote about in other places, but still something that shouldn’t have happened to two veteran chasers. By then we’d probably seen three hundred tornadoes between us. A few weeks later, on the morning of a chase, I ran into another veteran chaser who told me he was sorry to hear what had happened (Eric and I both escaped without injury, but the storm totaled his car) and that he (the veteran chaser) considered a good, safe viewing distance to be “about seven miles.” I did a cartoon double-take. Any closer than this was dangerous, he felt. But to me, if you’re seven miles away you might as well stay at home. So “dangerous” is a relative term, obviously. Nobody wants to get hurt.
The best chasers are excellent risk analysts who think in terms of probabilities, though the margins get pretty slim sometimes. In the last five years, more chasers have been hit by tornadoes or satellite vortices than in the previous forty years combined. Nobody’s been killed. It’s something the chasers community tracks pretty carefully. I’m not aware than any chaser has sustained even a serious injury. There’s evidence now that it’s not a certain death sentence to be struck by a tornado while in a vehicle. Low end tornadoes are survivable if you manage to get caught in the wrong place. However, that isn’t to say you want to be in a car or anything not anchored to ground. You don’t. You want to reach secure shelter, underground if possible, or in the interior room of a house away from windows. It’s nothing for a strong tornado to lift a car hundreds of feet and throw it downstream. When the car stops rolling it looks like those crushed cubes of steel and glass in a salvage yard. I’ve seen it. It would be a horrific death.
Q: Do you feel the good that comes from storm chasing outweighs the bad?
AM: When Eric and I were struck by the tornado in Tulia, we managed to record a 197 mb pressure drop, the sharpest pressure drop ever observed on Earth. The resultant pressure was also the lowest measured on the planet’s surface when adjusted for sea level. Eric gave this incredibly valuable data to the National Weather Service and four meteorologists authored an academic paper and provided a theoretical basis, from computer simulations, for how such a pressure deficit was possible. While this isn’t the manner in which chasers like to contribute (and it certainly wasn’t our goal that afternoon), the fact is undeniably that chasers are responsible for helping researchers and operational meteorologists, too.
Chasers are often the backbone of the warning system outside densely populated urban areas. It’s common knowledge now that NWS Operations Rooms monitor chaser video streams to assist in their warning decision process. NWS staff will place voice calls to reliable, trusted chasers to ask about the visual clues from a thunderstorm.
As for the bad, occasionally chasers clog rural roads, and on rare occasions may impede emergency vehicles. That’s unfortunate, obviously, and is always followed by much hand-wringing in the community. No legitimate chaser considers that to be responsible or acceptable behavior. The worst thing we do is jam cell phone towers in areas experiencing severe weather. With probably 50% of chasers using streaming video technology, it’s easy to overwhelm smaller transmitters. This I suspect is the biggest negative, and it’s not a small problem.
Q: Do you know (personally or otherwise) of any storm chasers who have died while chasing a storm?
AM: It’s a young hobby. I can name every prominent chaser who’s passed away from any cause, and not a single one has died during storm chasing operations. They all died of natural causes or in auto accidents while driving home from a chase. More often than not it’s the next day.
Q: Has “chaser convergence” significantly impacted storm chasing in recent years?
AM: Convergence makes a big difference. When I started, you could pull over and approach veteran chasers, and if there wasn’t a tornado underway they loved to chat about what they thought of the storm. One of the founding chasers is Al Moller. Al would deliver an animated lecture right there on the side of the road, pointing to features of the storm and explaining how he imagined it would evolve. When he and his longtime chase partner Dr. Charles Doswell were together, it was like a graduate class—absolutely thrilling to hear them compare notes in the field. These were guys who’d already chased twenty years when my “class” came around. We had everything to learn and we knew it. Now, unfortunately, there’s hardly anywhere to pull off the road. You pass long caravans parked on the side and you have to slow down because someone may run into the road or pull out into traffic without checking their mirror (something I’ve done myself).
Even as recently as ten years ago you saw the same faces over and over, from the Texas Panhandle to South Dakota, May through June. Now I don’t recognize 80% of the chasers I see, there are hundreds during the peak season, and few stick with the hobby. None of this is inherently bad, but the sense of community is fragmented if not lost entirely.
Q: Do you have a favorite type of storm setup to chase? Do you have a favorite chase, or are all tornadoes equal? How about your biggest bust?
AM: My favorite setups are slow-moving, isolated supercells over open country, in the high plains of West Texas, western Kansas, or eastern Colorado. The vast, flat stage with a big sky is perfect for storms you can follow on foot, if you had to. In June the upper level winds slacken a little and storms don’t race away. The Texas caprock escarpment is my favorite place for storms. It’s preternaturally flat, and the elevation creates some meteorological advantages via orogrpahic lifting. Approaching the caprock from the east you make a sudden ascent through the canyons until you reach the Llano Estacado and it’s very dramatic, like taking the stage yourself.
At this point, favorite chases are all about the people you shared them with. It really comes down to that. In 2001, in Happy, Texas I saw what I thought was a giant wedge tornado with my chase partner Jeff Lawson. Now I realize Happy was a relatively small tornado surrounded by a mammoth curtain of dust. The video clip on You Tube shows how giddy and excited we were the entire time. When we jumped back in the car to reposition, my future chase partner Eric Nguyen warned us over the radio that another tornado was right behind us. On March 28, 2007, Eric and I found a beautiful white tornado in the dry bed of the Red River, and it lifted a skirt of red, sandy loam all around its base. An amazing sight. That night, we came very close to a powerful tornado near McLean, Texas. March 2007 was about the time we started to think we could do no wrong—an opinion Mother Nature would change a few weeks later. With all my regular chase pals, I can think of one or two unforgettable events.
My most painful “busts” are those days when a few critical decisions or plain bad luck prevents you from seeing a tornado that becomes famous. On May 22, 2004, with Chris Collura, Jason Foster, and Jeff Gammons, I tried like hell to turn the corner on what was at that time one of the more violent tornadoes of the decade. For years that tornado was simply known as “Hallam,” for the town in Nebraska. We never got an angle on it, though we kept pace the entire way. We were stuck south of the circulation and our view was blocked by the rain curtain. Each time our road network improved, we ran into another bridge under construction or closed highway. It was incredibly bad luck. Now it seems amusing, but I agonized over that day for a long time.
Q: In closing, what are your thoughts about the rest of week and into the weekend? I’m assuming you’ll be out chasing. Any early ideas on a target?
AM: This weekend’s pattern in Tornado Alley is dramatic. On the night before a string of chase days like this, you know that before it’s over, dozens of supercells will surely have produced several tornadoes, at least. What you don’t know, and what crowds your mind as you pack cameras and clothes, is if you’ll make the right decisions in forecasting and interception to see them for yourself. By the time you come home, there’s no telling what you’ll have seen.
Blair, Scott; Deroche, Derek; Pietrycha, Albert (2008). “In Situ Observations of the 21 April 2007 Tulia, Texas Tornado”. E-Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology 3 (3). ISSN 1559-5404.
Magliocco, Amos (Spring 2008). “Put on the Petty”. The Missouri Review 31(1): 76–91. doi:10.1353/mis.2008.0037. ISSN 0191-1961. http://www.cycloneroad.com/UNT/PettyTMR.pdf
Magliocco, Amos (Spring 2010) “The Sharpest Fall” Isotope, Spring 2010. http://www.cycloneroad.com/UNT/SharpestFallIsotope.pdf
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