What makes a tornado?
It’s basically a violently-rotating column of air underneath a thunderstorm. Typically, humid air comes up from the Gulf of Mexico and hits the strong, cold winds of the jet stream – as they meet, the cold air sinks and begins to spin. Scientists still don’t fully understand exactly why they form, but we do know that the energy released by a good tornado is similar to that of a small nuclear bomb.
When’s the best time to see one?
The season in America runs from the end of April until early June. I help run a storm-chasing tour company and usually go over there in spring, basing myself in Oklahoma City. After that, we go wherever the prevailing winds take us. That can be anywhere from the Canadian border down to Mexico. In a ten-day tour, we’ll average about 4,500 to 5,000 miles in a fully-kitted passenger van.
Is it really the brown-trouser experience we’d imagine?
Oh yes. The first time I went I was absolutely petrified, and last year, I had a photographer from a British newspaper screaming to get out of the car. We were trying to get in behind a mile-wide tornado that we knew had demolished houses and was very violent. I knew we were behind it by quite a distance, maybe a mile-and-a-half, but all of a sudden we were engulfed by flying dirt and tree branches. It was getting dark, lashing with rain and on a slippery road. I was quite happy and wanted to keep chasing after the tornado, but the photographer was shouting, “Let me out! You’re going to kill me!” It wouldn’t have been a good place for him to have gotten out, though. He’d have been pummelled by flying gravel, dirt and god knows what else.
Is flying debris the biggest danger?
Not really. The biggest risk is stepping outside the vehicle you’re in to watch the tornado and being struck by lightning. There’s a lot of it in a storm, and it’s completely unpredictable. The other big risk is the wind that comes around from the back of the tornado – it’s called the rear-flank downdraft and is 100mph or more.
What’s been your hairiest moment?
A couple of years ago we’d been out storm chasing and then gone to a restaurant for dinner, just outside Oklahoma City. As we were eating, a weather warning came on the TV mentioning more tornadoes. We were in the middle of the warning area, and within seconds the restaurant was being hit by hailstones the size of golf balls; we could see the tornado was only three or four minutes away and headed directly for us. The electricity suddenly went off and we did the only thing we could do: we headed for the innermost secure room to try and sit it out. Everyone ended up cowering in the walk-in deep freezer, as we figured that was our safest place. The noise was phenomenal and the building began rocking as we waited for the roof to fly off and the walls to come tumbling down. Thankfully, the tornado actually just missed us.
Cool. How close do you get to a tornado when you’re out chasing?
Usually within half a mile. Tornadoes are quite predictable – once they’ve formed and are on the ground doing damage they pretty much follow a straight line. When we do the forecast in the morning we’ll know which storm will produce a tornado and roughly in which direction it will go. If you know what you’re doing, it’s really not that dangerous.
So what’s the closest you’ve come to meeting the reaper?
Last year myself and a colleague had turned off our equipment and started back to the hotel, unaware that the storm we’d been chasing had not only continued, but moved and become more violent. Without warning, it got very, very dark as the storm moved over us and we started seeing what we thought were flashes of lightning by the side of the road, but was actually power lines being brought down around us. Moments later, a wall of rain and flying debris came across the road 100 yards in front of us. If we’d been further up the road we’d have been hit by it. Even where we were our 4-wheel drive was being lifted up onto two wheels.
Could you have done a U-turn and outrun it?
Speeds of tornadoes vary from 10 to 70mph, and we actually try to find a position where the storms are coming towards us. That might sound mental, but if you get behind a fast moving storm it’s incredibly difficult to keep up with it. Safety-wise, we’re always looking for escape routes, and we’d never go down a dead-end road.
How can you be so sure about a storm’s flight path?
We rely very heavily on computer technology. Satellite navigation systems and radar images give an almost real-time picture of what’s happening. That’s all in the van with us, along with a broadband internet connection and the obligatory mobile phone. We also pick up weather updates via radio and satellite television every five minutes or so. It’s a high-tech operation.
Do amateur chasers ever get it wrong and end up being ripped apart?
There was one chaser killed earlier this year in a car crash. I think they were probably just driving too fast on a wet, slippery road. Tornadoes come and go quickly, so there’s an urgency to get to the storm and there’s an element of storm chasers who drive at pretty reckless speeds to get ahead of the crowd.
The crowd? How many of you are there?
There’s about 20 to 30 of us from the UK who storm chase regularly, but there’s an awful lot of Americans who do it. It’s an incredibly big pastime out there, with several thousand people who go out chasing. Out of those, there’s maybe a hundred that are any good.
Is there anywhere in Blighty with a weird, storm-friendly micro-climate?
There is – there’s a little hot spot down on the south coast, round by Selsey. Winds come round by the Isle of Wight and as they funnel up the Solent they create eddys and swirls. But they’re very weak. We haven’t had a genuinely violent tornado in the UK for hundreds of years.
What exactly do you get in the US that you can’t see here?
The storms over there are “supercells” and, unlike a British thunderstorm, they’re very organised. You can have blue sky either side with one single storm sitting in the middle on the horizon. It might only be a thousand metres from the ground, but the top of it could be as much 11 or 12 miles high. They produce hailstones the size of grapefruit, winds in excess of 100mph and constant lightning. At night you can turn your lights off and drive by the lightning alone.
Do you drop everything if you – ahem – “get wind” of a big storm brewing?
Sure. I did that last year – saw a really good weather pattern and was on the first available flight out. It was completely a spur of the moment thing and it cost me about £1,200 in travel alone.
Did you find yourself some action?
Yes, and it was worth every penny, although we only just made it. We drove straight to our forecast area, got on the storm as it formed and watched it evolve into a big tornadic storm. A tornado touched down half a mile from us and we stayed with it for twenty minutes before it ripped through a small town.
Well, tornado warnings are pretty good now, and because of that no one was killed. Plenty of houses were destroyed, though. All that was left was concrete foundations. The plumbing on a couple of houses had held the toilet in place but otherwise, everything had gone.
Flying houses, trees, cars… ever seen a flying pig?
No, but I have seen a flying cow. It happened in Texas when a tornado moved across some farmland and ripped right through a herd.
Original interview by Mal Alexander in the February 2005 issue of FHM UK magazine