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Sunny vacations? No way!
RAP scientist leads tourists toward tornadoes

While some vacationers might opt for a luxury cruise in the Caribbean and others prefer a quiet camping trip in Yellowstone, increasing numbers want to spend their vacations chasing the worst weather they can find—especially one of nature’s greatest spectacles, the tornado. To meet this demand, several tour companies have formed in recent years to bring people closer to severe storms.

Enter Scott Landolt, associate scientist in NCAR’s Research Applications Program. A veteran storm chaser, he spent his vacation this year as an employee of Silver Lining Tours, one of several companies offering trips along Tornado Alley.

Like many other staffers, Scott has gone storm chasing with friends. But he prefers working as a tour guide, escorting weather buffs from as far away as New Zealand and Germany. “I enjoy the camaraderie and getting to meet people from different places,” he says. “Plus the equipment on the vans really helps us to pinpoint the weather.”

Scott led two tours of about a week each in mid-May and late June. His role as a meteorological tour guide was twofold. He provided weather briefings, as well as meteorological explanations of storms, for the participants at the start of each day, and—over the course of the two tours—he drove a van approximately 9,700 miles, crisscrossing several states in pursuit of storms. How demanding was Scott’s itinerary? In May, he drove from Denver to Oklahoma City to pick up the van and the tour participants. The group then traveled back to Colorado Springs, north to Douglas, Wyoming, southeast to York, Nebraska, on to Salina, Kansas, and then back to Oklahoma City, before heading for Wichita Falls, Midland, and Amarillo, Texas.

Scott and the other tour drivers used weather forecasts from two models, RUC (Rapid Update Cycle) and Eta, to decide where to hunt storms each day. They also conferred frequently by radio to decide which weather patterns showed the most promise for severe storm activity.

Such six-to-ten day tours typically cost about $2,000 or a bit more per person for transportation (in a 15-person van) and lodging. Dining out during such trips can be something of a hit-or-miss proposition. Scott cautions that a meal might consist of “a hotdog at 7-11. People have to be pretty flexible—we often eat wherever we can along the back roads.”

Despite the sometimes rushed pace, clients come from across the United States as well as overseas to seek out tornadoes, hailstorms, and other instances in which updrafts and downdrafts lead to weather mayhem. “Severe weather holds a strong attraction for many people. The unpredictability of weather is definitely a draw,” Scott explains. “Storm chasing is an addiction. There’s always the appeal of the unknown—what are we going to see today?”

Scott’s second 2002 tour began with what turned out to be his best storm-chasing day of the summer. On 23 June, he and his five-person group witnessed eight tornadoes in northeastern South Dakota near the town of Leola. Describing one tornado, Scott relates, “We were driving pretty fast and the tornado was following us. It was back lit by the Sun and picking up speed as it traveled in a straight line down the dirt road we were on. I could see trees disappearing. As I looked in my rear- and side-view mirrors, I could see a black boiling cloud behind me—it sounded like a rushing waterfall.”

That day was definitely the most memorable of the tour for Clair Bailey, a British accountant on her fourth tour (the first was an 18th birthday present from her family). “This was the first year that I had been fortunate enough to see tornadoes on a tour, even though I’d previously seen amazing supercell structures and large hail and lightning,” Clair says. The first tornado the group saw formed into a violent wedge, and “we watched in awe as it crossed a road a mile ahead of us. I was totally stunned and amazed that I was actually seeing what I had been watching on videos for years.”

Client reactions vary widely, according to Roger Hill, one of Scott’s colleagues. Roger is a veteran storm chaser who holds an unofficial record for witnessing 40 tornadoes in a single season. “We tell clients that they could be in some dangerous situations, but some don’t realize that until it happens. We had a father and daughter leave the tour after coming really close to a rain-wrapped tornado in North Dakota a couple of years ago. They got to see the incredible damage as it was happening, and we were very close. It scared them so much, they left.”

In contrast, Scott tells about an attorney who signed up for a tour with his teenage son. “This guy set up a little office in the back of the van and, as we were traveling, he’d be sitting back there wheeling and dealing on his cell phone. We actually drove through a bad hailstorm and the guy just sat back there, working.”

The storm chasing experience, although certainly not for everybody, allows those who love weather and adventure to combine these two interests. The first large-scale chasing for research took place in the 1970s at the National Severe Storms Laboratory and Texas Tech University. Scott and Roger agree that the 1996 movie Twister, which dramatized storm chasing, had a lot to do with popularizing the activity among nonmeteorologists. Storm-chasing traffic has increased substantially in the past few years. Roger has witnessed nearly 300 vehicles lined up on the back roads of Texas and Oklahoma during peak days of storm season.

Are people who get close to severe storms putting themselves in unnecessary danger? Clair doesn’t think so. “If I went chasing alone without someone who knows what they’re doing, then yes, I would consider that a risk,” she explains. “When chasing with Scott Landolt and Roger Hill, though, I have complete confidence in their abilities.”

•Nancy Norris Wade
Nancy, employment administrator in Human Resources, is an occasional contributor to SN Monthly.

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