Storm Chasing: A Real-Life Story

Storm chasing isn’t always as thrilling as in the movies – no houses on their way to the land of Oz, no flying cows – but with patience, you can see some pretty amazing displays of weather wonder.

Tony Perkins, a recreational storm chaser from Minnesota, shares his storm chasing experiences:

Intro to Storm Chasing

During the active tornado months (May-August), you have to keep your schedule open because when a chase day comes, you often only have a day or two of notice. You can spend hours determining if and where you will go, then spend an extra 8 hours and $40 in gas only to see a rain shower or even no storms at all.

But once in a while, you'll be rewarded with a beautiful looking storm that makes it all worthwhile. Tornadoes may be rare, but the storms that can produce them happen much more frequently, and can be just as satisfying to witness: spinning clouds that look like flying saucers, vivid lightning, and hail the size of golf balls.

Driving to the “Hook” of the Storm

If you're lucky, here is what happens. You drive to your target area a few hours before you expect storms to form. Tornadoes usually form when storms are just starting, so there’s a limited time before it gets dark.

Once a storm shows up in the sky or on radar (many chasers have mobile internet access and a laptop), it's a race to figure out a route to it: you want to be on the southeast edge of storms, which usually move East.

If you're to the north, you'll be in rain and hail and it would be hard to see a tornado coming. If you're behind the tornado to the West, it will also be obscured by rain. The southeast, also known as being able to see inside the "hook" of the storm, is where you'll have the best opportunity to see a tornado. You'll have to keep moving every few minutes to stay ahead of the storm.

The First Storm

I saw my first (and still only real) tornado in June, 2005 near Madelia, MN. I had just started chasing that spring and wasn't as educated about things as I should have been. My equipment at the time consisted of just an atlas and a battery powered weather radio for warnings. When warnings came across the radio, I started driving to towards the county with the warnings, which was to the south. That means I drove through the rain and hail in the north side of the storm. It was so bad that I turned around – my car didn't have any hail dents and I didn't want any! So I drove out of it, and not too much later saw some dirt circulating across the ground on a gravel road.

The clouds above were spinning, and I was freaked out. I drove out of there right away, and got a mile away and stopped. About one minute later, a funnel cloud came down and then proceeded to form into a nice long picturesque tornado which lasted about 5 minutes. At this time, caravans of cars chasing the storm came from the south and west... where you were supposed to safely be!

I was the only person in the dangerous northern part of the storm, but that day I was thrilled. I remember shaking as I was witnessing the tornado. It was one of the things I wanted to accomplish in life, and I had done it after just 3 chases. I thought that may be the end of it, but I had caught the bug. After this day, I made it a priority to learn more about storms so I would be safer out there.

That winter I went to a gathering of local chasers and helped build up a network, and now I chase with other people when our schedules match up. It's good to have someone navigating and watching the weather data on the laptop while the other drives. It also gives you a second brain to help make forecasting decisions.

The Perfect Storm

In 2007, I was determined to make a trip to the big time of Kansas in the peak month of May. On the weekend of May 4-6, there was an excellent weather setup, and being over a weekend, it was a no brainer: this was the weekend to go.

I saw a storm that had tennis ball sized hail and a spinning "mothership" look to it – you can't see that kind of storm up here in Minnesota, and to date, it’s the coolest thing I've seen in the sky. That night is the same one where an F-5 tornado destroyed the town of Greensberg, Kansas.

The rest of the weekend was spent hopping from what seemed like an endless supply of storm after storm. My chase partner and I saw low rotating clouds, giant black clouds, and just about everything except a tornado. The scariest moment of the whole weekend was taking a Kansas red dirt road, which becomes as slick as ice when it gets wet, even when crawling at 10 MPH. I was just waiting to slide into the ditch while getting back to pavement. Actually the most dangerous thing when chasing isn't the storms, but it's getting into a car accident on the way to or from the chase. That storm was the best thing I saw all year.

Thanks Tony!

Interested in learning more about storm chasing? Tony shares his top tips on how to get started in storm chasing...

Reviewed 5/2009