University of Kansas students chase and film a tornado near Geneseo, Kan. in April 2012.
Every year as the snow finally melts and the days are a little longer and warmer, people realize spring is here. But spring isn’t the only season that has come. For a select group of students, a much more exciting season is upon them – storm-chasing season. For Mike Robinson, a former University of Kansas atmospheric science student, it’s one of the best times of year.
“It’s just amazing being able to go out and see one of nature’s most destructive tools up close. The amount of power tornadoes have being able to destroy buildings is just incredible,” Robinson said.
The atmospheric science students at KU prepare every spring to go and chase storms in hopes of seeing a tornado. They know it can be dangerous and don’t go out chasing haphazardly. In March, the KU chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) held a storm-chasing safety talk.
“We thought it would be a good idea to go in detail about how we chase and what kind of precautions we take before, and during, our chases,” said Prescott Bishop, president of KU’s chapter of AMS. “Overall, we think it’s important to continue to stress the safety aspect of chasing the most.”
Storm chasing, while part of the curriculum at other schools such as the University of Oklahoma, is not part of the curriculum at KU for legal and liability reasons. It can be dangerous not only because of the violent storms, but also because of the other chasers. Bishop says he’s seen some people chasing by themselves and checking their phone or computer while driving down the road.
“It’s always better to chase with at least one other person in the car,” Bishop said. “Then you can have one person whose sole duty is to drive and watch the road. We usually have three to five people per car when we chase so we can be constantly checking radars or maps.”
Not only is storm chasing an adrenaline rush to chase twisters, but it can also be beneficial. It gives an opportunity for the students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real life, such as forecasting and how storms are formed. For some students, chasing provides even more experience.
“I learned so much about forecasting and other aspects of meteorology when I would go out chasing,” Robinson said. “It’s really great to be able to pull off the experiences you and the other students in the car have from past chases.”
Not only is it beneficial for the students, it can be beneficial for the National Weather Service (NWS). Chasers can call into the local NWS office while out chasing and report any funnel clouds or tornadoes they see. However, they prefer you go through storm spotter training first.
“It kind of stinks that even though we’re atmospheric science students, sometimes the NWS won’t take our calls as seriously as some random guy that sat through an hour and a half long lecture,” Bishop said. “The only way to really get over that is to go sit through the lecture ourselves.”
Despite storm-chasing season technically being in full swing, KU students haven’t had a good outbreak of potentially severe storms to chase nearby. In mid-April, some students headed south to the Stillwater, Okla. area to try to chase some storms. The outcome wasn’t exactly what the students were hoping for.
“When we went down to Stillwater, we had a pretty big bust,” Bishop said. “We knew the really big severe storms with tornado potential were going to be closer to Texas. We were hopeful we would be able to see some good storms without going that far south.”
At the end of a chase, even if it is a bust, the students are usually glad they went.
“Sometimes when you have high hopes and you don’t see a tornado, you can come away dejected,” Robinson said. “But even then, you had a good time driving around with your friends cracking jokes. And hell, sometimes we have fun just skipping class.”