When the sky grew dark, power lines snapped and trees fell in Alabama on Wednesday, Jeff Shardell pointed his modified Yukon vehicle directly toward the deadly tornadoes.
He and his partner got within 100 yards of one twister at Centerville, Alabama, saw four other tornadoes during the day, and lived to tell the story.
Shardell, 45, is a storm chaser, one of thousands of people around the United States who pursue tornadoes for recreation or profit. Part of their reward is the sheer awe of witnessing a dramatic, lightning-illuminated spiral destroying everything in its path, and part of it is the pursuit itself.
“There are moments when you say,`Why am I doing this?’” said Shardell.
The United States has more tornadoes than any other country, averaging 1,200 to 1,300 per year, said Joshua Wurman, a scientist and president of the nonprofit Center for Severe Weather and Research in Boulder, Colorado. The record was 1,800 in 2004 and this year got off to a dramatic start. More than half of tornadoes occur from April to June, when cool, dry air from Canada collides with warm, moist Gulf of Mexico air.
While storms this week devastated large swaths of seven southern states and killed more than 200 people, there are so many trees and hills in the south that storm chasers find it tough going.
Their mecca is the flat prairies of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, where more than a third of all U.S. tornadoes develop. During peak season chasers can literally see the storm clouds rolling in from miles away.
Tornado Alley is Todd Thorn’s office, so to speak. Owner of Storm Chasing Adventure Tours, he takes tourists on a tornado scavenger hunt across the prairies.
“It’s beautiful when it’s open grassland — the lightning inside the cloud, the different colors in the sky, the shape of the tornado second by second.” said Thorn, 46, from Montana.
Thorn’s six-day, $2,600 tours draw people from as far away as England and Australia.
“Some people hike, some people go white-water rafting and some people storm chase,” Wurman, the scientist, said.
Thorn guarantees that his tornado tourists will see severe thunderstorms, but not necessarily a tornado. And he says it is safe because they stay on the back side of the funnel.
But storm-chasing can be dangerous. Some chasers wear helmets. Steve Miller, who lives in a suburb of Oklahoma City, wears shatterproof sunglasses to protect his eyes.
Miller’s closest call was near Throckmorton, Texas, in 2002 when a tornado dropped down from the sky directly on top of his vehicle. “All of a sudden things get still and your ears start popping,” recalled Miller, who was not seriously injured.
He has a company that provides live breaking news streaming for various media. He also pursues what he calls “the money shot” — the perfect still image of a roiling tornado that is contrasted and front-lit by the sun.
Miller said he has captured three such images in his 18 years of storm chasing.
The most dangerous part of the pursuit is not the storm, but other chasers, Miller said. He bemoans the glamorization of storm chasing that stems from movies such as “Twister” and television shows such as the Discovery Channel‘s “Storm Chasers.”
“It’s insane now,” Miller said. “Our biggest threat is other drivers out there in the rain.”
Shardell, the Alabama chaser, said some of his video from Wednesday will be broadcast on “Storm Chasers.” A Discovery Channel television crew accompanied him, videotaping him videotaping the storms.
He will fly home to California next week for a break and then return to Tornado Alley in Oklahoma for the rest of the U.S. storm season.
In July, he will move on to Canada to continue the chase.
“It’s light til 11 o’clock at night up there, which is a real bonus,” he said.
Copyright © 2011 Reuters