On the Art and Science of Tornado Chasing

by Bob Ladendorf

Standing directly underneath the long, low blue rain-free cloud deck with the wind slamming at my back at 35 mph or more, I thought that I may indeed be present at a creation. The birth of a tornado, that is. My heart was pounding as I stood alone on a small country bridge in the country about 10 miles northwest of Springfield.

It was just past 5 p.m. on May 9, 1995, about a year to the day that Twister opened at the movie theaters, and I was about to see the first tornado in my life.

I wouldn’t have been standing there as the first few white wisps of clouds lowered from the flat blue deck if I hadn’t traveled to the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Oklahoma — the home of the University of Oklahoma — in 1981 to research the scientists’ efforts there to study tornado formation for a free-lance article later published in the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times daily newspaper. This was the same lab mentioned in Twister.

One of the main objectives of NSSL was to correlate field observations of severe storms, including tornadoes, with Doppler radar readings back in the lab. One of the results of the testing was the ability of Doppler radar to "see" the storm producing a tornado some 20 minutes before touchdown. More warning time could be given to the public with the application of this radar nationwide. That is indeed what happened; Doppler radars have been deployed around the country in the 1990s at weather stations, including the National Weather Service office in Lincoln, Illinois.

Although I wasn’t able to ride with the NSSL storm chasers, I interviewed a number of top scientists at the lab and the university, including NSSL’s Robert Davies-Jones and Erik Rasmussen, and Prof. Howard Bluestein, who helped direct the recent two-year project called VORTEX that involved surrounding severe storms with chase vehicles laden with measurement equipment, e.g. lightning detectors, radars, and video. According to a recent Time magazine cover story, Twister’s main character played by actor Bill Paxton was based in part on Bluestein ("loosely," according to NSSL’s Greg Stumpf). It was Bluestein, though, who had originally developed — more than 15 years ago — TOTO (Totally Totable Observatory), the real precursor to Twister’s DOROTHY, a large canister filled with meteorological instruments to be dropped in the path of a tornado.

After my article was printed in the Capital Times, I tried to publish articles about the storm chasers and their scientific efforts to understand the storms in National Geographic andWeatherwise magazines. To no avail. However, years later, I noticed that they did publish articles the chasers.

I had been impressed with the skill, conscientiousness and excitement that Bluestein and the others brought to storm chasing. How wonderful to experience such unique, heart-pounding natural events (or disasters if you’re in their paths) and be able at the same time to study the storms scientifically. What a terrific balance of art and science.

After that three-day trip to Oklahoma, I was hooked on storm watching and occasional chasing. However, I saw no tornadoes, except in the excellent films shown at NSSL . That experience had invoked a memory I had as a small boy in Roanoke, a small town east of Peoria, when I watched a gust front race at us.

Now, in 1996, storm chasing appears to be the rage. A number of movies (Twister, Tornado, and Night of the Twisters) have been shown and TV documentaries ("The Violent Skies," etc.) have been featured on stations such as the Weather Channel. Some say that it is fad and potentially dangerous for amateurs. I’ve heard co-workers mention that when a tornado warning siren sounds, people head outdoors looking for the tornado instead of inside in a safe place!

The danger of storm chasing is there, but perhaps the heightened awareness has also alerted the public that complacency is more of a danger to their health. The fruits of scientific investigations are certainly evident in the real world with this increased awareness of severe storms, as well as a few more minutes warning time.

Illinois has experienced a number of outbreaks in 1996, probably more than usual. What I don’t hear anyone saying, though, is that there is any supernatural cause for the apparent increase. Through the intense studies at NSSL and other research centers, there has been an impressive increase in the knowledge about how these storms work.

If I hadn’t been aware of the classical structure of a single supercell thunderstorm from my research in 1981, I wouldn’t have been in position to witness the formation of the Cantrall tornado of 1995.

MID-AFTERNOON, May 9, 1995 — A Tornado Watch is issued.

4:30 P.M. — I leave work and glance at the sky. I see an "anvil" top to a thunderstorm just west of Springfield. I am excited because I know that I’m on the best side of the storm from which to view any tornado.

4:40 P.M. — I arrive at home and tell my wife, Jean, who was making supper, that I was going to get our son off the tennis courts and that I would then go storm chasing after I got back.

4:45 P.M. — The tornado siren sounds.

4:46 P.M. — I turn down Washington Street at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, heading west, when I see a funnel cloud in the distance. Stunned, I quickly ascertain the direction of the storm as away from Springfield, that Scott would be safe on the courts (and had another ride anyway), and speed off towards the funnel cloud.

4:50 P.M. — I’m traveling north on Veterans’ Parkway, and the funnel cloud is gone. Disappointed, I decide to travel west on Rt. 125 past the Bradfordton elevators after hearing on the radio of a funnel cloud sighting near Pleasant Plains.

5 P.M. — I turn north on a country road for 2 1/2 miles and stop on a small bridge, having reached a point at the southeastern edge of the rain-free, blue cloud deck. The wind is at my back as I face northwest with my still camera. The wind is being rapidly sucked up into the storm.

In just a few minutes, the white wisps of clouds lower from the cloud deck. Soon, they expand downwards and increase in size and width. In a few more minutes, I detect circulation in the clouds. I am seeing a wall cloud—a precursor to a tornado—form in front of my eyes! Although tornadoes don’t always appear out of a wall cloud, I couldn’t keep my eyes off it.

The circulation of the wall cloud expands further to where it was over my head. A tornado could emerge right over me!

The loud sound of my heart beating begins to drown out the sound of the wind as I fully realize my predicament. I couldn’t travel forward, because I would be in the path of the main storm; I could get out and get under the bridge, but I fear debris if it passed over me. I quickly decide to outrun it — backwards! I race as fast as I could  as I back the ‘87 Honda Accord up the hill. I jump out for one last photo — the tornado appears at that moment!

I jump back in the car, turn it around and race back to the highway, where I see a storm spotter. As I excitedly tell him what I saw, we watch the tornado become fully formed, then move off to the northeast as it becomes wrapped in rain curtains.

There wasn’t much of a chance to catch up with it from where I was at, so I head back to Springfield to tell Jean and follow it as soon as possible. At that point, I notice my gas tank flashing empty. After checking on Jean and Scott, I head north, following the trail of destruction, taking more photos and checking to see if people were OK. I see semitrailers overturned on Interstate 55 outside Elkhart, which also suffers a lot of damage, but few injuries.

My only regret? That I didn’t bring the video camera when I first left the house.

When I was shooting photos of the tornado formation, I was saying to myself that I should record an event in nature that could be of use to scientists studying storms. Although I was also very excited from this rather uncharacteristic, high-risk, thrill-seeking behavior, I also began to appreciate and admire the professional storm chasers who try to gather data in such chaotic conditions and observe such ephemeral, dangerous natural wonders. I did send copies of my sequence of photos to NWS and NSSL in case they might add to the knowledge of that particular storm.

Whoever says that science is a dull subject has not experienced the delight and terror of one of the most beautiful and destructive natural events of this world.

Sources - Tornadoes

Here are some sources for further reading about tornadoes:

  • Davidson, Keay. Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie. Pocket Books, 1996.
  • Whipple, A.B.C. and The Editors of Time-Life Books. Planet Earth: Storm. Time-Life Books, 1982.
  • Nash, J. Madeline. "Unraveling the Mysteries of Twisters," Time, May 20, 1996.

Additional sources will be listed in an upcoming issue.


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