Another massive supercell thunderstorm was raging across the vast, flat landscape of the American Midwest, obliterating everything in its path and transforming debris into 260mph missiles. While most people caught in its path desperately tried to escape the destruction, professional storm chasers like Jock McGinty raced to keep up with it.
“We had chased an early evening tornado, but found our way blocked by downed power lines,” he says, when asked to remember the scariest moment of his eighteen-year storm chasing career. “Upon turning around we realised two large tornadoes were bearing down on our position and preventing our escape.”
His only choice was to seek refuge in a nearby church with a local sheriff’s deputy and fire crew, and hope for the best. “It was dark and pouring rain, the scene lit only by frequent lightning flashes and the flickering blue lights of the sheriff’s car.”
They watched as the first, smaller tornado missed them by just 500 yards to the south. The second tornado, now around two-and-a-half miles wide, was still rolling unstoppably toward them. Only at the last moment did it veer away north and smash into a nearby town instead.
“If that tornado had hit us, I have to say our survival would have been largely a matter of good fortune,” says McGinty.
You might think such a near-miss would put anybody off even stepping outside during a light rain shower, but McGinty returns to the USA every year with his storm chasing business Severe Storm Interceptors to take groups of brave tourists in pursuit of the most extreme weather the USA can offer. His company is one of many that offer a close encounter with a storm.
“Storm chasing is the pursuit of putting yourself in the perfect position to safely watch and document a supercell thunderstorm and witness the full arsenal of these storms, from giant hail to amazing cloudscapes to tornadoes,” says Paul Botten, lead chaser and tour director of Weather Holidays. “A storm chasing holiday is like a weather safari and road trip all rolled into one. We typically cover 5,000 miles in a 10-day trip, across an average of 5-6 states.”
Supercells are the least common and most severe type of thunderstorm, requiring a number of unique factors to combine to create a mesocyclone, a persistently rotating updraft. These are the kinds of storms that can produce highly damaging winds, hail larger than a baseball in size, and gargantuan tornadoes.
“These storms tend to be in the tens of miles across, and can often be extremely violent and damaging to land, property, and life,” says McGinty.
So what compels thousands of people to flock to the American Midwest – particularly the states of Oklahoma and Kansas – every year to become storm chasers and actively seek out weather that has the power to kill them?
“The chasing is like a drug, you can’t bear missing out on a unique set-up or tornado day,” says Botten. Both he and McGinty live in the UK for most of the year, flying out to the US in spring when storm season arrives. “When early storms are occurring, it’s gut-wrenching to have to watch it on the internet.”
McGinty’s infatuation runs just as deep. “I’ve always had a passion for physics, meteorology, astronomy, and the natural sciences – I think you’ll find that’s a common thread among chasers. While there is a healthy respect for the power of the weather, there is an awe-inspired fascination and a desire to draw closer rather than flee.”
Both guides get a wide variety of people joining their tours. “From old ladies to teenagers, weather geeks to thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies,” says McGinty. Every guest joins in the hope of seeing a different element of these storms, but almost all are united in their desire to get up close and personal with a large tornado.
You might think finding something so irrepressibly destructive would be fairly easy, but storm chasing involves a lot more than simply sticking your head out of the window and following the nearest bank of dark cloud. Finding the correct conditions, and experiencing them safely, takes a great deal of knowledge and skill.
“Chasing these storms across territory measuring in the millions of square miles entails accurate forecasting, set up and positioning driving, and an intimate knowledge of storm structure and behaviours, allowing the chaser to access the correct storm (often out of several potential candidates),” says McGinty. This knowledge allows guides to watch carefully for developing storm structures that indicate a tornado may be imminent, and position their guests in the best place to safely observe it.
When it all comes together, storm chasers are spectators to incredible natural events that few will ever experience firsthand. In 2013, both McGinty and Botten were present in Central Oklahoma for the El Reno tornado, the largest in recorded history – winds were measured in excess of 295mph, the second-highest ever on Earth. “Control was taken out of everybody’s hands on that event,” says Botten.
Although storm chasing is prevalent throughout the American Midwest, it’s the states of Oklahoma and Kansas that remain popular with guides. They form a key part of what is known as Tornado Alley, where unique conditions mean supercell thunderstorms are frequent throughout springtime. The terrain in many places here is largely flat, treeless grassland and farmland with sparse population, ideal for watching a storm, with nothing to obscure the view. “This area is the Mecca for serious storm aficionados,” confirms McGinty.
Of course, keeping their guests safe is a guide’s first priority, and a number of measures are taken to minimise risk on a storm chasing trip, from detailed safety briefings to careful research and positioning to ensure a group is never caught by the worst of a storm.
“Ironically, tornadoes are considered to be one of the lesser risks of our occupation, because we know where they are!” says McGinty. “Instead we have to worry about dangers from other road users, lightning, hail, and dangerous wildlife such as snakes, spiders, and scorpions that lurk on the roadsides. We’re sensible enough to realise that with tornadoes you just don’t get too close!”
For many, being anywhere in the same state is too close. For those seeking the ultimate adrenaline rush, it doesn’t get much wilder than going in search of a storm.