Why we chase storms

The devastation caused by the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma has generated controversy and curiosity about storm chasers—those who follow deadly weather for the sake of science, fascination or curiosity.

San Francisco State meteorology professor John Monteverdi is one of them. The atmospheric scientist just returned from the field where he has been observing one of nature’s most unforgiving environments.

A weather forecaster by training, Monteverdi says there’s no better way to understand the weather patterns that create these supercell thunderstorms.

He says he was initially drawn to study tornadoes because tornadic thunderstorms also occur here in California.

“Bringing this knowledge back to California has helped meteorologists here understand how certain patterns produce tornadoes,” Monteverdi said.

Basically, the more we are able to forecast the patterns, the more time we have to prepare for the development of thunderstorms that might produce a tornado. And with more time, there is more potential to save lives.

In fact, the efforts of some storm researchers have actually helped to increase warning times—not only by their research, but by promptly notifying the National Weather Service when they spot a tornado.

Those who pursue these storms only for the sake of research are few and far between. But they are also a tight-knit community. Monteverdi knew Tim and Paul Samuras and Carl Young, the three meteorologists who lost their lives in last week’s tornado near Oklahoma City. They were well-respected among this small group of scientists who often are grouped incorrectly with individuals who are merely chasing tornadoes for thrills.

Monteverdi recently posted a piece on his blog about why they chase storms.

He says television specials on extreme tornado chasers and movies such as Twister have created the misconception that meteorologists purposely drive into tornadoes. Unfortunately, this has invited a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the risks and who do not understand such storms into the chase, putting themselves and others at risk.

“These researchers aren’t seeking thrills or personal publicity. They are actively contributing to our knowledge of tornadoes,” Monteverdi said.

posted in “Science & the CSU”


John Monteverdi (above) and his storm chasing colleague Thom Trimble (below) near Rozel, Kansas May 18, 2013. Copyright © John Monteverdi and Thom Trimble

Explore more at Monteverdi’s “Chasing Storms” blog.


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