Touching the Sky

Becoming a storm chaser was the natural course for someone fascinated by severe weather and tornadoes since childhood. My interest in storms developed during that time as a result of many days spent viewing dark, ominous Texas skies, and nights spent awake watching vivid lightning from the window of my room while thunder, hail and howling winds combined in a cacophony of incredible noise that shook our home.

What was going on up there? I wanted to know, so I began studying severe weather at an early age. By the 1990's I was conducting 30 to 40 chases per year and meeting other chasers. Soon, I was speaking about severe weather and storm chasing at public venues. Requests from people wanting to chase resulted. Their enthusiasm influenced me to establish Tempest Tours Storm Chasing Expeditions. It was an opportunity to share our passion with others, and to teach.

Our guests arrive with an eagerness to learn and see. We can't guarantee that each of them will see a tornado during their 7 and 10 day tours. But, we can offer them the life of a real storm chaser during that period. We share the whole experience including early morning forecast briefings, quick departures for distant targets, and lots of fuel stops. 

Weather is one of the most fluid and dynamic things that I know of. It is constantly changing.  The typical storm day is no exception. The Tempest Tours team, comprised of my friends William T. Reid, Dr. Charles Doswell and other veteran storm chasers, spend much of the time on the road downloading data from an on-board laptop computer to keep up with these changes. Visual clues like the sight of distant towering cumulus are import to note as well. Our guests are kept abreast of any significant changes as they occur. Over several days of chasing, they acquire a feel for how severe weather scenarios develop and evolve. They gain a better understanding of the forecasting techniques and logistics we employ to achieve a successful storm intercept.

Along the way, our guests see miles of the vast and beautiful area we call Tornado Alley, a region that stretches from Texas to the Dakotas. During spring, Tornado Alley is covered by fields of waving grain, occupied by busy farms and ranches, and populated mostly by cattle and horses. It is scented by wildflowers and the sweet smell of alfalfa. The people are friendly and the food is some of the best anywhere. Stops are made at small eateries serving hearty breakfasts, chicken fried steak, barbeque and homemade pies.

And then there are the storms. The most magnificent storms on earth exist in Tornado Alley.  The greatest of these is the supercell thunderstorm or "mesocyclone." A supercell is a thunderstorm with a persistent rotating updraft. It produces the most significant tornadoes and largest hail, as well as prolific lightning and damaging straight-line winds. They are "mountains on the prairie," sometimes reaching heights of 12-miles above sea level. Sometimes, the supercell is stripped to its "skeleton," revealing an incredible corkscrew or flying saucer appearance. When the light is just right, and it often is on the Plains, those glorious cathedrals become brilliant white, gray and blue, or flaming red when lit by a setting sun.

Our tours operate only in May and June. These two months coincide with the maximum of tornado frequency on the Great Plains. Because of this, it is likely that our guests will see at least several supercells on each tour. And, when Mother Nature allows, our guests will see tornadoes.

When a guest sees a tornado, it is usually their first time. Most join a tour for this very reason. They want to see a tornado. They want to see what it's like.

Seeing a tornado is an experience like none other. It cannot be fully captured on film or video. The view is physically too large to fit on a screen. A tornadic supercell is full of motion. The most dramatic motion occurs in and around the tornado itself. Condensation and debris move at surreal speeds there, motion that is uncommon to most of us. And, there's the motion beneath the storm's base and far above, within the towering updraft. Everything is spinning counterclockwise, or cyclonically, around a common center. The ability to scan and view the entire sky is important to grasp the full effect of a tornadic supercell. It is profoundly incredible and beautiful to behold. Being there, on the open prairie, with all of the motion, the colors, the sounds, and the smells surrounding you is like touching the sky and leaving those surely bonds of earth for a brief moment.