Near Woonsocket, S.D., a storm chaser plants a weather probe in the path of a tornado.

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Why Chase Storms?

What could possibly drive people to place themselves near these dangerous storms? There are a few reasons.

  • Fun and excitement - It's probably a bad idea to go out and chase storms just for kicks, but these are definitely driving factors for many chasers. In fact, some companies offer storm chasing tours. After paying a fee, the "storm tourists" get to go on a chase with experienced guides. That's definitely a better idea than chasing a storm on your own.
  • Profit - There are some people who make a living selling footage and images they capture of storms. There's no doubt about it, tornadoes are amazing and people love seeing them, as long as they aren't bearing down on their home. Warren Faidley is one of the more well-known storm chasers -- in fact, he bills himself as "the world's only professional storm chaser." His photos of storms can sell for five figures. Other chaser teams make a living filming documentaries about tornadoes, like the crew from the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers TV series.
  • Research - Most storm chasers collect weather data when they get close to a tornado. They may have other motivations, but at the heart of every storm chaser in an insatiable curiosity about these awe-inspiring storms. Understanding tornadoes doesn't just satisfy our curiosity, it helps us react to storms with better, more accurate tornado warnings. The result: tornado deaths in the U.S. have declined since the 1960s, despite an overall increase in the number of tornadoes [source: NSSL].

Members of S.T.E.P.S. (Severe Thunderstorm Electrification and Precipitation Study) launch a weather balloon into a tornadic supercell thunderstorm.

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  • Community and friendship - Storm chasing is like any other hobby. Chasers become close friends. In fact, because they work together during some very intense experiences, they often develop a very close bond. "Chasing tornadoes is a gritty, down-and-dirty adventure with a solid group of people whom I feel a close bond with," said Byron Turk. "I've made some very good friends from the adventures. What success we achieve is all the more sweet after suffering through several days of 12-hour drives, nearly no sleep, wearing the same clothes that smell 2 weeks riper than they should. We have a goal and it is a very difficult one to achieve. There's a sense of pride in that."

So what have we learned about tornadoes in the last few years? Meteorologists have zeroed in on the conditions that cause them. We still don't know exactly when and where a tornado will form, but we're getting closer. Each time a storm chaser gets close to a tornado, another piece is added to the puzzle. A Discovery Channel crew captured footage of "minitornadoes" revolving within the main tornado in 2007. Later, computer modeling used this information to develop a more accurate picture of tornado formation and life cycle [source: Storm Chasers blog]. People once thought that tornadoes were simply smaller versions of hurricanes, an idea that seems laughable now. Yet modern examinations of supercell air currents reveal large-scale cyclonic action -- big thunderstorms swirl in a way not unlike that of a hurricane [source: Rosenfeld].

In addition to prediction, scientists are puzzled by several other aspects of tornadoes. One important mystery: Why do they develop such incredible wind speeds? Every thunderstorm contains enormous quantities of energy, energy on such a scale that they are compared to nuclear weapons. How that energy is sometimes converted to whirling wind speeds above 300 mph is still a mystery.

For more stuff on tornadoes, hurricanes and all kinds of natural disasters, try the next page.