Who were the first storm chasers?

By: Josh Clark  | 
Abraham Maslow's "Motivation and Personality," in which he introduced his Hierarchy of Needs. See more storm pictures.
Courtesy Amazon

In the 1950s, psychologist Abraham Maslow published his hierarchy of needs. This construct looks a lot like the food pyramid issued by the USDA in the 1960s. But instead of food groups, Maslow's pyramid consists of five blocks representing human needs.

At the base are the most basic needs, such as food, water and shelter. The middle blocks are more esoteric: things like financial security, a sense of belonging and self-respect [source: Boeree]. Under Maslow's theory, a higher block can't be achieved until each block beneath it is satisfied. After all, it's hard to feel financially secure when you're concerned with where you're going to find your next meal.


The top block is self-actualization. Maslow didn't believe that all humans eventually achieve self-actualization. Those who do, however, enjoy a sort of transcendental state of mental health. The self-actualized are autonomous -- not waiting for society to dictate their next move -- and accept their flaws and those of others. They also have a high frequency of peak experiences, moments when a person is imbued with unusually clear perspective and understands his or her place in the universe [source: Boeree]. It's something of a beautiful, cosmic moment.

­Maslow believed that the motivations behind all human behavior could be explained by the needs in his hierarchy. His theory is flatly contradicted by a subculture of adventurers called storm chasers, however. During a tempest, while most other humans are hiding in cellars, empty bathtubs and broom closets, storm chasers can be found running headlong toward nature's most violent meteorological events. From these up close experiences, storm chasers report feeling "a singular connection with nature" [source: Edwards and Vasquez]. In other words, they eschew satisfying the basic needs of shelter and safety to leap straight to the top of the hierarchy, even if only temporarily.

Though storm chasing enjoyed widespread popularity in the 1990s, this unusual pastime isn't new. Like any pursuit, it has its pioneers. Storm chasing owes its existence to two men who blazed a path to the top of the Maslow's hierarchy through experiencing nature's fury firsthand. So who were these early storm chasers? Find out on the next page.



Storm Chasing Pioneers

Thunderstorms rolling over the Minnesota plains like this one drew both Jensen and Hoadley into chasing them.
Mike Magnuson/Getty Images

One could make a reasonable argument that Scottish naturalist John Muir is history's first recorded storm chaser. One afternoon in December 1874, Muir climbed a 100-foot-tall Douglas spruce during a fierce wind storm characteristic of the Sierra region of California to feel for himself what the tops of the trees experience. Muir clung to the top of the spruce for hours, riding the storm out. He later wrote, "never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion" [source: Muir].

Muir is certainly a storm chaser by today's definition. But people who are engaged in the pursuit these days nod to two other men as the true pioneers of storm chasing. Roger Jensen and David Hoadley both began chasing storms in the 1950 and '60s -- perhaps not coincidentally a time when automobiles began providing quick access to storms and car radios delivered broadcasts from the Weather Bureau. Hoadley and Jensen's interest in storms was culled in boyhood by the thunderclouds each watched roll across the open plains in North Dakota. Both men left their native state, however. When Jensen was a teen, he moved to Washington, and Hoadley relocated to Virginia. But with such an unusual interest in chasing storms, their paths were destined to cross. Jensen was interviewed in a 1996 issue of Stormtrack, the magazine for storm chasers that Hoadley founded in 1977 [source: Coleman and McCloud].


Jensen, a turkey processing plant worker and farmer who battled diabetes throughout his adult life, chased his first storm at age 20 in the summer of 1953 with his father [source: Marshall]. On chases like these, Jensen took along his camera and experimented with lenses and filters to reproduce as closely as possible the colors and contrasts of the storms. He became most famous for his photos of softball-size hail (the largest recorded in Minnesota at the time) and a tornado that stretched a mile across [source: Coleman and McCloud]. His photos eventually won him acclaim from local newspapers and meteorological journals. Over time, this renown spread throughout circles that appreciate severe weather, and in his Stormtrack interview, Jensen was asked why he chased storms. "Gosh, it's for the awe at what you're seeing. I was born loving storms," he answered [source: Marshall].

Perhaps equally, if not more, honored in the annals of storm chasing is David Hoadley. Like Jensen, Hoadley began chasing storms in 1965. Rather than head for cover when he heard a tornado warning on the radio as he drove around Dodge City, Kan., Hoadley headed toward the twister [source: Marshall]. Following his first experience, he chased storms along Tornado Alley (which extends from Texas to North Dakota and Ohio) every spring and summer thereafter, refining his self-taught forecasting technique. Over the years, he found public exposure as something of a superstar of storm chasing. Articles in National Geographic, Scientific American and other publications, along with programs on The History Channel and ABC brought both Hoadley and the pursuit of storm chasing to the attention of the general public [source: DCAMS].

The combination of Hoadley and Jensen's solitary pursuit of storms eventually gave rise to the subculture of storm chasers. By the 1970s and '80s, storm chasing enjoyed popularity among both hobbyists seeking excitement and scientists seeking data. What began as a pastime for two curious men who appreciated the violence and drama of severe weather led to full scientific expeditions into the heart of storms and a better understanding of nature.

For more information on storms and other related topics, visit the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

What does a storm chaser do?
A storm chaser is someone who tracks and observes severe weather conditions, especially thunderstorms and tornadoes.

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  • Boeree, Dr. C. George. "Abraham Maslow; 1908-1970." Shippensberg University. 2006. http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/maslow.html
  • Coleman, Sandra and McCloud, Sam, Ph.D. "A brief history of storm chasing." National Association of Storm Chasers and Spotters. http://www.chasingstorms.com/history.html
  • Edwards, Roger and Vazquez, Tim. "The online storm chasing FAQ." Storm Track. August 13, 2000. http://www.stormtrack.org/library/faq/
  • Marshall, Tim. "An evening with Roger Jensen." Stormtrack. November 1996. http://www.onthefront.ws/jensen.htm
  • Marshall, Tim. "Roger Jensen: a storm chasing pioneer." Storm Track. http://www.stormtrack.org/jensen/
  • Muir, John. "The Mountains of California." The Century Co. 1894. http://pweb.jps.net/~prichins/w-storm.htm
  • "48 years of storm chasing with pioneer David Hoadley." The District of Columbia Chapter of the American Meteorological Society. November 2004. http://www.dc-ams.org/meetings/november2004.htm