Aggie Storm Chasers: Stalking Tornadoes Is Heaven On Earth
They often check winds in Windthorst, see storms in plain view in Plainview, dodge prairie storms in Grand Prairie, monitor possible cyclones in Cyclone and sometimes feel threatened in Iraan, but it’s all in a day’s work for Texas A&M University’s student storm chasers.
Tornado Alley may not be most people’s idea of paradise, but for storm chasers, it’s the best place on Earth. Texas Aggie Storm Chasers, TASC for short, is the only student-run storm chasing team in Texas and one of only a handful nationally.
The group, which started out as a few dozen students when formed several years ago, now has 98 members, each with his or her own idea of a good time – getting in their personal cars, driving up to 600 miles round trip and trying to finesse their way around funnel clouds and lightning bolts.
When weather sirens are blaring and skies are dark and threatening, the TASC team is usually well on its way to harm’s way – and that’s how they want it.
Katie Collins, a second-year graduate student from Ohio, along with James Tobin, a doctoral student from Pennsylvania, are the TASC team coordinators this year, and they supervise 10 other team leaders who are qualified to take other storm chasers out in the field. Each member has had at least three upper-level meteorology classes, and most have several years of storm chasing experience.
“All of our team leaders are extremely capable of leading our less-experienced members on a chase and getting them in position to see some cool weather, but at the same time, keep them safe. We’ve had some good luck this year,” Collins explains.
“One of our teams was in the Plainview area on March 28, and all of them saw the formation of a tornado from beginning to completion. It was about one-half mile wide and was on the ground for almost 30 minutes.”
That outing would have to be termed a success, but not all are so.
Previous team members have said the chances of seeing a tornado during a chase are only about 1 in 10 – not so good odds. But the odds of seeing severe weather are much higher.
“When we go out, we usually see a lot of bad weather,” Collins adds.
“Seeing a tornado is the icing on the cake. Even if you don’t see a tornado, you can still learn a lot about the weather conditions at that time. All of us have had either HAM radio training and attended SKYWARN classes, so we know what to look for.”
Their trips are the best friend a scrapbook could ever have.
Each outing is filmed on videotape and extensively photographed, and many team members use their cell phone cameras for extra measure. “The trips are well documented – if we see a storm, we’ll have plenty of photographic proof,” she adds.
Collins says most trips last just a few hours, but some are longer.
Because of class schedules, most trips are planned on the weekends. But if threatening weather is happening near the College Station area, “we can make arrangements to head out fairly quickly,” she notes.
“For the most part, though, we like to stay in Texas.”
On May 4, 2003 the TASC team had a record-setting day. It reported an F-4 tornado – only an F-5 is stronger – near Leavenworth, Kan. and relayed its findings to the National Weather Service office. More than 90 tornadoes were reported that weekend in the area. In previous years, several TV stations have used footage shot by TASC members.
“We try to forecast three or four days in advance when severe weather might hit,” Collins says. “When we know a stormy situation is developing, we get prepared.”
TASC members have held several community service events to raise awareness of severe storms and have passed out pamphlets and talked with people about severe weather situations. They have also lined up sponsors and have purchased more HAM radios for use in relaying helpful information to other weather spotters and the National Weather Service.
“Storm chasing is fun, but this is no game to us,” she adds. “You learn something every time you go out. Plus, we feel like we are providing a valuable public service, maybe even saving some lives.”