Chasing Storms – Don’t Try This at Home

Hurricane season is heating up. NOAA’s National Weather Service warned in May that this might be one of the busiest hurricane seasons on record with over 20 named storms. The bands of warm water moving from the coast of Africa to the Caribbean have meteorologists on the look-out for particularly violent storms. Tropical storm Alex is one of the most recent hurricanes being tracked right now. This means the onslaught of storm surge upon coastal areas. Bring forth the storm chasers!

Although storm chasers have varied backgrounds from journalism to meteorology, they share a passion for studying the phenomenon of storms such as hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons, lightning and nor’easters. An “extreme weather journalist” captures the storm on film, while a meteorologist tracks statistics used to predict future storm activity, for example, where and when the next storm will hit and any possible effects on the landscape. Sometimes a storm chaser will do both of those things. Storm chasers are equipped with the gear and knowledge to forecast the unpredictable and go to the hotspots in high winds or other extreme weather conditions. America’s top storm chaser, Warren Faidley earned the nickname, “CycloneCowboy” for his award-winning photographs and coverage of storms. Faidley has chased category 5 hurricanes, monsoons and tornadoes.

Most people think of tornadoes or the movie, Twister, when they hear “storm chaser.” The Discovery Channel’s hit TV show, Storm Chasers, features a number of “chase teams” with an emphasis on tornadoes. However, not all storm chasers are among the ‘tornado paparazzi’ — and beware the media’s portrayal of irresponsible and reckless behavior, which can give the profession a bad name. Here are some exciting videos taken by professional storm chasers in hurricanes: Here’s Jim Edds’ extreme weather coverage website: with videos here: Storm Chasing Mikey covers a nor’easter in Chesapeake Bay Cyclone Jim’s page is here: Also check out Jim Reed’s book, Hurricane Katrina: Through the Eyes of Storm Chasers

What can storm chasers teach us about wetlands? Storm chasers offer a unique perspective; whereas most people have to flee an area under siege during a hurricane, such as Katrina, storm chasers put themselves in harm’s way to document the event.  Offshore detectors with solar panels and various sensors for tracking water levels and tidal currents are used to assist meteorologists with storm prediction and LiDAR data is used to map and analyze coastal storm activity. Storm chasers can offer first-hand accounts to help scientists compare storm surge effects on the landscape and the role of coastal wetlands as protection against storms. A rule of thumb is that each 2.7 miles of marsh knocks down the storm surge by 1 foot. Here’s an interesting article from Physics Today on the science of storm surges and the role of coastal wetlands, in which the authors suggest new storm surge models that could be useful in a future that includes sea level rise and possible loss of wetlands (Resio and Westerink 2008)

Chasing storms is dangerous and sometimes life threatening. Let’s leave it to the professionals. There are ways to learn about basic storm principles safely. For classroom activities (geared for science teachers), go to: Everyone else can watch the exciting video footage!

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