If I'm making this all sound like harmless, thrill-seeking fun, keep in mind that just last year famed chaser Tim Samaras and his crew were trapped in a tornado they didn't realize had turned their way. Then, in the same storm, an amateur chaser had video of himself saying, "Look where I'm at!" like he was taking a selfie, only for him to die later on in the storm. But tragic deaths from the tornadoes themselves are actually quite rare for storm chasers.
So what are we scared of? Hail, for one thing.
In a storm like this, baseball-size hail will start raining down for, like, no reason. We're talking half-pound rock-hard balls soaring at unprotected heads and windshields at terminal velocity. Try driving with baseballs hitting you in the face, glass everywhere and water streaming in through your exposed cabin. It can go from rice size to marble size to baseball size in a matter of minutes and take out everything in sight. In 2006, 27 people died during a few days of hailstorms in the Midwest. And in places like Bangladesh, over 100 people have been killed during a single storm.
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Things can get out of hand fast.
But it's not just hail that is dangerous: Lightning is a huge danger as well. Chasers have been struck by lighting and permanently disabled as a result. It just comes out of nowhere. For you the odds of being struck are 1 in 700,000, but if you're going to dozens of storms a year, with hundreds of people? The odds start to look better for sweet lady lightning.
Another big danger? Dirt roads, especially those in Kansas and Nebraska. Dirt plus water equals muddy and greasy conditions. Roads even wash out. One time while chasing a tornado in Plainview, Texas, the road quite suddenly became a half-foot-high river and damn near swept my car away. You might not think of drowning as a major tornado risk, but it absolutely is. Tornadoes are Mother Nature's whirling Swiss army knife. They're just full of ways to kill you.
This job seems crazy. Sure, there's money in it, but chasing storms isn't just about that. Most of us out there collect data on these storms -- wind speed, direction, weather conditions, barometer readings -- to help scientists more accurately predict tornadoes in the future.
I was in a storm in Kirksville, Missouri, once with 100 to 150 mph winds. I was stuck in the middle of a tornado, and the only reason I survived was because I had bulletproof glass bolted into my car. It kept the debris slamming into my vehicle at ungodly speeds from slamming into me at ungodlier speeds:
In addition to learning to always buy the name-brand bulletproof glass, we received critical readings on the tornadoes. Very few people get as close to a tornado as I was then, and having that hard-to-get data could be the key to improving some aspect of tornado prediction -- or survival. By monitoring the changes and sending the info off to weather agencies and universities, over the years we've helped develop early warning systems so fewer people are killed -- it's one reason we now have 14 minutes on average to get people to safety.
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Meaning you no longer have to decide between seeking shelter and making some pre-terror mac and cheese.
Are we crazy? Yes. Can we possibly be killed? Big yes. But this crazy behavior will also save lives in the future and help us know more about a natural disaster that is still largely mysterious, thanks to a tendency to murder its biggest fans.
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