This past summer, meteorology students in the Storm Forecasting and Observation class traveled to several states in the Great Plains to conduct research and observation on the extreme seasonal weather there.
The storm-chasers’ two-week program took the students to parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Nebraska, the locations determined by the probability of extreme weather that would provide the best research and observation.
“Growing up, I had always had a fascination with severe weather,” senior Jake Mulholland said. “My life-long dream was to go storm chasing like I used to see on TV and on the movie ‘Twister.’ To get the chance to go out chasing for two weeks on the Plains was a dream come true.”
According to Mulholland, the storm-chasers were organized into three different teams. The logistics team took care of the travel vans and updated the group’s Facebook and Twitter accounts on where it was and its plans for that day. The forecast team selected the areas where severe weather was imminent for the day to travel to and the equipment team was in charge of preparing weather balloons to launch and set up antennae and other instruments.
The students witnessed action during their first day of chasing. On May 28, they saw an EF-4 (166-200 mph winds) tornado touch down in Bennington, Kan. The students chased the storm and took pictures, some of which were featured on The Weather Channel.
“The tornado reached the ground an hour or so after the storm began to grow,” said Brett Rathbun, a member of the storm chasers logistics team. “What was interesting with this storm is that we saw this storm right from the beginning, from a small cumulus cloud to the large tornado that was on the ground for about 60 minutes.”
The big event on the trip was the storm-chasers’ witnessing of one of the biggest weather events of the summer, the May 31 EF-5 tornado that devastated El Reno, Okla., just outside of Oklahoma City.
“That morning we all had this gut feeling that the day was going to be a violent day, the air was so moist and humid that storms were almost a certainty,” Mulholland said. “We began the day outside of Oklahoma City and throughout the afternoon, as the heat baked and the humidity rose, we knew storms were on the way. By 5 p.m. CDT, big storms started to explode just west of Oklahoma City. They quickly became super cells, producing tornadoes just outside of the El Reno vicinity. We were chasing after the El-Reno tornado, about five to eight miles away from it, before we got too close to suburban areas so we called off the chase. However, we got stuck in that mass evacuation that occurred that day out of the city. People were literally packing their bags and leaving their homes, hitting the road, and causing mass panic.”
According to the National Weather Service, the El Reno tornado was classified as an EF-5 tornado (winds over 200 mph) and, at 2.6 miles across, was the widest tornado ever recorded in the United States. The tornados in the area killed 20 people and knocked out power for 100,000 homes and businesses.
“Many of us were unable to tell if the large tornado over El Reno was on the ground or not,” Rathbun said. “We did hear from Internet sources of a large tornado on the ground but we couldn’t see it. We decided to move to a new location, but found ourselves in the middle of a large evacuation. At that point, our storm chase became a storm escape. Because these storms were back-building behind the El Reno tornado storm and tracking southeast, we kept driving south as far as we could until we felt we were safe. The look of scariness on people’s faces, police sirens and seeing the storm overhead made it a traumatizing experience for everyone.”
Of the 20 victims of the tornados, three were professional storm-chasers from a tornado research project called Twistex. Those victims, along with the close encounter of Mike Bettes’s crew from The Weather Channel, in which a tornado lifted and flipped their SUV with only minor injuries, are a reminder that storm-chasing can be as dangerous as it is exciting, especially when college students are involved.
“We have very experienced storm-chasers working for the program, including me, who know how to target storms and always have an escape route planned if the storm gets too close,” said Scott Steiger, instructor of the Storm Forecasting and Observation class. “I always have a navigator looking at maps with radar imagery overlaid who can steer me in the right directions. My plan is to be five to 15 miles from the storm.”
Steiger also said that the team uses Internet and satellite data reception so they know where the storm is on radar 99 percent of the time, and that students are well aware of the risks for the educational value of the program, experimenting in a safe manner to keep other people safe.
“What I learned most is the importance of communication between us, the meteorologists and the public,” Mulholland said. “The way we carry ourselves and the way that we communicate dangers, such as tornadoes and severe weather, is critical to protecting people’s lives and bettering our science as a whole.”