Storm chaser

Tornado expert Howard Bluestein says that cows don't fly, but cars do.

Published July 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The 1996 hit movie "Twister" is ostensibly based on the work of tornado chaser Howard Bluestein. But there's not much similarity between the special effects-laden adventure movie and the real McCoy, says the modest University of Oklahoma meteorology professor and visiting scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. While much of Bluestein's work does involve driving hundreds of miles at the drop of a dime to chase one of nature's most elusive and unpredictable storms, there's also plenty of disappointment, waiting around and boredom.

In his new book, "Tornado Alley," (Oxford University Press) Bluestein combines 20 years of research into severe storms with his impressive photographs of tornadoes and clouds. Difficult to predict and in many ways still mysterious,
tornadoes are atmospheric science's last frontier, according to Bluestein. He spoke with me by phone from his home in Boulder, where he lives part of the year.

How did you become a professional tornado chaser?

I started doing this over 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in meteorology at MIT. I'd always been interested in severe storms. My next-door neighbor, Ed Kestler, was at the time the director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla. He asked me if I'd like to come out to there to study storms. I went out, liked what I saw. I was not aware that people were chasing storms there, but they had already started a few years earlier.

When we first started chasing, we were just going out to take photographs. We were sort of like Darwin or Wallace, just cataloging what was out there.

Because you didn't have all the technology you have now?

Right. Plus, not too many people had seen tornadoes. Back in those days, tornado observations were not usually made by scientists. People just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and took photographs or shot a movie. No one had systematically gone out to study these things.

By going out and seeing a lot of them, we began to realize that there was architectural structure to these storms. From that, we were able to help spotters look at a storm, and determine where the tornado might occur.

Combining the improvements in technology and all you've learned by studying, are you better able to predict storms?

Yes. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Doppler radar was also being tested for meteorological use. Using the radar, people would look inside a storm for signs of rotation. By doing that, they were able to develop a system for warning people. If there's an area highly rotating inside a thunderstorm, it's possible that a tornado might form within 20 or 30 minutes. That's the basis for tornado warnings right now. But when storms have this rotation, they don't always produce tornadoes. There are a lot of false alarms.

How do you decide when to warn people?

Whenever there's strong rotation they warn. As a result, there's over-warning. What we're trying to do now is discover why some storms produce tornadoes and others don't. We need to go out and make measurements with radars that are brought really close to the tornado.

How close do you get?

One or two miles.

Have you ever been so close to a storm that you thought it might come at you?

We've been two blocks from tornadoes. But we were not worried. We could see how they were moving.

I understand the movie "Twister" was inspired by your work.

That's what they say. I do know that two of the people involved in making the movie sat in my office. I told them about a device that we used back in the early 1980s called "Toto," which stands for the Totable Tornado Observatory. It's a big cylinder thing that we used to place in the path of a tornado, or at least tried to anyway. They took a picture, and changed it and called it Dorothy.

Do you think that movie accurately represented what you do?

Absolutely not. It's all Hollywood. In the movie, the chasers get really close to the tornadoes, debris flies over their heads. We're not that crazy. And they go up to tornadoes all the time, and then they stop off at dinner in between tornadoes. That absolutely isn't what happens, with the exception of this year, where we saw lots of tornadoes.

Usually, we see tornadoes one out of every nine times that we go out. We go out many, many days. We drive a lot of miles. We don't see anything. There's lot of waiting, a lot of disappointment. Sometimes you miss the tornado by two minutes. Sometimes the tornado is there, and you can see it, but it's 10 miles away, and there are no roads to get you to it.

What are some other misconceptions about the work you do?

Well, in the movie, there was competition -- good guys, bad guys. We're not competitive in that way. We all share our data and keep our work together.

What are some misconceptions about tornadoes?

People at one time thought that tornadoes made houses explode. Because the pressure in a tornado is very low. So if a tornado came by a house, if you left the windows closed, the pressure would be so much greater inside the house than it is outside the house, the house would explode. That's not true. The pressure inside a house and the pressure outside a house, if a tornado comes by, is almost the same. The pressure equalizes pretty quickly. But when the wind hits the house, and say, takes the roof off, the walls may collapse. So it looks as if the house had exploded.

Can cows be lifted up and deposited elsewhere?

That's a very good question. I have never seen a cow flying through the air. I've seen a lot of dead cows out there. Whether they died from fright, or whether they got hit with something, or whether they actually got blown through the air, I don't know.

The thing about cows is, they're very heavy and low to the ground. It would be difficult to get a cow airborne. It might be easier to get a car airborne, because you'll get more lift around a car than you would around a cow. What might happen is the cow gets knocked over and starts to roll. If it bounced high enough in the air, it could become airborne. But I have never seen an airborne cow. People have seen airborne cars and trucks.

What is the strangest things you've seen?

We once found debris 40 miles away from the tornado. We stopped in a field, and there were canceled checks, little notebooks with kids' names and newspapers. Other people have found such things 100 miles away. You also find houses totally demolished, nothing left but the foundation. But right next to the house, there'll be a tree that's been left totally untouched.

When and where do tornadoes usually strike?

Tornadoes can occur anytime, any place, but most often, they tend to occur in the central part of the United States, in the very late afternoon and early evening. If you're down in the belt states, you tend to see tornadoes during the early spring and even the very late winter. Here in the central plains, Oklahoma for example, the peak of the season is in May. If you go up to the northern plains, up through Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, they tend to peak later on.

You need to have warm, moist air near the ground, and relatively cold air above. You need to have a strong wind shear to get a good tornado. The wind shear is associated with the jet stream. The jet stream tends to be pretty far south during the winter and early spring. It migrates north for the season. By the time you get to the summer, it's up near the Canadian border.

Do you consider your work to be dangerous?

Some people think it is, but we know what we're doing and how to do it safely. A lion tamer knows what he or she is doing. Doctors are able to treat patients who have horrendous diseases and not contract them. But for someone who doesn't know about storm structures, and doesn't understand how storms work, it would be very dangerous.

You mentioned in your book that tornado chasing is becoming a popular hobby now.

This year we went out on a storm chase and we had trouble finding a parking space. It was unbelievable. One day, there may have been 100 or more cars, all parked.

What do you think draws people to storm chasing?

The thrill, the rush.

Do you still feel that, too?

Oh yeah, I always do. We'll be excited on the way out. While the tornado is occurring and the radar is scanning and we're taking videos and slides, we'll try to stay very, very calm. Then, when it's all over, we'll get excited.

It sometimes can get very crazy, because I'm talking on the cell phone, I'm talking on the radio, I'm trying to make a decision, trying to direct people, trying to figure out what to do. You're in your car. You may have driven 300 or 400 miles to get where you are. You may go on until 10, 11 o'clock at night without having had dinner, but you just keep going.

Did you watch the Weather Channel?

Oh, I'm an addict.

Have you been on the Weather Channel?

Yes. I know some of the people there, too. It's a good organization.

Was your photography a hobby that developed out of your interest in storms?

No. When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I had a camera, and I remember taking pictures of clouds. When I went to college, I took some pictures of clouds as well as storms. Later, I started to take pictures of everything. Not just tornadoes, but color schemes, all sorts of clouds, snow storms, ice storms. You name it, I've taken photographs of it. It became a hobby and a vocation. I've been doing it for more than 20 years now.

Are there rituals around the chasing of a tornado? Do you listen to a certain song when you're trying to catch a storm?

There are no rituals. There were times when I remember we listened to Vivaldi's "Gloria" with the windows shut, as we were closing in. Back in the old days, we don't do this anymore, but we talked about it, and this will sound really absurd -- we talked about sacrificing a tornado virgin. We don't do that now, but we may think about it.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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