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Beauty in the Bear Cage
Tim Marquis, left, and Gabe Garfield, who have been chasing together for six years, point out formations in a supercell at the end of a long day of following storms.
Photo by DAVID JOSHUA JENNINGS
Through tragedy, danger, and world-record EF5s, Oklahoma meteorologists chase on.
By David Joshua Jennings
Published May/June 2017
Chasers see these real people—the people who have been or soon will be affected by the storms they’re pursuing—gathered on porches or fleeing down rural highways. And much of what they do is in service of making these same people safer. When storm chasing began in the 1950s, residents—especially those in rural areas—received little to no warning about when or where a tornado might hit. Today, the average lead time is thirteen minutes.
Other chasers are in it for the science. The probes and sensors they place in a tornado’s path and the video footage they capture help gather data that would be impossible to get by any other means. While a love of weather and a dedication to science fuel the work, the adrenaline rush is hard to deny.
“We’re not normal in the traditional sense,” says Garfield. “We’re the type of people who run toward danger when everyone else is taking shelter. You get used to the idea of getting close to something that could kill you. Imagine a storm that is ten miles wide and twice as tall as Mount Everest, and the entire thing is rotating, and you can see it all unfolding in real life. It’s spectacular, the awe and grandeur of it, the feeling of insignificance next to something so colossal and powerful.”
The strength of a thunderstorm often can be judged by the size of the hailstones that fall from it. Golf ball-sized stones like these—nearly two inches in diameter—can pose a danger for storm chasers’ vehicles.
Photo by DAVID JOSHUA JENNINGS
Every Oklahoman has sat glued to a television during a tornado outbreak, and in those moments, the thrill is real. So while the tragedies of 2013 have instilled in the storm chasing community a heightened sense of mortality, little cultural change has occurred. If anything, storm chasing seems to become more accessible with every passing year. The culture of storm chasers, first revealed to the world at large in 1996 with the release of Twister, has seen its visibility explode due to YouTube videos, smartphones, and storm-chasing apps, to a point that injuries resulting from chaser traffic have become a serious concern among professionals.
Watching storm chasers both professional and avocational converge on a tornado is like watching a wolf pack stalking a kill. On a storm-chasing app, each individual team appears as a red blip on a map, and anywhere there is a hook echo, those red dots converge. The resulting traffic jam at prime funnel-viewing sites could one day become deadly. Val Castor remembers a time when this was not the case.
“Starting out, all I really had was a handheld scanner,” he says. “It would let you pick up the weather radio, and every now and again, you might pick up a civil defense spotter if you happened to be in the right area. But generally, you got nothing. You had to hope you made a good forecast to start the day. Now, it’s a lot easier.”
Many storm chasers worry that this ease of access will result in future tragedies. For this growing community, it’s a fearful thought, because while a love of science mixed with a predilection for danger may have brought them to the field, camaraderie has kept them there.
“Chasing is a friendship endeavor,” says Cole. “It’s about the people you’re chasing with. The ultimate, elusive goal is to the see the tornado, and when you do, that cements the bond.”
For the Castors, chasing is an actual paid profession. The adrenaline is there, but so is a sense of duty—not only in terms of public safety but in the drive to capture the greatest footage. When the other chasers turn back at nightfall, the Castors chase on as long as a storm has the capacity to threaten Oklahomans.
Luckily for the people of Oklahoma, not long after the close encounter in the bear cage, the supercells the Castors are tracking coalesce into a less threatening squall line. The danger—and the elusive prize—have passed. The hour of golden light that follows late afternoon storms unfolds overhead as they return home. As the sun begins to set, dancing shafts of light pierce the clouds, illuminating the freshly soaked fields, arcing rainbows over the horizon. The inside of the car is silent. It’s like the quiet after a battle.
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Get There: Tours of the National Weather Center on the University of Oklahoma campus—which is home to the National Severe Storms Laboratory—in Norman are available by reservation. 120 David L. Boren Boulevard in Norman, (405) 325-3095 or nwcnorman.org.