Most people try to avoid golf ball-sized hail, flashing lightning, and dark skies when traveling. But not Brittany Holley, a storm chaser who seeks out places to encounter high winds and hailstorms.
She’s watched twin tornadoes dance across Colorado plains and seen ominous funnel clouds form over the New Mexico desert. “It’s crazy because it’s just water, moisture, and clouds—but it’s such a rush,” says Holley, who has been hopping around the U.S. in search of inclement weather since 2018.
As climate change foments an era of severe weather, storm chasing offers a close encounter with nature’s raw power. But such a rush comes with extreme risk. National Geographic’s October 2013 cover story was about the life and death of renowned storm chaser Tim Samaras, a pioneering scientist and National Geographic grantee who died (along with two others) when he was overtaken by a monstrous twister in El Reno, Oklahoma. With a width of 2.6 miles, it was the widest ever recorded.
And yet, the same severe weather systems that damage property and upend lives across the U.S. each year also draw thousands of people to seek their destructive beauty. It’s an addictive pursuit that some people describe as spiritual, an encounter with forces greater than themselves.
Social media and the pandemic have fueled rising interest in weather tours. More than a dozen tour companies have sprung up to indulge in the storm chasing fantasy, but to many people—public safety officials, meteorologists, and scientists—the practice is an unnecessary risk.
Chasing picks up speed
Storm chasers range from trained guides and meteorologists who spend hours forecasting the perfect chase targets to novices armed with nothing but a smartphone.
The movement started with a small but passionate community of “storm trackers” in the 1950s, but quickly exploded after the release of the 1996 film Twister. After the movie’s debut, tour companies began to crop up in what is known as “Tornado Alley”— northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota—where the region’s climate and vast, grassy plains make the area a storm chasing mecca. The industry got an additional boost after Discovery’s Storm Chasers premiered in 2007.
In recent years, viral social media posts and pandemic boredom have drawn thousands of people (novices and experts) to pursue weather wonders across the U.S.
Erik Burns, owner and tour director of Tornadic Expeditions, based in Oklahoma City and Denver, estimates that interest in his tornado tracking tours has grown by 30 percent over the past five years, despite the high price tag (a six- to 10-day trip can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $4,100). According to Burns, nearly 70 percent of guests sign up for a second tour, and up to 60 percent come from abroad to the U.S., which sees an estimated 75 percent of all reported tornadoes worldwide (although incidents are underreported in many countries).
“When I started this, I thought, ‘there’s got to be a specific demographic,’ but the demographic is storm lovers,” Burns says. “People from all walks of life, all cultures have a place in the van. We’re just a weather-nut family.”
The popularity of storm tourism can actually make the pursuit more hazardous. So-called “chaser convergences,” can lead to deadly traffic jams if the only escape route from a tornado’s path is blocked. An additional risk is that it’s not customary for tour guests to wear helmets or eye protection, according to most guides.
“On these little country roads [in rural Oklahoma or Kansas], you might see 100, 200 cars or more, like a conga line of chasers,” says Burns, adding that many of the weather watchers may be inexperienced or traveling solo.
“The most dangerous part of storm chasing isn’t even the storms, it’s other drivers,” says Burns, noting several incidents where chasers died on their way home from a storm. “We know where everything [in a weather system] is, but somebody running a stop sign isn’t something we can predict.”
While fatalities caused directly by tornadoes are rare among tour groups, even expert drivers and guides are not immune to potentially dangerous mistakes. In May, a tornado struck a Cloud 9 Tours van near rural Lockett, Texas, blowing out the windshield and windows and sending it into a terrifying spin in 140-mile-per-hour winds. The passengers escaped with only scrapes and bruises, but the incident was harrowing.
To some storm experts, like John Knox, a University of Georgia professor of geography, climate, and weather (who does not chase storms), chasing severe weather is better left to scientists. “Who’s benefiting here? If we’re talking about somebody with nothing better to do than to get up and get in a pickup and go take pictures, I don’t think that’s sustainable,” Knox says.
Sometimes, however, hobbyists are able to support seasoned experts. National Geographic Explorer and podcast host Anton Seimon crowd-sourced hobbyist storm chasers’ images of the deadly 2013 El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado (the largest recorded one). The images were used to create a database to help researchers better understand the behavior of violent twisters.
A dangerous shift
Chases are occasionally dramatic, but the ideal storm watching day during peak season—April to June—isn’t. The most spectacular tornadoes are visible more than a mile away as they sweep across the open plains of Tornado Alley, with torrential rain off in the distance. However, the epicenter of tornadic activity may be shifting, according to recent research.
“There have been a few years in the last decade where the Plains states have been very quiet. It used to be, up until the decade of the 2000s, nobody went east of I-35,” the interstate that cuts through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota, says Roger Hill, co-owner and tour director of the Oklahoma City-based Silver Lining Tours. “Now people are spending a lot more time in what’s referred to as ‘Dixie Alley,’” states including Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and parts of Kentucky.
Data suggests that the greatest concentration of damaging tornado outbreaks may be sliding Southeast instead of the Central Plains. Tornadic storms tend to develop along the dry-line, a stretch of the U.S. where wetter, cooler and drier, warmer weather fronts meet.
“One possible theory of this shift is the Gulf of Mexico being warmer. That will cause more moisture in the [southeastern] area, and this is a condition that is very prone to tornado formation,” says Niloufar Nour, a City University of New York professor whose research, published in February 2022, showed that large outbreaks of tornadoes are becoming more concentrated in the southeastern U.S.
It’s a hotly debated topic in the storm chasing community, and one that’s drawing some chasers deeper into the South, where low visibility and winding road systems heighten the dangers of chasing. Still, experienced storm chasers, like Lanny Dean, owner and guide of Tulsa-based Tornadic Expeditions, suspect that better storm prediction technology, a boom in storm spotting, and social media have led to more reports of tornadoes in areas outside traditional Tornado Alley, but not necessarily a higher occurrence of tornadoes than in previous years.
“Everything’s cyclic, we will go back into that cycle,” of an active Tornado Alley, says Dean, a self-taught forecaster.
Tornadoes in the Southeast are more likely to damage homes and inflict injuries since many areas in this region are densely populated. Warning alerts often come late in states including Mississippi and Alabama because weather and foliage make tornadoes harder to spot. It’s so difficult and dangerous to get a good view of a tornado in the South that most tours don’t bother venturing there. But after two quiet years in Tornado Alley, where there were 25 percent fewer tornadoes in May of 2022 than in an average year, many are tempted.
“More people are starting to chase in the Southeast out of desperation to find storms,” says Jen Walton, a storm chaser and the founder of the collective Girls Who Chase.
Women join the chase
Although scientists and hobbyists had been following severe weather for decades, Discovery’s Storm Chasers popularized the activity. Walton quickly noticed that the pursuit—and the show—mostly featured straight, white, cisgender men.
This perception contributed to a frustrating but familiar pattern in the storm chasing world. Women make up an estimated 27 percent of the geosciences workforce, and storm chasing and meteorology have consisted mostly of “nerdy white guys forever,” says Knox. But Walton suspected there were other women who wanted to chase the weather, or were already doing it.
In 2021, she created an Instagram account to showcase the work of female-identifying chasers and discovered a nascent community. Girls Who Chase has bloomed into a multi-platform home for podcasts, community, and education, while still using Instagram to highlight the photography of chasers such as Sarah Alsayegh, who believes she might be the first and only female Kuwaiti-Arab storm chaser.
“I had so many people say to me, ‘oh, she’s doing man stuff,’ calling me names, but I don’t care about any of that, because I love chasing,” she says. Alsayegh now travels to the U.S. to chase and photograph tornadoes as often as she can.
Storm chasing, for Walton and Alsayegh, is an ideal vehicle to get women involved in STEM and to engage anyone in climate issues.
“Weather is a way to talk about change and extreme events. Weather is relatable to every person, and tornadoes are cool. Storm chasing is kind of badass,” Walton says.
She and her fellow chasers relish the adrenaline rush and the satisfaction of combining the science of meteorology with the art of making their own forecasts. They are rewarded for calling Mother Nature’s movements with the awe-inspiring sight of a tornado howling in the distance.
“The process of forecasting, chasing, and capturing the storm for me is incredibly empowering,” says Walton. “Standing in front of a rotating storm where you are a speck of dust relative to the size and sheer forces of nature…brings me into the present [and] clears everything else out of my brain.”
Natalie Rahhal is a Brooklyn-based health and science writer who still dreams of stormy nights in her native Oklahoma. You can follow her work on Twitter.