National Geographic : 2004 Apr
can get clients the best views of the storms. But don't have the vorticity." They don't twist, in it's not like going to, say, Niagara Falls, which other words. We caravan in the Texas Panhandle stays put. Tornadoes are unpredictable, and a for days, Merle Haggard on the radio, tooling wrong decision can be hazardous. I have seen down the straightest roads in the world, chasing tour buses with windows shattered from hail, storms that only tease and don't deliver. "HP the passengers shaken but exhilarated. storms," Tim says disgustedly. "High precipita Research scientists are out there forecasting tion pieces of crap." Sleep and nutrition suffer. and chasing too, of course-teams from mete- Sometimes dinner is a bag of corn chips, some orological departments at universities and from beef jerky, and a Coke. the NSSL in Oklahoma, where much of today's By the middle of June we give it up, leaving pioneering work is done. But science of this kind 2001 as a good year for those who live in Tor is challenging, for tornadoes resist analysis, and nado Alley, but a total bust for us. *, Eli e. I * I. I^^ ^^^ns~w^J~ creative computer models can take researchers only so far. "The tornado has become the black hole of meteorology," says Anton. "We really don't know how it works." To get a better handle on that question, re search meteorologists Howard Bluestein, from the University of Oklahoma at Norman, and Joshua Wurman, from the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, join in the hunt each spring. Stationary radar can't see fine detail in distant storms because a radar beam loses focus over long distances, so Wurman's Doppler on Wheels (DOW) radar trucks intercept the storms and study their hidden structure at close range. Bluestein's new mobile Doppler radar has a beam so focused it can detect wind features as fine as 20 to 30 feet across. But field programs like these can be counted on one hand, so an extraordinary symbiosis has grown between severe-storm meteorologists and serious-minded amateur storm chasers. "The scientific community likes to crunch numbers," says Lance Bosart, a professor of atmospheric science at the University at Albany, whom I meet at a rest stop in Kansas. "The chase community likes to get there and see things. We want to have readings from as many points as we can, and we need all these people to fill in the blanks." Amateur chasers may even play a role in an ambitious project planned for the spring of 2007, when dozens of scientists will attempt to sur round storms and gather data from every angle. We reach Texas in time, but Erik's desig nated storm dissipates into a ragged line of squalls that runs off into the Gulf of Mexico. "We don't chase squall lines," says Anton. "They 16 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * APRIL 2004 The following spring, 2002, we carry our own technology instead of relying on nowcasters. Tim has customized his white Dodge Caravan into an intimidating storm-busters vehicle. A domed television antenna sits on its roof. Screens display Weather Channel broadcasts, global positioning system (GPS) readouts, National Weather Service data, and NOAA satellite images. The van is like a submersible diving into the atmospheric sea. "A nowcaster is continuously poring through the data," says Tim, "but I'd rather pore through the data myself and then look out the window to see what's developing." On the early morning of May 23, we're in a cheap motel room in Salina, Kansas, clutching foam coffee cups, pulling weather reports off the Internet. "The Midwest is a chessboard," says Anton. "We stopped play last night, but the atmosphere made several moves overnight, so we tune in to see what they were. And now we have to make our move." It looks promising. A heavy wind has been unloading on the prairie, twisting the cotton wood leaves onto their pale backsides, leaving grain fields squirming. We head out with the skies overcast, like dirty fleece hanging off an old sheep. Thunderstorms are raging to the south. We haul across the Oklahoma border and reach again into the Texas Panhandle. By 4:40 we're in cattle country, where the towns are rawboned, as if the buildings had been scoured into packing crates by the prairie wind. We pull into Lipscomb, Texas, and a car full of local women rolls up. "You boys bringin' bad weather here?"