When a major storm strikes, most people have the good sense to either hunker down or get out of the way. Storm chasers, however, are a special breed. They run right for it.
Reed Timmer, one of the stars of the hit Discovery Channel show "Storm Chasers," details his adventures around some of the world's strongest storms.
Read an excerpt from the book below, and head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
The dream starts with a breeze. When I envision the complex creation of the most violent and mysterious weather phenomenon of all—a three-hundred-mile-per-hour, landscape-churning, damage-scale-topping tornado—it starts with a soothing breeze.
Here in central Oklahoma, where I really do live, and where tornadoes rated the maximum F5 on mete-orology's Fujita Scale truly have gouged the earth time and time again, the breeze comes out of the south. The air is sultry—moist and warm. When it reaches your skin, it's as thick as lotion, and it makes you feel like you've been transported somewhere exotic. You almost have. The breeze originates in the Gulf of Mex-ico, where it once washed over beachgoers.
In my mind, I watch how this special air flows—meteorologists call this movement the low-level jet—as if it were a river, a thousand feet in the sky, extending halfway across the continent to the Great Plains. When the tropical air reaches the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, or Kansas, something curious happens. And the air is no longer a quiet, soothing breeze.
Near the earth's surface, moist air collides with different kinds of air coming from different directions. Hot, dry air from the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Cold air from the north, blown southward across Canada, all the way from the Arctic. Such a convergence doesn't happen everywhere, but in central Oklahoma it's hardly a freak event. The Great Plains—which weather nuts like me call Tornado Alley—is a rare, natural intersecting point for all this wind. About 90 percent of all tornadoes reported annually in the United States—some eight hundred or more per year—touch down in Tornado Alley.
In the birth of my envisioned F5, all of that clashing air follows a meteorological script. The hot, dry air in-jects the atmosphere with heat that serves as a springboard for the now warm, moist air to rise. As kids, we were taught that hot air rises—hot air molecules agitate more than cold air molecules, and, needing lots of room to move, the hot air expands upward. When an F5 forms over Tornado Alley, this ascension is violent, sometimes moving at over one hundred miles per hour. The surrounding cold air only helps matters. Cold air forces neighboring hot air to rise faster.
Then, approximately a mile above the ground, the moisture in the rising air condenses into a mist. This is the meteorological equivalent of a shark fin popping out of the ocean water. It marks the beginnings of a storm cloud. It's the first visible sign of danger.
Usually the rising air in a cloud quickly cools as it ascends, and the cloud stops moving up. But not dur-ing the formation of an F5. The rising air—the updraft—won't die. Condensation continues, and the traces of ascending mist accumulate, not unlike the way a snowball gathers more snow as it rolls downhill. But in the case of an F5, the "snowball" is climbing toward the heavens. On a humid spring day, folks in Tornado Alley can turn their backs on the sky for just minutes, to mow a lawn or wash a car. When they look up again, what was a cloud-free sky before has become blemished—more like dominated—by a lone, sunlit, bright white, ominous cloud.
The crisp cloud in my mind rapidly grows from a height of hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of feet, blasting through the troposphere and into the stratosphere until it's thirteen miles tall. This is a cu-mulonimbus cloud, and in its most radical, towering form people say that it looks like the mushroom cloud that's associated with a nuclear explosion. Considering what an F5 tornado can do to both property and people, the metaphor isn't too far-fetched.
According to the Fujita Scale upon which the "F5" classification is based, such a tornado can flatten homes, turn cars into airborne missiles, and debark trees. The Fujita Scale is a widely accepted "damage scale" for categorizing tornadoes that's based on the havoc they wreak, and "F5" is used only to identify the most destructive rotating winds—those that spin anywhere from an estimated 261 to 318 miles per hour. Created by University of Chicago meteorologist Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita in 1971, the scale's other five catego-ries also use damage characteristics and estimated speeds to classify every other tornado: F0 (under 73 miles per hour); F1 (73 to 112 miles per hour); F2 (113 to 157 miles per hour); F3 (158 to 206 miles per hour); and F4 (207 to 260 miles per hour). In 2007, the "F-scale" was supplanted by a slightly modified "En-hanced Fujita Scale," or "EF-scale" (for consistency I've stuck with the F-scale, which was in use for most of my early days of storm chasing, throughout this book). Whichever scale you use, to suggest "F5" is to suggest almost unfathomable power.
Sure enough, near the base of this imaginary and towering cumulonimbus cloud, forces are at work. Winds howl through the cloud at varying elevations, directions, and speeds. One gale from the southwest might blow at fifty miles per hour at an elevation of six thousand feet; another blows at sixty miles per hour, from the west and at ten thousand feet; a third gust maintains twenty miles per hour near the earth's surface. This phenomenon is called wind shear. The conflicting and contrasting winds push and pull the air inside the cloud until, finally, that air moves in a uniform, circular current. Ultimately the air inside the cloud begins to rotate on a horizontal axis, much the same way that laundry rotates inside a clothes dryer.
The turbulence, however, has only just begun. The force of the updraft inside the cumulonimbus cloud acts like a crane, yanking and tilting the cylinder of rotating air inside the cloud as if it were a pipe that had to ultimately stand on one end. By the time the updraft inside the cloud is finished repositioning this cylinder of air, it's now spinning vertically, like a barber pole. Then the mesocyclone comes alive. I can picture it now—although anyone who is in the vicinity of such a cloud can't miss it.
The mesocyclone, which is the rotating and rising air inside the cloud, is so powerful that it forces part, if not all, of the cloud to also turn. There's more to the spectacle, too. Miles in the sky, the warm and moist air that fed the growth of the cumulonimbus cloud has finally cooled, causing an upper layer of ice crystals to spread in all directions like a pancake. Now that same guy who was washing his car might look up and see a massive, glistening, flying-saucer-shaped, rotating cloud. If I were him, and this storm were real, I wouldn't be turning my back on the sky anymore.
The rogue cloud structure is now known as a supercell thunderstorm. Pregnant with moisture, wind, and both the warm air coming in and the cooling air spewing out its top and trickling down, the storm roars forth. Thunder. Lightning. Torrential rain. Cold cloud droplets turn into hail and get swept back into the updraft, only to attract more moisture and freeze again, cycling through until the hailstones grow as big as baseballs. Then they finally fall from the sky, kill livestock, smash windshields, and put holes in the roofs of buildings.
I imagine something else dropping from the storm's belly: a wall cloud. It's a signature, block-shaped mass of condensation produced close to the heart of the storm's twisting and ascending updraft. A wall cloud might be only hundreds of feet off the ground, and it can spin like a top.
Here the tornado science gets fuzzy. For reasons that aren't fully known, the wall cloud sprouts a thinner funnel that features an intensified rotation. Responding to pressure and temperature changes, the funnel lowers to the ground even as it sucks air upward. The spinning cloud might get longer and thinner, or it might not. Tornadoes can look like elephant trunks, stovepipes, drill bits, or wedges. They can be straight or crooked. They can range anywhere from three hundred feet to over two miles wide and can spin for a couple of minutes or an hour. They can glisten white in the sun or appear black in the shadows, although they can also turn shades of red, yellow, brown, and pink, depending on the color of the dirt and man-made materials they pull off the ground.
The F5 of my dreams doesn't do colossal damage to people and their property. I've seen all manner of such destruction: rain gutters peeled off by sixty-five-mile-per-hour F0s, large trees snapped in half by hun-dred-and-twenty-mile-per-hour F2s, and neighborhoods reduced to sticks and stones by a three-hundred-mile-per-hour F5. I've encountered semi trucks that have been lifted onto their noses and houses that ex-ploded under the force of the storm.
The F5 I imagine—a bright white stovepipe—spins in the open fields. I get close enough to hear its un-mistakable jet-engine whoosh. I smell the earth as the tornado slashes through shrubbery and trees like some giant-size lawn mower generating the unmistakable aroma of fresh-cut grass. I watch as the lone, imperfect cylinder unpredictably moves one way and then skips another.
When there's no more warm, moist air in the pipeline and the F5 has strangled itself by sucking in its own cold air, the once huge tornado turns into an ever-thinning, twisting rope before disappearing into the ether.
This collision of air and water is what rules my life. It fills my thoughts. It pushes me to take risks and put myself in positions that some view with awe but many view with suspicion. And chasing tornadoes is how I want to spend the rest of my life. Honestly, I'm not sure I have a choice.
It's an interesting proposition, seeking happiness from tornadoes. For those few of us who are unquestion-ably mesmerized by them, chasing tornadoes can be the most fantastic experience in the world. Tornado chasing taxes your intellect and puts you at one with incredible, spectacular forces of nature. Chasing is also a fix for any adrenaline junkie and, if you do it often enough, can become your career.
But an obsession with stalking tornadoes can kill or maim you, too, and even if chasing doesn't leave you with physical scars or a need for crutches, it's hard to escape unscathed. You'll witness death and de-struction of property that sickens your stomach and saddens your heart. Your family will worry about you. Significant others will grow tired of playing second fiddle. Peers will disagree with the way you chase, and you'll lose friends to your obsession.
So when it comes to shadowing tornadoes, you have to ask yourself: What is chasing those violent, crazy, beautiful dreams—and I do mean chasing them—worth to you?
Twelve years ago, even before I'd experienced the highs and lows, before I'd seen what tornadoes were truly capable of, chasing them became everything to me.
I remember exactly when the dreams started crowding my mind. I was a naive eighteen-year-old, still eight months shy of a huge storm-chasing rite of passage—intercepting a stunning, gigantic, and deadly F5 tornado.
I was in college, a smart and quirky freshman, and I sat in a lecture hall full of aspiring meteorologists. Back then, nobody—myself included—thought my name would become synonymous with tornadoes and severe weather. In fact, back then I stood out only because I appeared to be the student least likely to succeed.
I remember one fellow student's sentiments toward me in particular. Honestly, she thought I was a fool.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, weeks into the fall semester of 1998. I was sitting next to my new friend Rick during a class held in sprawling Dale Hall on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. The course was Meteorology 1111, a prerequisite for all OU freshmen pursuing a meteorology degree. Rick and I spent class exchanging messages and sketches about things we found more interesting than the boring lecture. This day was no different. After I'd written something on the back of a paper napkin and handed it to him, Rick softly yet enthusiastically pounded the armrest with his fist.
That's when the blond student sitting in the row ahead of us turned around and gave us a dismissive glance. Without saying a thing, I understood her glare. It said, "Please pay attention."
I didn't appreciate being told—even silently—what to do. I wanted to ignore her. But instead I gave the young woman an acknowledging nod. Three minutes later, Rick accidentally knocked a notebook off his desk while returning the napkin to mine. The notebook hit the floor with a thud.
This time the blond turned around and clearly mouthed this message to me: "Why do you show up?"
Judging from her attitude, the woman sitting in front of me apparently thought it was only a matter of time before I was looking for a new major or a new school. Meteorology is a complicated and difficult science. For starters, understanding the earth's atmosphere and weather—what we can understand, I should say—requires learning a lot of math and physics, especially fluid dynamics and thermodynamics. Back when I was a high school senior and an OU applicant, I was interviewed as part of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology's admissions process. I was told that Oklahoma had one of the most prestigious meteorology programs in the country. I was also told that I would likely be humbled. Approximately three of every four people in the program leave or fail before graduating.
She was like some other students in the lecture hall that day: good-looking and polished. Sitting right behind her, I could see that her thick hair was perfectly styled, as if she'd prepared herself to appear in front of a camera. And maybe that's exactly what she'd done. In 1998, college meteorology programs across the country were enjoying a wave of popularity. A lot of credit went to Helen Hunt and the movie Twister, which had been a major blockbuster only two years earlier. The movie romanticized weather in general and storm chasing in particular. Hunt, who of course is also blond and good-looking, turned the act of pursuing and witnessing severe weather—specifically tornadoes—into a combination of science, romance, and thrill ride. The movie was a megahit, and meteorology was suddenly sexy. A lot of kids came out of high school think-ing that they'd make a career of it. There were a couple hundred students in my Meteorology 1111 class, and I'd have bet that some of them—maybe even the woman sitting in front of me—were there with the hopes of becoming "weather celebrities." That is, they wanted to become high-profile weathermen and weatherwomen with big-bucks jobs on national TV networks.
Rick and I didn't carry ourselves like celebrities at all. We couldn't, really. Rick was tall, gangly, and something of an introvert, courtesy of a quiet, religious upbringing back east in Delaware. I was your aver-age scrawny, young-looking freshman—I didn't have much of a beard to go with my blue eyes and mop of brown hair, and I still had a boy's huge metabolism as well as a complete indifference to fashion. On that Tuesday I wore what I wore practically every day that fall—khaki shorts, a white T-shirt that I'd stained baby blue in the wash, and my black and white in-line skates.
As a kid growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I may have been too small and geeky to play high school team sports, but I had skated in more than my share of neighborhood street hockey games. Now the wheels were coming in handy as a means for getting around campus quickly. I didn't care if they were dorky. The skates were what got me to class on time.
Well, almost on time. Because I was frequently preoccupied with whatever I was doing—like reading a book or listening to music—I was habitually tardy for just about everything at OU, including Meteorology 1111. Which is why, after a while, I stopped taking off my skates when I entered the lecture hall for class. I'd show up in a sweat after hustling, speed-skater style, from my dorm. Then I'd clomp into the hall, sit down next to Rick, continue to sweat (I swear, I was born to sweat), and take out my notebook right after the professor started talking.
But Rick and I never paid attention for long. I'd met Rick soon after arriving in Norman for school. We lived in the same dorm. Initially he kept to himself, but once I got him talking he became very friendly, and I realized that he was quite smart. We both liked playing pickup basketball and following college sports. In fact, Rick and I together became dedicated OU football fans—two of the crazies who painted their torsos and faces Oklahoma Sooner crimson for every home game. And what the woman sitting in front of me on that Tuesday in Meteorology 1111 couldn't know was that we were both complete weather nerds.
Growing up, Rick and I had both watched the Weather Channel whenever we could and had bolted out-side any time conditions turned sour. In our budding friendship, we almost always talked about the weath-er—especially horrendous weather, like thunder, lightning, hurricanes, and tornadoes. We agreed that the worse the weather, the more we were mesmerized by its beauty and chaos. Attending OU, we both admit-ted, had little to do with career opportunities. We'd both come to OU for a pilgrimage to the Great Plains—to experience Tornado Alley. Norman is the severe-weather capital of the world, and that is why we were there.
Excerpt from INTO THE STORM © 2010 by Reed Timmer with Andrew Tilin. Published by Dutton. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.