Out Here In The Middle--Why I Storm Chase

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This week I’m “out here in the middle*”, in the Great Plains storm chasing. I've loved and been fascinated by thunderstorms and severe weather my whole life; I chased hurricanes in the 80’s on Long Island, and was hooked on the idea of seeing a tornado, of course, after seeing Twister in the 1990’s. In more recent years, wireless internet became affordable, and I've had some flexibility in my schedule, and that’s allowed me to get out here more frequently (and I finally got my first tornado last year). Of course, my goal while out is to find and photograph another tornado, but there’s something beyond that that makes me want to get “out there” when I’m at home in NYC.

I turned 50 this year, and I've experienced a lot in my life. But there’s few things I've encountered in the world as truly awesome (in the true sense of the word) as a supercell thunderstorm.  From a distance, to the untrained eye (I took a Penn State meteorology course and lots of spotter training before chasing), these storms can just look like pretty, puffy clouds. But if you know what’s going, you can actually see the dynamics of the storm at work, and the atmosphere gives up its otherwise invisible secrets. Closer, some of the power of the storm becomes evident, and being near the updraft of the storm can be truly awe-inspiring. In person, a tornado—a rare phenomenon on the earth—is really beyond description. And the potential for a few minutes exposure to nature’s power in its raw, unabashed glory is what compels storm chasers to drive hundreds of miles a day to maybe—possibly--see something. Or, sit all day under a tornado watch in Nebraska and see nothing but the sun (as I have done), with the only guarantee being endless fast food meals, and the entertainment of the day being a truck stop gift shop.

But there’s other reasons to be out here. Having grown up in the east, the expanse of the plains is hard to even comprehend. I remember the first time I saw flat prairie land to the horizon; I was at a meeting in Kansas City and I just drove west in Kansas until an hour after I didn't see any more trees. It’s like the first time you see the Grand Canyon or the Everglades; even after seeing photos your whole life, and having a clear mental image, it just doesn't seem real. 

And then there’s the sky, and the light. At home in New York, you often have to make an effort to see the sky. Here, it’s relentless and unavoidable, ever-changing, and endlessly fascinating. You can feel like you’re floating in it, like you’re drawn into it, a part of it. As a photographer, I’m always chasing the “golden hour”—the hour or so before sunset when the light rakes the landscape from a low angle, and out here, with so few obstructions, you get the full, beautiful benefit of that time.

At home, I pack my schedule down to the minute, optimizing everything I can to give me as much time to cram as many interesting things into my life as possible. Here, I turn my schedule over to nature. I wake up in the morning, check the forecast, and then finalize on a decision where to go that day. When I leave, I generally have no idea where I’ll be staying that night.  As good as our forecast models are now, chasers still end up following the winds out here.

By NYC standards, there’s not much culture out here in “fly over” country—there’s more people just in my home city than the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas combined. No people means not much going on.  By 8 pm, when many go out to dinner at home, everything’s closed in most of these small towns. But the connection to the land has always been important to me. I grew up surrounded by corn fields and a river in rural Maryland, and being in these small towns always feels like a visit home in some way. 

So I’ll be out here this week, even though I might not see much severe weather, since I had to book this trip months ago and there’s not much in the forecast. But the atmosphere is always changing, and one supercell out in open country would make all the hassles worth it; a tornado out in a field would be icing on the cake. 

But the plains on their own will be their own consolation prize if nothing else happens.

* "Out here in the middle" is a great song by James McMurty, who for me is the voice of the plains.  Other great songs include "Levelland" (My current chase target for today), "No More Buffalo", and the great "Choctaw Bingo".