When it comes to severe weather, I think most people fall into one of three categories: they either love severe storms, they’re scared to death of them, or they’re fascinated by them until they start to get a little too close for comfort. I tend to fall into the latter category. I love the thrill of an impending storm, but when it actually arrives and drops hail the size of golf balls and brings winds that snap large tree limbs, I run for cover. After experiencing a tornado-like derecho storm that bent 20’-tall treetops all the way to the ground right in front of my eyes, I don’t want to be around if severe weather is on its way. But for people who love the excitement of severe weather, they are probably great candidates for the hobby of storm chasing. For those of us who run away from storms, it’s hard to believe that people would purposely head into a storm, but storm chasing is a popular pastime for weather researchers and thrill seekers alike.
The Start Of Storm Chasing
Widely known as the pioneer of storm chasing, David Hoadley began chasing storms in 1956 in his hometown in North Dakota. He founded Storm Track magazine, which aimed at bringing storm chasers together to form a community of “chasers.” With the movie Twister and the rise of the Internet, storm chasing has soared in popularity and has become one of the ultimate adventures for risk-takers and daredevils. A number of severe weather-related shows on cable networks, such as Storm Chasers on Discovery and Storm Stories on The Weather Channel, have piqued the interest of viewers and have helped grow the nationwide community of storm chasers. Every spring hundreds of meteorologists, scientists, nature lovers, and hobbyists take to the open roads of the Great Plains in hopes of tracking and capturing on film the magnificence of a great storm. But with the Great Plains stretching out for thousands of square miles and severe storms being relatively rare in the U.S. (around 10,000 per year), being in the right place at the right time comes down to research, science, experience, and a little bit of luck. The following areas of the U.S. are great regions to be in if you want to chase (or avoid) storms during the most active storm months, which are typically March through July. But proceed with caution, as storm chasing isn’t a hobby that should be jumped into on a whim. Professional storm chasers risk life and limb to garner valuable storm research that helps scientists and meteorologists better understand and predict violent storms, thus helping to save lives. It’s possibly one of the most dangerous jobs out there and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Best Regions to Chase (or Avoid) Storms
Believe it or not, the Tampa Bay area, which includes Clearwater and St. Petersburg, was named by The Weather Channel as having the most tornadoes per square mile in the U.S. a few years ago. Some say the numbers are skewed by the occurrence of waterspouts, which are water-based tornadoes that touch land only for a few minutes but have to be counted as tornadoes in data. But the data shows that Clearwater came in first in the nation with 7.1 tornadoes per year per 1,000 square miles. Due to the prevalence of thunderstorms and the fact that tropical storms and hurricanes are a way of life along the Florida peninsula every year, it’s no surprise that Florida is at the top of the list for tornadoes. When the tropical storms move in over land and converge with inland temps and storms, they often produce tornadoes. Luckily, these tropical storm-born tornadoes are often weaker than ones further inland.
Oklahoma City, ranked number two by The Weather Channel in frequency of tornadoes per square mile, is in the heart of “Tornado Alley.” Although the exact boundaries of Tornado Alley are debatable, it’s commonly thought to stretch from northern Iowa down to central Texas, and from western Ohio to central Kansas and Nebraska. This area of the Great Plains sees 1,200 storms annually. In 2011 over 500 people were killed in this region by tornadoes, cyclones, and dust devils, making this the deadliest year since 1953. The Great Plains region is host to a number of storm chasing tours. Not for the faint of heart, these tours offer adventure and excitement like no other for people who want to see first-hand the force and destruction of severe storms. For about $3000, you can spend a week chasing storms throughout Tornado Alley with the best storm chasers in the business.
Eastern New Mexico/West Texas
This very rural area is located just west of Tornado Alley. Located on about the same longitude as eastern Colorado, this southwestern region sees about 3-5 tornado events per year. The area between I-10 and I-20 features some of the best visibility anywhere in the Plains, making this a great region to camp out when severe storms are imminent. This is about as far west as you can go in the U.S. and still expect to see about one significant tornado per year.
Later in tornado season, tornado activity is possible in the eastern Dakota area. Head this way in May and/or June to experience less-congested storm chasing. Located pretty far north of Tornado Alley, not many storm chasers head this way, despite the roads being wide open and easy to travel for chasing twisters. Recent tornado activity in South Dakota includes one in Bowdle in 2010 and another in Alpena in 2014.
Known for its long tornado season, Illinois is the most popular state east of the Mississippi in which to chase storms. Not only are the roads easy to navigate, especially in southern Illinois, but the season stretches from April into August. Tornadoes have even been known to occur into the fall months as well. However don’t count on a strong tornado season every year. Illinois experiences its ups and downs with tornadoes. Some years may be quiet, while other years it seems like Illinois has a target on its back.
Northern Indiana/NW Ohio
Just south of Michigan in northern Indiana and northwestern Ohio you’ll find land that is especially great for chasing tornadoes. This area sees tornadoes from April through November, although late spring into summer is its prime tornado time.
The lowlands on either side of the Mississippi River offer great road networks and viewing of tornadoes. Generally referred to as Dixie Alley, scientists say this region is deadlier than Tornado Alley, its northwestern cousin. Stretching from the Lower Mississippi Valley to the Upper Tennessee Valley, this region has the most days per year with a tornado within 25 miles! The tornadoes that occur in this region tend to move faster, last longer, and occur at night, resulting in more damage and deaths than the ones in Tornado Alley. Due to a more lush landscape than the Great Plains, taking photos of twisters here is more difficult, which may also explain why Tornado Alley is more widely known for tornadoes. Prime tornado season is longer here than in the Plains states, with tornadoes occurring from spring into fall.
Are you interested in chasing storms? Do you have any storm stories to share? Tell us about them in the comments!