A tornado is a strong storm where wind swirls around in a giant cylinder. Tornadoes can be dangerous if they cross paths with people or their houses, but “storm chasers” carefully study how tornadoes move and use models to predict how they can safely see the funnel clouds in action. We spoke with storm chaser Rob Hurkes while he was right in the middle of a storm chasing trip across the Great Plains. Of course, we’re not suggesting that you go following tornadoes, but thought you’d might like to know what it’s like!
BTM: So what makes a person want to get closer to tornadoes?
Rob: For me, it was curiosity. I remember playing outside with my friends growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, and hearing tornado warning sirens, which meant we all had to go inside, but all I could see was some rain and wind. I always wondered what else was going on out there. And then as I got older I learned more about tornadoes, which made me even more interested. However, I didn’t start chasing until about 5 years ago.
BTM: Why do so many tornadoes happen on the Great Plains?
Rob: In the simplest terms, that’s where warm wet air from the Gulf of Mexico hits cold dry air spilling over the Rocky Mountains. That collision can provide the 4 ingredients needed for a tornado to form:
BTM: But how do you know where those four things will happen all at once? How do you actually find a tornado?
Rob: Data! The National Weather Service provides a ton of information online for free – maps and charts and graphs of temperature and dew point and pressure at different levels in the atmosphere. But all that information comes from specific places, so there are gaps we have to fill in by using algebra and making estimations based on the temperatures and wind speeds in the places we know. And we make those calculations quickly in our heads, because the weather is changing every minute.
BTM: And once you have a good idea where you might find a tornado, what’s next?
Rob: Then we have to do our best to navigate to it before it happens and ends. Today we’re expecting storm speeds of 10 knots, or a little under 12 MPH, but I’ve seen storms move up to 65 MPH. So it’s not that simple to “catch” one, especially because most tornadoes are over in a matter of minutes.
BTM: Isn’t it dangerous to be near a tornado?
Rob: Well, it’s possible to be a safe distance away from a tornado and still be amazed by an incredible act of nature. Storm chasers also consider a range of possibilities rather than making a single prediction of how large a storm is or how quickly it might move. That allows us to plan for the “worst-case scenario.”
Of course, sometimes tornadoes can cross paths with towns and people’s homes, and that’s why storm chasers created StormAssist, which raises money for those affected by tornadoes.
BTM: What math should kids practice if they want to be storm chasers when they grow up?
Rob: The nice thing is that anyone can check out weather maps online. There’s also a program called SkyWarn that provides training on the basics of storm spotting and storm safety. Storm chasers need to be able to understand and calculate distance, time, and speed. And unit conversions are very important too, which usually require some multiplication, division, and fraction or decimal work.