Students keep eyes to the skies

Abbie Moeller

Dangerous or fun? Despite the perceived danger in storm chasing, several Iowa State meteorology students and at least one professor are directly involved in storm chasing as a hobby.

“The danger comes in when you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Adam Frederick, senior in meteorology.

William Gallus, meteorology professor, has chased storms for government research. He agrees that the most dangerous part of storm chasing is the inexperience of the curious public.

“It’s very dangerous if you don’t have a good idea of meteorology,” Gallus said.

Frederick said that while storm chasing in central Nebraska, inhabitants of the area once lined the road to watch a storm when sirens went off.

Frederick said his group left the area because they thought the storm would turn that way, and they didn’t want to be in its path.

Later, when his group returned, he said they found the remaining cars had their windows broken out and many dents because of the baseball-size hail.

The group predicted the storm would turn in the direction of the onlookers, Frederick said.

He said the best way to stay out of danger is to learn from an experienced chaser.

“I highly recommend going [chasing] with someone experienced first,” he said.

Frederick lives by several safety precautions. He suggests making sure the car used to chase is reliable and has a full tank of gas, and always identify an escape route in case the storm turns suddenly.

“My goal has always been to come home with my car in one piece,” he said.

Both Gallus and Frederick said lightening is the most dangerous part of chasing because it is likely to occur near tornadoes.

Amateur chasers get in greater danger because many times they will drive into the path of the storm or directly into the tornado, instead of watching it from a distance, Frederick said.

Frederick said he has been chasing for four years and has seen about 20 tornadoes.

“A tornado is the icing on the cake,” Frederick said.

Only one in four times will a chaser spot a tornado, Gallus said. However, he said the sky and clouds that can be seen are better than the special effects in the hit movie “Twister.”

“You see very beautiful stripes and colors in the clouds, and the motions are very fast,” Gallus said. “It looks unreal.

“It is like playing the ultimate board game, with God as the other player,” he said.

The chaser’s “move” is predicting the storm, and as the storm develops you can see if you were right, Gallus said.

Besides witnessing the power of nature, chasers say it is a good way to learn about storms.

“By seeing the storms you can apply what you learned in the book,” Frederick said.

Frederick said he wants to apply his storm knowledge as a television weathercaster to relate to the viewers when severe weather occurs.

Gallus said he first got into storm chasing 11 years ago as a graduate student at Colorado State University.

He said chasing primarily involves making accurate forecasts about what a weather system will do, then reading maps to find the right roads for the best observation.

Gallus said he has been able to work with Project Vortex, based out of the National Severe Storm Laboratory. The system is used for working toward better predictions for storms and severe weather. He said he is also doing his own research in this area.

Although storm chasing is not sponsored by ISU because of liability problems, Gallus said many students do it.

He said he doesn’t worry about the students because most of them have a solid meteorology background.

“Students are fairly responsible,” Gallus said.