Tornado chasers head into storms to collect data on twisters

Monday, May 7, 2007

WELLINGTON, Kan. -- Tornado-chasing scientists and a crew of IMAX cameramen perched on the top of the hill where U.S. Highway 160 passes over the Kansas Turnpike for about an hour recently before they moved on to Hays in search of a twister.

The word "tornado" was spinning around town as drivers took note of the highly recognizable vehicles -- the Doppler on Wheels and the Tornado Intercept Vehicle -- that have been seen in National Geographic Television documentaries among other national programming.

Some took their presence as a sign of the potential for severe weather, but Joshua Wurman, an atmospheric scientist and director of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., said the weather conditions were not favorable for a tornado in the immediate area.

Wurman is responsible for developing the Doppler on Wheels Mobile Weather Radar Network, a unique dual Doppler weather tracking system that offers recision monitoring of everything from sub-hurricane-scale windbursts and microbursts to tornadoes.

This year's storm season has been a positive one already, Wurman said, and the crew has collected data on 10 tornadoes -- already more than it collected all last season. They will continue to travel through Tornado Alley until June 7.

Bundy Chanock, a paramedic traveling with the crew, signed on 72 hours before the storm chasing began a few weeks ago and has found the job "thrilling."

Being 500 yards away from a tornado feels like the cell is right on top of you, he said, and described the touchdown of a tornado as being "like a bomb" with the debris flying up from the ground.

Some of the crew get even closer than that, however, and try to position themselves directly under the vortex of the tornado to film it from the inside.

Ronan P. Nagle is the driver of the TIV, which is also manned by navigator Byron Turk and experienced storm chaser Sean Casey.

The TIV is a 14,000 pound steel tank built over a Ford F-450 Super Duty engine and chassis. It has hydraulics to lower and level itself and claws to hold on to the ground. It is also filled with the elaborate scientific and film-making equipment of the IMAX crew.

The crew has most recently worked on the IMAX feature, Forces of Nature, which can now be seen nation wide.

The TIV also collects data and deploys probes during the tornadoes. It is built to intercept a moderate F2 tornado with winds at 140 miles per hour or less in areas where there is a minimal debris field.

The crew hopes to collect data on the wind patterns of a tornado, particularly those of low-lying winds.

Scientist John Wurman said the IMAX technology will be useful in the study of tornadoes because the footage will be able to be reviewed frame by frame. They will be studying the debris as it moves to determine the movement of the winds.

"The goal is to get a full picture of all the winds from a tornado from top to bottom," Nagle said. "And you can't get any closer than inside of it."

Turk said as navigator, his job is to try to predict where the driver is headed and track their movements on their laptop. He says Nagle has an impossible job of driving through blinding hail and rain, and maneuvering three-point turns on narrow muddy roads.

One day two weeks ago, the crew had visually seen five tornadoes. They were inside two while the twisters were forming. While they were in route to catch another tornado, it passed on the road ahead of them by one minute as they were racing toward it.

"It was heartbreaking," Turk said. "It crossed right in front of us. It was the most beautiful tornado, so picturesque. We just didn't get there in time."

The crews have had success in the Great Plains, measuring the highest ever documented wind speeds on Earth and capturing the birth of a tornado. Ultimately, the scientists hope to collect data to help researchers unravel the conditions that spawn killer storms.

Nagle contributes the lack of fear to the great crew or scientists and filmmakers.

"You have to trust the people you are working with. Sean made a decision to get a shot, so to get a shot we have to trust the scientists. You can't be second guessing or worrying," he said.

Although some might think them crazy for the dangerous work they throw themselves into, Nagle says it's for the thrill.

"To see a tornado is awe-inspiring, it's thrilling," he said. "Just the feelings you get are indescribable, and they are so beautiful."

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