Chasers take the country by storm

Kansas-area storm chasers are uniquely positioned for intercept

By Karen Long

An isolated supercell thunderstorm threatens South Central Kansas. 
Photo by Jim Reed.

An isolated supercell thunderstorm threatens South Central Kansas. Photo by Jim Reed.

15 years ago nobody had ever heard the term “storm chaser.” But with the rise of movies like Twister and reality shows like those on Discovery Channel and The Weather Channel, the men and women who pursue developing weather events across the country have raised their profiles while intercepting the largest storms of the century. And in the process, they face hazards ranging from Category 4 hurricanes to bad convenience store food.

Jim Reed

In his 21 years intercepting storms, Jim Reed, Wichita-based storm chaser and severe weather photographer, has seen the best and worst Mother Nature can throw down. He’s landed sponsorships and book deals, he’s captured transcendent, other-worldly photographs and documented Vortex 1 and Vortex 2—two major tornado research projects.

Perhaps most impressive, he’s survived one of the occupational hazards of his profession: “The hardship on your body when you’re driving 500 miles for a storm chase…when your only option [for a meal] is a convenience store or some kind of gas station, with that one burrito under the red lamp.”

One of Reed’s close calls came while he was covering hurricane Charley in southwestern Florida with a colleague in August of 2004. It started off as a “relatively benign” Category 2 but then took a sharp turn and transformed into a full-fledged Category 4 hurricane.

The two men took shelter under the carport of a family who’d fled town. Then “the atmosphere just exploded,” says Reed. Cars were rolling, roofs were peeling off. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life. It’s the only time I’ve ever videotaped a goodbye to my mom...I thought, ‘This is it, we’re going out.’ It was terrifying at first.” The next day his footage was all over the national media.

“While I think a lot of people enjoy watching the shows on TV and find it very adventurous and exciting, there is a side too that has its price… it’s athletic. I want to call it a sport,” Ross says. But on the other hand, “While you’re being entertained, somebody else’s life may be shattered, so it’s all about balance.”

A wall cloud 
that passed over Mt. Hope and Maize on June 9, 2011. Photo by Ted Thomason.

A wall cloud that passed over Mt. Hope and Maize on June 9, 2011. Photo by Ted Thomason.

Ted Thomason

Wichita-based Ted Thomason has been in love with photography ever since he snapped his first Fisher Price picture at the age of six. After volunteering as a storm spotter for a couple of years, he added storm chaser to his resume in 2010 and at the start of the 2012 storm season he picked up Slap Energy Drinks as a sponsor. Thomason has also signed on as an affiliate to Tornado Titans, a Texas-based chase group and will be contributing footage to their online series Supercell Hunt 2012.

Thomason’s video and photos will include storms like the wall cloud that passed over Mt. Hope and Maize on June 9, 2011. It was a “massive” storm and he was “less than a quarter of a mile away from the storm and it was just spectacular. The shot I got of that —I put that on my website and a lot of people really liked it because the cloud was hanging down below the tree level, so it was pretty intense.”

The National Weather Service later used the photo to confirm that the storm did in fact contain a tornado, “and actually shared the image in the weather community because it provided the ‘ground truth’ needed for the confirmation.” Storm chasers also contribute by calling in real-time reports of what they’re witnessing to the National Weather Service.

 
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