All your Twister and storm chasing misconceptions, debunked
If you remember Twister, the epic 1996 "disaster drama" that featured flying cows, Helen Hunt without Paul Reiser, and people driving through tornadoes like it ain’t no thang, then you probably have all sorts of misconceptions about the art of storm chasing (But not about Bill Paxton's ability to act -- he really is that terrible).
In fact, you probably didn’t even know it was an art form. But it is. And to demystify it/answer all of your tornado-pursuing questions, we tapped Roger Hill, a 30-year storm vet (with more than 700 twisters under his belt) and co-owner of a storm-chasing tour company in Colorado.
TRUE OR FALSE
Twister started the storm chasing trend: TRUE!
“Storm chasing started around 40 years ago but not many people did it. When Twister came out in 1996, it kind of fueled the fire, and a lot of people started chasing.”
Storm chasing is getting as close to a tornado as possible: FALSE!
“It’s the art of getting in front of a severe thunderstorm in order to witness what’s going on with it. I like to get there early enough to watch the storm form from virtually nothing, then go through the process of maturity and dissipating, then turn into a big giant behemoth that produces lighting and hail.”
Twister is a totally accurate representation of storm chasing: FALSE!
“It’s not possible to strap yourself in a machine shed and survive an F5 tornado. Also, nobody takes off and drives through farmers’ fields to get close to a tornado. Most chasers have at least some respect for private property.”
Cows can fly around in a tornado: TRUE! Sorta.
“I have seen this happen. They never survive.”
You can absolutely drive through a tornado and live to tell the tale: FALSE!
“You cannot drive through a tornado and survive. But you can core punch, which is when you drive through a storm's downdraft to reach the other side where a tornado could be. However, this is extremely dangerous, as you could drive right into a tornado and not see it due to heavy rain and hail.”
Speaking of dangerous, storm chasing is deadly and dumb: FALSE-ISH!
“There have been very few injuries from storm chasing -- I’ve been doing this 17 years without incident. There have been fatalities due to hydroplaning on water. There have been fatalities after a storm due to traffic accidents. A few [people] have been struck by lightning. Anytime you are around a severe storm there is increased risk of large hail hurting you, getting stuck in a flash flood, and, of course, getting killed by a tornado.”
Getting sucked into the vortex or hit by a flying cow are the biggest dangers: FALSE!
“Guests have to read and sign a waiver that basically tells them that anything can happen, from an insect or a snake bite, to getting hit in the head by hail.” According to Hill, though, most injuries are the result of car accidents.
Helen Hunt is a poster girl storm chaser: FALSE! Eh, maybe.
“I really don't think she would make a good storm chaser, but I guess you never know unless she tried.”
Storm chasers are insane and have no lives or families: TRUE!
“It’s a passion, it’s a hobby, it’s a way of living for some people who run tours or sell their photos and videos. Just like any kind of an adrenaline activity, it can become an obsession where people feel like they can’t live without it. I’ve seen people get divorced or fired from jobs because they spend too much time chasing storms. It’s quite transient. I’m away from home and my family for basically five months a year, which is tough.”
You will see a tornado on a tour: FALSE!
While you’ll definitely see severe weather, around 70% of Hill's tours witness actual tornadoes. “Tornadoes are a fluke and everything has to be exactly perfect to get one.” That said, "you will see lightning, grapefruit-sized hail, and the structure of a thunderstorm, which looks like a barbershop pole or a spaceship; they can take on just fantastic appearances.”
Storm chasing is all action and adventure: FALSE!
“It’s typical to drive 500 or 600 miles a day.”
Anyone can do it: FALSE!
While you don’t have to be a professional meteorologist, you do have to be able to read forecast models and analyze/interpret data to figure out where a storm might hit.
Watching the Weather Channel means I can totally chase a storm: FALSE!
“Don’t ever go out by yourself. If you don’t know what you're doing, you can get injured or killed very easily.”
Storms happen all year round: TRUE!
But the real storm season runs from the beginning of April until the end of August. Early season tours tend to be longer since cold fronts kill severe weather. “Later in the Summer, you get more thunderstorms because the atmosphere has warmed up”.
Sophie-Claire Hoeller is Thrillist's über-efficient German associate travel editor, and you do not want to hear her asking “are we there yet” for 600 miles a day. Follow her avoiding storms @Sohostyle