Storm chasing and safety

One would imagine perhaps that spending time in the vicinity of powerful tornadoes might be dangerous. So, is it dangerous to go on a storm chasing tour? The answer is both yes and no. If you go with an experienced tour guide, use your safety belt and “don’t do anything stupid” it is not dangerous.

Quite often, the risks of storm chasing usually has the wrong focus. The tornadoes do not pose the greatest risk but rather common, and less spectacular, risks like traffic accidents could be more dangerous.

It is like many considering diving (or surfing) in Australia a dangerous sport because of the risk of shark attacks. Yes, shark attacks do occur and, when they do, they usually make the headlines but shark attacks are in fact very uncommon. Less spectacular risks like drowning and diving related hazards poses a much greater risk.

Do tornadoes pose a threat on a storm chasing tour?

Tornadoes are the most dangerous part of a storm cloud but they are not the most dangerous threat during a storm chase! Tornadoes are quite rare and are only harmful in a limited area.

large storm small tornado
The tornado, if it occurs, is only a small part of a storm. Thus, you can be near or even under a storm and still be far away from the tornado.
Photo: C. Doswell (by permission)

Yes, if you end up close to a tornado you are in BIG trouble but storm chasing with organized tours is not what you see in the movie “Twister”. You do not try to get into, or even close, to a tornado but rather try to stay at a safe distance. Even experienced storm chasers can still get surprised and killed by a tornado, as was the unfortunate case in the El Reno-tornado in 2013. This is, fortunately, extremely rare.

Lightning and hail

Lightning and hail is, compared to tornadoes, a greater risk for storm chasers. Lightning could kill or severely hurt you and if you are surprised by a hail storm that produces large hail and you are far away from the car, you could get hurt.

Baseball sized hail and strong side-winds can smash a car window causing further exposure to hail and cut wounds from the glass. Getting hurt even by lightning or hail is, however, very uncommon and by taking normal precautions almost negligible.

large hail missouri
Hail of this size could easily smash a car window.

But hundreds of people get hurt each year in tornadoes, right?

Yes, unfortunately a lot of people do get hurt, and die, from tornadoes each year. Sometimes this happens in large destructive tornadoes that wipe out entire villages. These type of tragedies are often broadcasted widely over the world together with images of devastated houss. It is quite common to hear people argument: “I don’t understand why people choose to live in such a dangerous part of the world!”.

One needs to remember though that Tornado alley is a HUGE area, spanning from Mexico to Canada and from Colorado to Missouri. The risk of your house getting hit by a tornado is far less than other every day risks (that don’t make the headlines) causing similar tragedies, such as fire or traffic accidents.

The major differences between being a storm chaser and living in Tornado Alley is that, as a storm chaser, you are constantly well informed about the positions of the storms and you are always mobile. When you are chasing a storm, you are in control and you are far less likely to get surprised, as could be the case for citizens in the area.

Having said that, there are however some rare cases of storm chaser fatalities from tornadoes, as mentioned before. The risk is, however, not nearly as great as one may think.

“Storm frenzy” and traffic

One of the most exciting things about storm chasing is the excitement build-up. On a good chase day you start with exciting news about great potentials for the day, news start coming in about powerful storms. You speed up to get there in time and finally, there it is, a powerful tornado is touching ground just a couple of miles to your left!

The excitement in the van is through the roof! Everyone is trying to get out of the car to take photos. The best position is obviously on the other side of the highway, so you run over the highway with your eyes on the tornado. At the same time there is a car speeding on the highway where the driver has his eyes on the same tornado and…well, you get the picture.

This excitement and irradical behavior when people find a great storm is commonly referred to as storm frenzy.

On a busy day, there could be hundreds and hundreds of cars on crammed highways. Too many are focusing on the storm, and not on traffic safety.

Cars could be parked in unsafe places, there may be dangerous take-overs and traffic jams may cause your tour group to get stuck in unsafe positions. On moderate and high potential days during Tornado Season, this is a problem on a regional scale but storm frenzy is a hazard to consider in every storm chasing vehicle.

The tour guide and driver holds a great responsibility to stay cool and limit the effects of storm frenzy among the guests by parking in safe places, prepare and give clear instructions to the guests etc.

Outside of the hazards of storm frenzy, under normal circumstances storm chasing will keep you on the roads for between 5-10 hours a day. Quite often you will be driving under bad weather conditions. So, remember to keep your safety belt on at all times.

Other health related issues

As mentioned, storm chasing will cause you to sit in a van for many hours a day and you may not be able to hydrate, eat and exercise in ways you are used to. If you have a health condition that could be affected by this you should discuss this with your doctor and tour company before you book your tour.

There are also other, less common, issues with insects and other type of wildlife. You can get bitten by snakes and tics when you are out on the fields waiting for a storm to develop.