The term “storm chasing” likely brings TV and movie images like Twister to mind. It’s a practice that has gone on for years, primarily in the Great Plains where severe storms are more common.
That’s the sound of the engine behind a massive, 10,000 pound truck covered from bumper to bumper in a protective coating.
“So we stretched it, we added the whole second row of seats.”
Travis Cruz is a graduate of the Meteorology program at Virginia Tech and is trying to get his storm chasing business up and running. He affectionately calls his chasing vehicle the "StormCruzzer."
“But they reinforced the frame of it and it’s just as strong as it would be if it came straight from the factory.”
Cruz is passionate about storm chasing – a drive that was born during a field experience Tech offers each spring.
He says the advent of smartphones means it's harder to make money from the practice. Anyone now can capture video of a severe storm to give to television stations for free.
That’s not stopping him, though, as his latest goal is to share his passion with others:
“So we will take tour clients from all over the world out there for either a week or 10 days straight. We wanna have tour people come out there with us; they see all of our footage, but they don’t get the real experience of the storm. Photography has gotten good recently, but I don’t think it’s ever going to get life-like. There’s just nothing like experiencing it.”
It’s a risky business for sure, which is why chasing is frowned upon by officials at the National Weather Service.
“One thing we do want to do obviously in our mission is to save lives and protect property, is we do discourage the pursuit of damaging storms.”
Phil Hysell with the NWS office in Blacksburg says that chasers can help provide real-time data, as long as it’s done safely:
“For example, we can issue a severe thunderstorm warning for Montgomery County, Virginia and some people in the Blacksburg area may take shelter, but if we can provide supplemental information to that report and say there is storm damage, there is a roof taken off a home and this storm is approaching Blacksburg – that real-time information really motivates people to take the appropriate shelter.”
Hysell says storm chasing in Virginia is incredibly difficult due to mountainous terrain and storms that produce more precipitation than those out in the Great Plains. Both factors cuts down on the visibility of storm features, like wall clouds and ultimately tornadoes.
That doesn’t stop people like Chris White though, who I tagged along with one June afternoon.
“There’s a lot of severe weather that happens here in Virginia that most people don’t pay attention to. There’s a lot of factors, obviously the moisture sources here are the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic so that kind of gives you a double barrel of where the moisture would come from for the storms.”
White says he got into chasing because his son developed a passion for it while studying at the University of Oklahoma – a school with one of the largest meteorology programs in the country. White's first chasing experience was in the Plains with his son, and he was hooked.
He says he chases here in Virginia because, well, he lives here, but he's long been fascinated with thunderstorms. Now, he regularly serves as an advisor on Virginia Tech’s annual storm chasing trip.
“Some people are just fascinated by watching the sheer power of the storms, and there are other people who really want to get in the science part. For instance, you mentioned the Virginia Tech crew. When we go out there to the Plains with them, that’s actually a field course, and the meteorology students that go out there actually take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in the field.”
On this particular day, we drove for hours before we were finally rewarded with an incredible view of the only severe thunderstorm in the entire state just before sunset.
White hopes to bring the local and regional chaser community together later this year by organizing the first ever Mid-Atlantic ChaserCon. It’s currently scheduled for October 27th at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond.