The Meaning of Chasing

by T.J. Turnage - Midland, Texas


Storm chasing is a pursuit of more than just storms.

The first time I got in a car for the sole purpose of chasing thunderstorms was shortly after I moved to Midland, Texas. Here was a logical place to start. Midland is located in the Permian Basin of Texas, which is part of the typically flat High Plains. The sky is a dominant part of the scenery, and visibilities are incredible. Perhaps that is why thunderstorms often look so majestic here.

My first chase was with a colleague who has chased storms with his brothers for years. His expertise was obvious - he knew where to go, what to look for, and what to expect. This impressed me greatly. It was apparent that his experience with chasing storms made him a more knowledgeable meteorologist. As a meteorologist myself, I want to learn more about storms by observing them. Being a meteorologist is not a prerequisite for storm chasing, but the desire to learn about storms is.

What is it about storm chasing that appeals to me? It is often a stressful and exhaustive undertaking that demands long hours and many miles of driving, with little time to rest, eat, or use the bathroom. However, it turns out that storm chasing is always an aesthetic, unique, and educational experience. This is what makes it worthwhile.


The aesthetics of a chase

Alan Moller has said the southern plains possess an aesthetic beauty in their own right. Perhaps this is because the land is like a deferential backdrop to the sky itself. The plains are an understated stage over which nearly incessant winds blow around like frantic cast members trying to find an ordered production. In the fields, the grasslands, and the thickets of trees, one can see nature herself bowing to the wind.

A striking thing about the plains is their homogeneity. As one passes through, changes in the landscape are often gradual and barely perceived. This subtlety is a fitting tribute to the millions of years that molded the land. This homogeneity is sparsely broken by few landmarks, mostly man-made, which serve as stark, solid reference points for past storms, either in pictures or a storm chaser's memory. Such reference points help a chaser confirm a fleeting storm wasn't just a dream, which can be hard to believe when a storm site is revisited on a calm, clear day. The plains are a world-weary face that gazes up at the caprice of the sky in the same patient way a wise old man gazes at an impetuous youth. In terms of weather, the plains have seen much, and they do not reveal the secrets of what they've seen. It is the timeless and seamless qualities of the plains that contrast, and consequently emphasize, the evanescent and isolated nature of thunderstorms.


The search for order

In nature, most beauty results from some kind of order, whether that order is found in life (an "organism"), or a geological formation that required millions of years to develop. Science tells us that disorder is always increasing, so any evidence of order is like a refreshing bulwark against this inevitability.

In weather, there is often order, but much of the time it occurs on a scale too large to be appreciated by a single person in one place (i.e., the synoptic scale). Meteorologists classify weather in a series of scales that get progressively smaller in space and time. The smallest scales seem to have the most awe-inspiring phenomena. Perhaps this is because these phenomena can be fully observed by an individual. A thunderstorm can be viewed as a result of many processes from many scales phasing into a coherent manifestation of order.


Where to go?

An integral part of the aesthetic chase experience is forecasting where the best storms will be to chase. Aside from the scale problem already mentioned, there are other reasons it isn't easy to directly observe order in weather. Meteorology is an imperfect science, fraught with approximations and idealizations. Furthermore, the ability to observe the atmosphere is limited. A storm chaser is like a card player holding a small hand and facing down nature. Fortunately, nature is never completely inscrutable. She always offers clues as to what is going on. Our ability to understand is restricted only by our ignorance and our limited powers of observation. Therefore, becoming more knowledgeable and observant about the weather is like being dealt a better hand. As any chaser knows, wrong decisions and interpretations can result in very uneventful and frustrating trips. These rather high stakes in the decision-making process add to the elation of correct decisions, and the remorse of wrong decisions.

As my card analogy implies, many chasers have come to view nature as an adversary while engaged in this detective work. There is nothing wrong with this view. It challenges the chaser to learn as much as possible. It wouldn't make sense to assume nature is on our side, anyway, since we are pretty much at her mercy. Whether one views a correct chase decision as a victory over nature or an empathy with nature depends on the individual. Regardless of the individual's views, understanding nature's hand is an undertaking in which even the best are frequently wrong. After all, the easy things in life are seldom worthwhile.


The aesthetics of a storm

Even a typical thunderstorm is a sight to behold. As most meteorologists know, storms have varying degrees of order. Usually, the more organized a storm becomes, the more likely it is to display identifiable features that fit a conceptual model. Interestingly, a more organized storm is also more likely to be severe. There is satisfaction in seeing a "textbook" storm, which fits a conceptual model. This reconciles a person's training with reality, and results in a feeling of accomplishment and understanding. Observing a textbook case of anything probably elicits the same response.

If every storm was a textbook storm, there would be far fewer chasers; however, there are many times when a storm does not "behave" like the conceptual models predict. Again, nature probably gives us most of the clues we need in these cases, too. It is always exciting to witness something new that can't be explained. This has happened every time I have chased storms. At the other extreme, if I encountered nothing but unexplainable things on my chases, the resulting "weather anomie" would bring me confusion and unhappiness. It seems logical, then, that most storm chasers pursue severe storms, where there is the most order and likelihood of recognition. Knowledge can only be advanced in situations where some prior understanding has been established. Also, since chasers celebrate the power of nature, they pursue the most dramatic and tangible tributes to this power (e.g., large hail, tornadoes, etc.), which are found with severe storms.

This poses an interesting moral question. How can I as a storm chaser see beauty in something that causes suffering? It turns out that I have been interested in weather for as long as I've known how greatly it can affect people's lives, including my own. I chase knowing nature will always have her way with us. I can't control this, and although I don't enjoy witnessing some of the terrible consequences of severe weather, I accept that that we will probably never be immune to the ravages of nature. I don't look forward to the day I directly witness (or undergo) suffering caused by the storms I chase, but I expect such an experience would only intensify my desire to chase and learn.


Storm chaser or tornado chaser?

Of course, to have a tornado, you must have a storm. But, there are those who would be more aptly called tornado chasers, because that is their ultimate pursuit. If one views storm chasing as the pursuit of order, a tornado is a very reasonable objective. After all, tornadoes could arguably be called the highest manifestation of order in a storm, since their rarity indicates the incredible balance and simultaneity of processes needed to create them. I have dreamed about tornadoes for as long as I can remember, so can I chase my dreams only if I chase tornadoes? Fortunately, the answer seems to be no.

On some chases, I have driven hundreds of miles without even seeing a cumulus cloud, let alone a tornado. Was I disappointed? Yes, and no. Every chase has been an original, and therefore educational, experience. There was the initial process of forecasting where the best storms would be. There was the opportunity to learn why things didn't turn out as expected, or at the very least, the opportunity to take new roads and see new parts of the country. At the end of any stormy day, there is usually a beautiful sunset. I ask for very little when I chase, and consequently, I always seem to get a lot.

But all chasers are different. Tornado chasers are free to focus on the tornado. The tornado is, after all, a dramatic, very aesthetic embodiment of all that I find appealing in a chase (order, evanescence, etc.), so it is understandable that many chasers view a tornado as the ultimate payoff. However, I suggest that by taking this view, such chasers may ignore other aesthetic parts of a chase that occur far more regularly than a tornado. If the forecast, the landscape, the clouds, and the very storm that a chaser exhorts to produce a tornado are discounted as just means to an end, then the chase experience becomes as narrow and short-lived as the tornado itself.


In closing

Storm chasing means something different to every chaser. For me, it has become something more than just a pursuit of storms. I have written this essay, not to change anybody's views on chasing, but to try to understand my deep-seated emotions that come with this activity. It is my hope that my growth in storm chasing experiences continues to reinforce my growth in, and appreciation of, life itself.


T.J. Turnage is employed by the National Weather Service in Midland, Texas. You may E-mail him at tjt@iglobal.net.