SALT LAKE CITY — They routinely risk their lives, driving to within a mile or hundreds of yards of a violent tornado. Sometimes they plow headlong into the path of a twister, using a specially armored car, to peer inside the circulation.
Who are these storm chasers? Why do they do what they do? Are they mere thrill-seekers? Or are science and "mothership"-looking thunderstorms their callings in life?
The practice and lifestyle are in the spotlight following the deaths of three storm chaser-scientists Friday in El Reno, Oklahoma.
"They just have a love for weather and that's kind of what draws us into it," said Mike Seaman, a Salt Lake City-based meteorologist for the National Weather Service who storm chases in the Midwest during his spare time.
Seaman just returned from a chase in the upper Midwest a week ago. His friends continued on to Oklahoma.
"When I started chasing, we had a little hand-held television set, we had a NOAA weather radio," recalled Seaman.
Now, chasers are routinely armed with data from state-of-the-art weather radars apps on phones and maps and data on their laptops fresh from the Storm Prediction Center.
Seaman said scientists and innovators like Tim Samaras – who died with his son, Paul, and colleague Carl Young when they were hit by a twister near El Reno – have saved lives. He said the data they've collected through probes they place in the path of storms have contributed to a much better ground-level look than what was available decades and even years ago.
That's led to better technology and even better advanced warnings, Seaman said. Tornadoes used to offer little to no warning. Many areas now have as long as 15 minutes to hunker down.
Seaman said chasers also serve nobly as spotters, witnessing dangerous weather activity and calling it in to the National Weather Service and local law enforcement.
"If we can get confirmation that a tornado is on the ground from storm chasers, then we can include that in our warnings and our statements and that gives people who are in the path of that storm some ground troops to say that storm is actually producing a tornado, damage is being done at this location, you need to get underground now," Seaman said.
Still, Seaman said many chasers – professional and amateur – are choosing to drive too close to tornadoes that could take their lives. He said chasers shouldn't come closer than a mile to three miles from a tornado, and driving into one isn't recommended despite recently developed, specially armored vehicles that have gained notoriety for intercepting twisters.
One such vehicle, named "Dominator 2," had its hood ripped off during the El Reno twisters, according to Twitter posts from its creator and extreme meteorologist Reed Timmer. Timmer, through these tornado intercepts, has claimed to procure even more crucial data in addition to the jaw-dropping video footage that is regularly posted to YouTube.
"We've seen the damage to literally, tornado-built custom vehicles that have instrumentation, fortified sides, tops, ceilings – and those are just mangled messes," said KSL meteorologist Kevin Eubank.
Seaman said storms can surprise, despite the best available data and equipment.
"Even some of the veteran chasers have gotten comfortable – maybe too comfortable – with the way thunderstorms work and they've been putting themselves in a precarious position," Seaman said. "The storm last Friday night kind of made a left-hand turn at the end of its life cycle, and that put a lot of the chasers in that area in danger."
Peter Veals, storm chaser and masters candidate at the University of Utah's Department of Atmospheric Science, offered a somewhat different perspective.
"From a personal standpoint, there are a lot of other activities that are risky," Veals said. "In Utah, a lot of folks can relate to backcountry skiing. You're always out there with this measured controlled avalanche risk with consenting adults accepting the risk in exchange for some excitement and recreation … The relative danger from storm chasing is actually fairly low if you consider the numbers of people who are involved and the deaths."
Seaman discourages amateurs from going it alone, recommending instead they go out with people who have meteorology and chasing experience.
Samaras, with decades of chasing experience, cautioned others about the hazards in his last tweet.
"Dangerous day ahead for OK – stay weather savvy!" it read.
Samaras and his Twistex (an acronym for Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes Experiment) outfit was known for its professionalism and safe chasing, Seaman said.
Seaman said Friday's ill-fated chase would not deter him from chasing in the future, but it would cause him to re-examine his practices.
"We may take a little extra precaution, just give ourselves a little extra distance, make sure we know how we're going to get out of a situation should we need to," he said.