The day started out clear and bright, but by noon the skies have darkened, and ominous storm clouds now block the sun. A few raindrops splatter on the windshield as you race across the prairie, following a tip from the satellite tracking system. You and your fellow adventurers scan the horizon, looking for signs of trouble, when the clouds in the western sky begin spinning around in a slow, deadly waltz. Then, like a dark sword, a funnel cloud dips toward the earth, and the race begins—you’re chasing after a tornado!
Ever since Twister tore into movie theaters in 1995, tornado chasing has gained a new cachet, and a number of professional outfits have sprung up around the Midwest offering storm chasing tours. Prices and schedules can vary widely, but most offer van or SUV-based tours lasting a few days to a couple of weeks (prices can run close to $3,000 for a tour), usually during the peak months of May through July. The better companies offer tours led by qualified meteorologists and researchers who, backed by years of experience and a dazzling array of high-tech equipment, have a fairly good success rate of leading teams to tornadoes, supercell thunderstorms, and other extreme weather events.
The plains of Texas and Oklahoma (also known as “Tornado Alley”) are ground zero for tornado chasing, though tours can travel from the Canadian Plains through the Dakotas and down toward the Mississippi Valley. Expect to spend a lot of time on the road, much of which will be spent not looking at tornadoes—extreme weather is a fickle guest, and doesn’t always show up on schedule. Tornadoes also frequently occur at night or are totally obscured by rain. On slow days, some tour operators might offer visits to attractions like Mt. Rushmore (www.nps.gov/moru), Carlsbad Caverns (www.nps.gov/cave), or the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas (cute, but not exactly an F5 twister). It’s all worth it, however, if you’re able to see in person—and capture in photos or on video—one of nature’s most awesome and destructive forces. —ML