Weathering the storm

Technological advances help Penn State Storm Chase Team stay safe in the field

A tornado with winds of approximately 175 mph touches down near Attica, Kansas, on May 12, 2004.  Credit: Paul Markowski All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It’s May 16, 2015, and the sirens sound just after suppertime. Without hesitation, residents of the small towns peppered throughout southwestern Oklahoma head for their storm shelters in preparation for the approaching tornado

A few miles away, three sedans full of Penn State undergraduates navigate down flat country roads toward the greenish-black mass of rain and lightning. The towering funnel of wind and dust spirals at speeds near 200 mph, yet the caravan presses on. 

Since 2012, this has been a yearly excursion for the Penn State Storm Chase Team, a group of 60 students — mostly meteorology majors — who share a passion for severe weather. Their collective dream is fully realized during an annual trip to the Great Plains in May. The trip, lasting 10 days and spanning more than 5,000 miles, gives 12 members the chance to experience the mecca of severe weather known as Tornado Alley at its most active time of the year. 

Thanks to advances in mobile technology, it's become easier than ever for these students to observe severe weather while staying safe. 

A typical chase day begins around 6 a.m. in a middle-of-nowhere hotel just south of the Midwest. After the 12 team members get their food and coffee at the hotel’s continental breakfast bar, they pull out their laptops and the search begins.

“We start looking at the latest weather information — what’s happening in the air around us, what computer models indicate, what people are saying on Twitter,” said Brad Guay, former club president and a senior majoring in meteorology. 

Once on the road, technology is involved in nearly every aspect of the team's chase. While the drivers concentrate on the road conditions ahead, passengers in each car focus on their individual tasks — a navigator looks at mobile maps and real-time radar, another passenger checks social media and takes photos while the fourth relays information to other cars via a walkie-talkie.

According to club president Anthony Chiavaroli, a junior majoring in meteorology, mobile technologies have become essential to monitoring severe weather and making spur-of-the-moment decisions during a chase. 

“Everyone's always using mobile Internet hot spots,” Chiavaroli said. “We need to have one of those constantly in the car because we need that service to use our laptops and access wireless. And of course we also need mobile devices to be able to use digital maps.”

To monitor the ever-changing weather out in the field, the team relies on the industry-standard meteorology mobile app RadarScope to view real-time radar, locations of other chasers, and maps of their current location. 

According to Guay, although having access to mobile technologies has enhanced the chasing experience, members also learn to function without technology due to the unpredictable nature of storm chasing. 

“You can almost do everything in the palm of your hand,” Guay said. “But we also have to learn to not rely on technology because sometimes we'll end up in areas without cell service and we'll have to break out the paper maps and try to figure out where we are. But technology really simplifies the process and allows us to do a lot more.”

Aside from mobile radar applications, sometimes the best way to stay ahead of the perfect storm is through word of mouth. In recent years, many in the storm chasing community have taken to social media sites like Twitter to alert fellow chasers and locals of nearby activity. 

“We were tweeting pretty much the whole time we were out,” Guay said. “We were tweeting what we were seeing, and when we actually would see a tornado, we'd try to call 911 and report it so the first responders could get out there and make sure everyone was OK.”

In the event the first responders aren’t able to reach a damaged area, the team is also prepared to help out during crises after a storm.

“Last year we had a whole meeting dedicated to a crash course in EMT training,” Chiavaroli said. “We had an EMT explain the basics of CPR and what you'd have to do if you came upon a disaster area; we also have an emergency kit.”

But once out on the road, there’s no time to think about “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios — there’s only each other and the whirling behemoth on the plains ahead. 

As the team closes in on the 200 mph tornado outside Elmer, Oklahoma, one of the most violent of the season, according to some reports, the group pauses to consult one of their most important resources back in State College: Paul Markowski.

Markowski, a professor of meteorology and a leading tornado researcher, is a frequent guest speaker at club meetings, and he also acts as a sounding board for the novice chasers during their annual trip. 

“To be on the phone with him and have him give us instant feedback about what he thinks the storms are going to do was incredibly helpful,” Guay said. “I don't think we would have been nearly as successful without him.”

As a veteran storm chaser, Markowski has witnessed firsthand how the field has evolved due to changing technologies over the years. 

“It's akin to the days of getting lost,” Markowski said. “Fifteen years ago you could get lost. You'd have a paper map, but you might not know where you are on the map, or you didn't have a map and were totally lost. Nowadays, it's not easy to get lost as long as you've got a GPS chip. Storm chasing is kind of similar now. If you've got a radar app and a GPS there's almost no way you're not going to find a storm.” 

According to Markowski, although these advances in technology have made storm chasing easier, they’ve also lowered the barriers to entry, making safety even more important for inexperienced chasers. 

“You've got to balance the thrill-seeking aspect with being responsible,” Markowski said. “And I have the utmost confidence in the students here. So far, the ones I've encountered are extremely responsible and conscientious.”

As the team comes within 4 miles of the tornado’s rotating center in Elmer, Markowski’s words of caution take effect, and the focus shifts from chasing to escaping. After snapping a few pictures through the swirling dust, the convoy of students reverses course and rides out the storm away from its path. 

And although the team may not experience a tornado like the one in Elmer again, they’ll continue to use technology to face new challenges and work through each day one storm at a time. 

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Last Updated November 10, 2015