More and more vacationers are forking over thousands of dollars for a chance to glimpse the raw destructive power of a twister.
Storm chasing tourism has been around since the mid-1990's.
Chasers use cutting-edge tech and long hours behind the wheel to hunt down elusive storms.
Lucky tourists get front row seats for the most violent storms on Earth.
A new sub-genre of adventure tourism is sweeping across the U.S. like the wind that comes sweeping down the plain. More and more people are paying storm chasers to bring them along as they track down twisters in the heartland of America.
These weather enthusiasts are more than willing to put themselves up close (after signing a lengthy waiver, of course) to the most destructive winds on the planet in in the hopes of having a front row seat for the most violent storms on Earth. Some are interested in photography, others are there to learn how to storm chase themselves. Still others just want to ride along and take in the grand spectacle.
Most storm chase tour companies got their start as a way to make back some of the expenses that are often incurred while pursuing what is typically an expensive hobby. Hotel rooms, gas, food and vehicle repair costs add up quickly, and filling a few spare seats with people willing to pay for the experience is one of the few ways to turn storm chasing into a viable business model.
Charles Edwards, owner of Cloud 9 Tours, the longest operating storm chase tour company in the U.S. is a veteran storm chaser from Shawnee, Oklahoma and one of the first to realize this potential.
"Back when I started taking people out storm chasing with me in 1996, I never expected it would grow into a business. That first year, I offered two tours and I had only one person on each of them," he said. "Now, we regularly have between 11 and 18 people per tour in May and June."
As a meteorology student during the 80's, Edwards was so obsessed by storms that he occasionally sold his own blood plasma to raise funds for his storm chasing habit. Now, he spends the entire spring season looking for the kind of weather that most vacationers would dread.
"We really try to tell people the truth about storm chasing," he said. "It's not like what you see in the movies, there are very long periods of driving and waiting. Sometimes we spend hours sitting in a parking lot, waiting for the storms to fire up in the afternoon.
"It's not like the movie 'Twister' would have you believe, but witnessing a tornado can be an incredible, life-changing experience."
The media effect has had a lot to do with the increase in the number of people coming out to the Central Plains to chase the wind. There was a spike in the number of storm enthusiasts immediately following the 1996 release of the blockbuster action film "Twister", and with the recent popularity of such television shows as "Storm Chasers" and "Angry Planet", more and more people are buying into the idea that they can live the lifestyle of a storm chaser... at least for a couple of weeks.
The days are long and the trips often cover as many as 10 states during the course of a tour with 600 mile drives in a day commonplace. Transportation is usually via large SUVs or panel vans, sometimes in a convoy of 3 or more vehicles.
But these are no ordinary tour vans.
Most are equipped with cutting-edge technology to better the odds of finding tornadoes. Vehicles are chock full of mobile weather stations, radio scanners, GPS units and laptop computers. Mobile high speed internet access via cell phone networks have allowed the storm chase tours to view the latest satellite images, doppler radar scans and a wide variety of computer models that help them pinpoint exactly where the worst weather is going to be. All in real time, while driving down the highway.
Better tech has also translated into better success ratios. There was a time when a tornado could touch down in an open field and it would often go unreported if it did no damage. Now, hundreds of storm chasers, amateur and pro alike, swarm the back roads of Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska each spring ferreting out far-flung twisters.
But technology alone will not guarantee success. Tour operators draw on years of experience in severe weather forecasting and understanding how to navigate around storms that could top out at twice the height of Mount Everest.
Surprisingly, there's never been a fatality on a tour. Reported injuries tend to be from non-storm related accidents that could happen anywhere. in general, mishaps are rare, but in May 2010 one tour company took a direct hit from a fast-moving tornado that blew out most of the windows of their van, causing a few minor cuts but no serious physical harm. Mother Nature has a way of reminding us how small we are in the grand scheme of the planet.
Prices of storm tours vary from $2000 to as high as $6300 depending on how long the trip lasts. Most are in the $3000 range and last 2 weeks. This price does not include airfare to "Tornado Alley" or meals and there are no refunds if the weather is sunny.
"During May and June, we've always found severe weather on our 2 week trips, but sometimes there's simply no tornadoes to chase," Edwards points out. "We love to see all atmospheric events like lightning, hail and jaw dropping cloud formations, but seeing a tornado is the icing on the cake."
On non-storm days, groups will often take in the local sights, which can be sparse in the middle of America's corn and cattle belt. Destinations like "Carhenge", a re-creation of stonehenge in Nebraska made from old cars, or a visit to the world's largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas are typical fare for blue-sky days.
"We can't control the weather, but we can document it and send reports of what we observe to the National Weather Service," Edwards added. "If see that a tornado is going to impact a town, we make the call immediately. We have a standing policy that if we come across someone who needs our help, we call off the chase and help."
The upcoming 2011 tornado season marks Edwards' 16th year of guiding tornado tours, which often fill up months in advance.