Riding the whirlwind(Read article summary)
The Monitor's intrepid science writer rode with the storm-chasers who help federal forecasters warn those in twisters' paths.
Courtesy of Tim Osborn/NOAA/AP
Tornado survivors often supply similar accounts of their ordeals. They describe the horrifying sound, like a train much too close, and the disheartening sights that reveal themselves once the fury has subsided. They reach for war images in trying to describe the devastation: It may look as though a bomb has gone off. Many marvel at the vagaries of swiveling twisters: One neighborhood is leveled; another is left with not a shingle askew.
Often those who ride out these most American of severe-weather occurrences also remark on the kindness of others in helping them, quite literally, to pick up the pieces. That they can count on.
But easy predictability is not a characteristic of tornadoes. These Great Plains-stalking storms form suddenly, sometimes in bunches, lurching down from supercells like the hammers of Thor.
The people who study them – and whose important work ultimately pays off in ways ranging from improved storm-warning times to better home-building techniques – have their own lexicon. They talk about "wall clouds" and "hook echoes." And because they can learn just so much by peering at a computer monitor, they go out into the field. They go in pursuit.
For this week's cover story, veteran Monitor science writer Pete Spotts immersed himself in the highly collaborative culture of responsible funnel hunters, riding with Kiel Ortega from NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.
"It's far more responsible than some of the storm chasing you see on TV," Pete says, describing a kind of informal hierarchy among those who essentially crowdsource the detailed information that becomes the basis of high-stakes weather forecasting.