Meteorologist thrills at chasing big storms
12/06/2010 12:00 AM
12/06/2010 6:27 PM
Even Reed Timmer has a hard time believing it all.
As a 5-year-old, thunder and lightning would send him scurrying to his mother's bed for protection.
Now he roams Tornado Alley in a heavily armored vehicle dubbed the Dominator, intent on driving into large twisters to gather video footage and scientific data.
He's published a book called "Into the Storm," and only a few weeks ago was on the Jay Leno Show, regaling his host and audience with stories and footage from memorable chases.
Storm chasing has gone mainstream, and Timmer — who is featured in Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" — has become its rock star.
"It's been out of control," Timmer said recently as he was returning to his home in Norman, Okla., following a series of appearances. "I never thought that it would come this far."
Case in point: His appearance on Leno. He followed actor Denzel Washington and baseball legend Reggie Jackson on the show.
"I was petrified," Timmer admitted. "I thought I was going to faint after the first question. It was intense."
But he relaxed as the appearance continued, and he said Leno's interest was genuine.
"He asked a lot more questions in between segments," Timmer said. "You could tell he was really interested."
The public's growing interest in tornadoes and severe weather makes sense, Timmer said.
"Weather is something that affects everybody," he said.
And tornadoes are examples of the weather's unpredictability.
"A tornado is so incredible when you see it," he said. "They're so beautiful.
"It's so large and so powerful, and not very well understood. There's a natural curiosity for it."
For centuries, tornadoes were largely the stuff of myth and legend, because one had to be in the right place at the right time to see one.
For several decades — from the late 1880s into the early 1950s — national weather bureau forecasters were prohibited from issuing forecasts that mentioned the possibility of a tornado.
But with the advent of the Internet and advancements in camera technology, videos of tornadoes have become commonplace.
"Tornado videos can go viral," Timmer said.
Some of the most dramatic have Timmer in them. His aggressive chase tactics have drawn criticism from other chasers, but he offers no apologies.
A new kind of chaser
He considers himself a new breed of storm chaser, and taking risks comes with the territory.
When his Dominator has been hit by a tornado, "it's always feeling like it's about to roll," he said.
But it hasn't rolled — yet.
He and his crew were able to withstand the strike of an EF4 tornado in Minnesota last summer that was about a mile wide. They measured 200 mph vertical winds inside the tornado.
"If you get a tornado two miles wide, you could be in there for five minutes," Timmer said.
His description of what it's like inside a tornado will sound familiar to survivors of the tornado that devastated Udall in 1955 — the deadliest tornado in Kansas history.
Survivors talked about coming out of the basement or other shelter after they heard the roar pass — only to dive for cover again minutes later as what they thought was another tornado bore down on them.
It was the back side of the tornado's vortex, not a second tornado.
While filming the recently concluded season of "Storm Chasers," the crew witnessed 42 tornadoes, Timmer said.
"A lot of those were really strong and life-changing," he said.
Some were so big the chasers didn't risk being hit by them — even with the heavily armored Dominator.
"You're always afraid" of what might happen when the tornado hits, he said. "But we trust the vehicle — that it can withstand the forces."
Much of the action was filmed in Minnesota and elsewhere on the northern Plains. But every serious storm chaser has stories about tornadoes seen in Kansas, since it's in the heart of Tornado Alley.
"Kansas is definitely one of my most favorite areas to chase," Timmer said in an e-mail. "Especially western Kansas, where the terrain is incredibly flat with a 'gridded' road network."
'Science of it'
The dust jacket for Timmer's autobiography describes him as a "renegade storm chaser and thrill-seeking meteorologist."
"I kinda cringe at that," Timmer said. "Obviously, it's a thrill, but I'm really interested in the science of it, too."
He's wrapping up his doctorate degree in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma — he spent a healthy chunk of this last tornado season working on his dissertation in the back seat of the Dominator, which he has nicknamed the "tornado tank."
And given the chance, he'll launch into lengthy discussions about how storms form and how subtle changes can make all the difference in whether a tornado forms.
"That's one thing that's amazing about storm chasing," Timmer said. "Even if it looks amazing for tornadoes, it may not happen.
"You're constantly figuring out why."
Storm chasing has been around for decades now, but it was the domain of seemingly a handful of hardcore weather buffs until the movie "Twister" came out in 1996.
At the University of Oklahoma, Timmer said, meteorology classes doubled in size after the movie came out.
The enthusiasm shows no signs of waning.
"There's hundreds of kids that say they want to go into meteorology," Timmer said. "It looks bright for tornado science" in the years to come.
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