Tornado Chasing: The Ultimate Risk Tourism
Robert S. Bristow
Since the movie “Twister” premiered in 1995, there has been an increasing interest in storm chasing. To meet the demand of the amateur chaser, tours devoted to tornado storm chasing have emerged from many profit and non-profit storm chasing organizations. What kinds of experiences do these outfitters provide this new breed of risk tourists? How much does it cost to chase after “the great grand-sucking twisters of Tornado Alley,” and where can someone get information about this dangerous tourist activity?
Storm chasing requires participants to locate and “chase” a tornado-producing super-cell thunderstorm. Although this is an extremely risky activity, amateur storm chasers are willing to pay up to $300 a day for the chance to see one of Mother Nature’s most destructive forces. Storm chasing is considered a “new” tourist activity even though it has existed since the late 1940s.
Traditionally, the term risk recreation has been applied to activities like rock climbing, mountain biking, and river rafting. To get a better understanding of the risk tourism phenomenon, a brief survey was sent to the six major operators who provide storm-chasing opportunities to the public and was designed to solicit information about the clients served and basic tour details.
Prospective tornado-chasing tourists need to have a rudimentary understanding of tornadoes and how they work. A tornado is the result of a thunderstorm that develops an organized internal structure of sufficient strength to extend the vortex from the cloud base to the ground. The severe thunderstorm that is the genesis of a tornado is normally the largest thunderstorm in a squall line or a very large isolated thunderstorm. A combination of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and the dry eastward wind flow from the Rocky Mountains make the area in the Great Plains a prime location for tornado formation. This region has earned the name “Tornado Alley” for obvious reasons.
The History of Storm Chasing
Storm chasing began after World War II. During this period, military-trained pilots had a working knowledge of radar technology and were given an opportunity to study storms first hand by flying through them. The information gained from these flights became the basis for understanding tornado-producing storms. The post-WWII period brought many highway improvements, which helped bring the chase from the air to the ground.
The Tornado Intercept Project, based out of Norman, Oklahoma, was the first organized ground-based group of storm chasers. This project was sponsored by the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) to conduct research about storms that cause tornadoes and the effect they have on communities located in Tornado Alley. The project was declared a success on May 24, 1932, when the scientists and chasers met face-to-face with a tornado in Union City, Oklahoma.
Unlike traditional risk recreation, storm chasing uses its own definition geared towards the specific act of storm chasing. Traditionally, researchers have defined risk recreation as the leisure pursuit of an activity in a natural environment that may have some uncertainty and a potentially harmful nature. In terms of storm chasing, one can be more specific by suggesting it is the recreational pursuit of an uncontrollable meteorological event.
Storm chasing is an activity associated with dangers that potential chasers need to understand. Although there haven’t yet been any media frenzies concerning the death of a storm chaser, many think that when this happens (and it will), regulations and sanctions will be put into effect that will alter one’s ability to chase a storm effectively. For example, voluntary attempts at conquering Mount Everest end, not infrequently, in disaster, but this fact has not discouraged people from climbing the mountain. Similarly, any fatalities that may occur during a storm chase should not affect the way that chasers conduct themselves while hunting a storm.
Storm chasing should be considered a risk tourism activity. Although its original intent was scientific discovery, many people chase storms simply for the sheer joy of the chase. First-hand sightings of a tornado produce exhilaration in the chasers. As with any recreational activity, there is a challenge to chasing; yet it seems as though there is more frustration involved in chasing than in some other forms of recreation. After all, storms are not spawned on command. Mother Nature acts in mysterious ways and there has yet to be a method discovered of knowing exactly when and where a tornado will hit. Tornado chasing is basically a guessing game with some help from scientific instruments to make those guesses educated.
Increased interest in storm chasing has caused a noticeable influx of traffic on prime chase days, which has caused some concern. According to research from news reports, the number of storm chasers on roads on these days has caused some highway safety issues. Traffic jams and accidents are perhaps more of a threat to a chaser’s safety than the storm itself.
Storm Chasing Tour Groups
Regardless of its scientific roots, storm chasing has become more and more popular, creating a new hobby. Since it is not a pastime that one can pick up very easily, there are experts willing to let you join their storm chasing expeditions. For individuals interested in this extracurricular pursuit, their best bet is to join one of these groups.
Often, the tour operators consist of expert storm chasers who don’t mind having a novice along for the ride as they roam the territory of Tornado Alley in search of a storm. Six companies cater to storm chasers in the United States. Table 1 lists these six companies and their Web sites.
TABLE 1. STORM CHASING GROUPS TO CONTACT ON THE WEB
Cloud 9 Tours http://www.pair.com/storms/
Silver Lining Tours http://silverlining.pair.com/
Storm Chasing Adventure Tours http://www.storm-chaser.com
Tornado Alley Safari Tours http://www.pair.com/talley/
Tornado Research and Defense
Development (TRADD) http://www.abilene.com/tradd
Widespread Weather Services http://www.widespread.com
These tour groups have different packages to offer, with a range of prices, tour lengths, and requirements. The peak tornado season is during the late spring and early summer. Tours range in cost from $900 to $2750 (a cost per day breakdown is provided to standardize the expense of chasing tornadoes) and duration is between 5-14 days. TRADD offered the shortest of the six tour options, and Widespread is the only group to offer a choice of one or two week packages. Widespread offers the most chances for people to take a tour, which would cater to varying schedules of tourists. Tornado Alley Safari offers the fewest tours, with only two per season.
Based on information from the authors’ survey and the organizations’ Web sites, tours tend to offer similar amenities. Airfare to their base cities is not included in their tour prices. Some companies’ fees cover snacks, drinks, and meals while others do not. Both Widespread and Cloud 9 include a video of the experience in their prices, and Tornado Alley Safari includes chase training in its tour. (Most of the other tours are assumed to provide training as well, given the nature of the tour.)
Generally, the tours cater to small groups. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that people are transported in vans with equipment and luggage. Also, each tour group has a small staff, typically only three people, and can only carry as many people as are available to drive. This limits the number of tourists, since they share space with scientific equipment in the vans.
Tourists typically are either out-of-state residents or live outside the United States; undoubtedly because residents in and near Tornado Alley are accustomed to the sight of tornadoes and are probably not thrilled at the prospect of chasing the beast that could destroy their houses!
All tour groups require that clients be at least 18 years old, and since storm chasing has a high element of danger–even life threatening–waivers must be signed.
So what should a storm chaser pack for the hunt? Tourists are asked to pack as lightly as possible, as all items need to be mobile. Chasers do not stay in the same hotel every night and may never make it back to the town where they originally started the tour. Since waiting is often an element of the chase, participants were also asked to bring a book or music to help pass the time.
Although real life storm chasing is nothing like the movies, there is still a real rush that comes from seeing one of Mother Nature’s most destructive forces. A small but brave group of people are willing to pay large amounts of money for the opportunity to search for something that most people would prefer to flee. True storm chasers are into this form of risk tourism for many reasons. Some wish to learn about tornadoes as much as possible, others want to help create warning systems, but most agree they do it to experience the thrill of the hunt.
Because the field of risk tourism is relatively new, there is little research on the topic. It would be interesting to compare the psychological “rush” a chaser gets after long dull waits in the great plains, to the change in excitement level a river rafter gets during and after plunging through the rapids. Future research should also consider the risk that chasers may place on the citizens who live in Tornado Alley. Although all tour operators stress safety and the scientific gain of knowledge, many rogue and inexperienced chasers may attempt to enter the market to “jump on the bandwagon.”
TABLE 2. TOUR INFORMATION
Cost Length per
Operator (total/per day) of Tour season
Cloud 9 Tours $2,000/$143 14 days 3
Silver Lining Tours $2,400/$240 10 days NA
Storm Chasing Adventure Tours $2,000/$143 14 days 5
Tornado Alley Safari Tours $900/$113 8 days 2
TRADD $1,170/$234 5 days 9
Widespread Weather Services $1,750/$250 7 days
$2,750/$196 14 days 10-12
The same destructive fury which makes tornadoes the terror of the plains also makes them irresistible to thrill-seekers, including the growing number of novices willing to pay for the chance to join a real team of storm chasers. Robert Bristow, Ph.D., and Heather Cantillon review the companies now offering what may be “The Ultimate Risk Tourism.” Bristow, professor and chair of the Geography and Regional Planning Department, Westfield State College, teaches recreation geography. Cantillon graduated, with honors, with a Bachelor’s Degree in regional planning in May 2000 and entered a graduate program in emergency response planning at Anna Marie College, Massachusetts. While both live in reasonably safe New England, tornadoes do occasionally land in Massachusetts.
COPYRIGHT 2000 National Recreation and Park Association
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group