Tornado chasing in the Great Plains

High-Speed Tornado Chasing in the Great Plains

Words: Josh Rakic
Photograph: Barcroft Media / Getty Images

An expert looks at the thrills and perils of chasing the planet’s most violent weather for a living 

For most three year olds, the weather channel is ranked somewhere between brussel sprouts and brushing your teeth before bed, but for farm-raised Oklahoman Chris Sanner, it was akin to Christmas Day - every day. For as long as he can remember, Sanner was glued to the television set in awe of the almost daily tornadoes, storms and weather events that’d capture the imagination of the entire state. Fast forward almost 27 years later and Sanner is one of the state’s most celebrated storm chasers, a full-time endeavour that provides death-defying footage and research to television networks and weather organisations alike.

In fact, Sanner likens Oklahoma’s appetite for watching storms on live television to Californians’ interest in high speed police chases. The founder of the six-man Tornado Titans crew of weather experts, filmers and photographers, Chris has been chasing the most violent weather on Earth and capturing it with his lens since he was old enough to drive. And with a brand new audience drooling over his team’s work through social media, we asked him why? How? And to give us tips on the safest way to get involved.

THE RED BULLETIN: Chris, you grew up in an Oklahoma farming community. Where’s the interest in weather come from?

CHRIS SANNER: In Oklahoma, you get every season at its most extreme. And I remember being fascinated by weather and tornadoes. I was getting weather books bought for me when I was three years old. In Oklahoma, weather chasing is our equivalent of an LA car chase. When weather happens everyone is glued to the TV waiting to see what will happen. Everyone has their favourite chase teams and their favourite weather personalities - it’s like a live giant reality TV show. And that’s been going on for 30 years. Every spring at 4pm, I’d just turn on the TV and wait for weather to happen.

So the moment you were old enough to drive you drove straight to the closest tornado…

Pretty much. I started chasing on March 17, 2003. It was St Patrick’s Day. I was 16 years old and the state of Oklahoma had decided it was a good idea to give me a driver’s licence, and I started chasing storms. My very first one was that day. That rarely happens, so if there was ever a sign that this storm chasing thing was going to work out, that was it. I always knew it was something I wanted to do. But I never thought it would become a career.

Looking back, that must have been pretty dangerous.

I remember being absolutely clueless, which is pretty normal for most storm chasers starting out. Most people do it as a hobby and yeah, I knew a lot of about the weather, but when you get out there to experience one first-hand and all these things are in motion, it’s wild - you don’t know what the heck you’re looking at when you look upon a supercell. I really remember looking at it and thinking how cool it was. And I was already ready for my second storm chase. And that thrill still exists today. Every time a chase ends, you’re looking at the weather models for the next storm because you’re ready to go out again.

What’s the most dangerous encounter you’ve had?

We were in Tushka, OK, an area that’s nothing but trees and very few roads. We knew there was a very large tornado on the ground because we’d seen it from a distance over trees, and as we were driving to get in position we ended up in a clearing about a mile and half away from the tornado. So we stopped and shot for about a minute and a half, which ended up being about 30 seconds too long. As we belted out of there, we actually found ourselves in the outer bands of the circulation of the tornado, and had tree branches and rocks hitting us from all directions in 100mph winds. Power lines were going down around us, splints of trees were hitting the truck. We had an utter monster behind us as we barrelled down the road. It was quite harrowing and something I’ve never repeated since. And I learned a valuable lesson that day: it’s not worth getting that close just for a shot.

How do you explain the thrill?

For me, it’s about seeing something new and unforgettable every time you go out. People go hiking and climbing to get in touch with nature and feel connected, and it’s that same feeling with storms - but storms are taller than the tallest mountain, they’re moving and they’re dangerous. It’s the constant fascination with what the earth can do. These supercells are 40-50,000 feet tall and you stare up and feel so small. But you kind of find your place in there. And I learn something new every chase. It’s the thrill of the hunt.

What’s a day in the life of a storm chaser look like?

You look at the weather patterns two or three days in advance, and you’re already building an idea of where you’re going to target it. You do a lot of intense watching of weather models, computerised simulation of the atmosphere, and then the day of the hunt you start observing outside and pick your target area. You leave at about 10-2pm depending on the distance and most chase days you’d get storms forming around 4pm. And from there until 9-10pm you’re doing nothing but chasing and trying to capture the thing with stills and video, calculating when to leave a storm or when to stay with it, which roads you take. It’s a frenzy of trying to get in the best position to take the best photos and get the best information back to the station. And then at 9 or 10 the storm will usually die and you get home around midnight and get ready to do it all over again.

How do you find a safe location while also getting close enough to the action?

Navigational decisions make storms the hardest thing to shoot. Finding a grizzly bear is hard, but once you do you know they’re in a pretty stable location. With a storm, you’re constantly moving and trying to figure out the best angle. So when it comes to road options, it’s like playing chess, you’re trying to think three or four moves ahead. It involves trying to find the best possible road, trying to avoid dirt roads if it’s been raining and stay on pavement to have the most speed. We try to obey the laws of the land when it comes to speed, but I’ll admit we definitely don’t sometimes. We’ll have a monster coming and can either be hammered by monster hail or go a few miles over and avoid it. That choice is easy.

So you wouldn’t recommend amateurs, say us, chasing storms alone?

Man, sometimes you get a bunch people chasing the same storm and you’ll be caravanned in like a mile-long procession that moves painfully slow. And that can be dangerous. This usually happens on main roads during peak season when a bunch of people who don’t really chase come out for a look. We’ve seen people deliberately drive into a tornado, which makes no sense whatsoever. Then they get hit by debris and suffer major damage to their cars. When your car is getting hit by debris, you’re only a couple inches away from having a piece off wood fly through your windshield and take you out.

How do we become storm chasers?

Ideally, you should go with someone experienced as much as you can before doing it alone. There are tours that take guests in a guided fashion. It makes sense to do that for your first time, because they’ll get you to the best spot. And we actually have a thing called Titan U on our website, which teaches people about the weather and how to be prepared and stay safe - whether you’re chasing a storm or just living in an area when they happen. We also have stuff on storm structure and the National Weather Service has great resources. Then, if you’re still interested, take the guided tours and learn as much as you can for a season before going it alone.

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