Thinking about Becoming a Storm Chaser?

Written by Jim Bishop
Spring 1999

Think again! For those of you who saw the movie Twister and thought it would be cool to chase tornadoes for a living, you may want to reconsider. For one thing, Storm chasing is not a profession. There are no big corporations based out in the great plains looking for experienced storm chasers to chase tornadoes. Another thing is that 90% of storm chasing is not fun and exciting. But, I'll speak more on that later.

The storm chasers in the movie Twister weren't just tornado crazy thrill seekers, they were tornado researchers. In the movie, I'm almost certain that they are a team of researchers from the University of Oklahoma studying tornadoes. That means that all of them have at least a B.S. in meteorology. Of course, you can't tell that from the characters in the movie. But, there are researchers at the University of Oklahoma that do chase tornadoes in the spring for their research. But, they have been through many years of math and science to get where they are today, and only a fraction of their job is storm chasing, the rest are research, lectures, ect.

Storm chasing is not a very reliable way to earn a living. It is a seasonal activity. The season starts in mid March, if you want to chase fast-moving storms, and ends in late June. Oh, I can't ignore the two week fall season in mid October. So, that adds up to about four months of storm chasing. But, let's be reasonable, less than half of that time will be spent storm chasing, not to mention busts.

Now, the only way I know of to make money by storm chasing is by selling your photos and videos. But, there are a few things that concern me about this. First of all, when it comes to chase video, the only thing that will sell and pay well (for the most part) is tornado footage. Realistically, the tornado per chase ratio is 1/10. That means odds are you're only going to see a tornado 1 in every 10 chases. However, these are just odds, so you could do better. But, in reality it's pretty close. So, you're not going to have very much tornado footage to sell. Another problem is trying to sell the pictures. There are so many storm chasers roaming the plains in the spring that you'd have to have some pretty spectacular photos in order to sell them for any significant amount.

I haven't even mentioned the costs of chasing. There's gas money, food, hotels, film (both still and video), and not to mention how time consuming it is. Chasers can drive 10 or 20 thousand miles in a single season, and only see one tornado. Forget the money, that's just way too much driving! Also, since you're serious about chasing, you will want to have all the latest weather information at your disposal at all times. This means a laptop computer, cell phone, CB or ham radio, lots of antennas, ect. That can get expensive.

Here's another tid bit. 90% of storm chasing is a waiting game, just like fishing is! OK, you drive out to the middle of nowhere, park you car on the side of the road and look at the sky......until a storm forms. That's really it, you look for the first promising looking towers (cumulus clouds that are growing with the right tilt). You can easily be waiting for 4 hours before any storms fire up, and don't forget about the possibility of no storms forming at all. That would be a bust, and they're bummers. However, they happen, so live with it. Another thing, once you're on pursuit of the storm, you're not going to stop for dinner!

How you would feel about storm chasing if you were trying to make a living off of it? Personally, I wouldn't do it for many reasons, but one main reason: I wouldn't be able to enjoy storm chasing nearly as much. I know from personal experience that storms pulsate and take on many different "forms" if you will. When something like this happens and there are other storms nearby, you're not always going to make the right decision. One time you may ditch the dissipating storm, and go for another to the south that seems more favorable, when you later find that the one you ditched was only pulsating and produced a tornado 20 minutes after you left it. Another time you might make the right decision. The point is, when this happens, and it WILL happen, you feel pretty damn stupid, and beat yourself up over it. But hey, there's always next time, right? Well, what if this is how you make a living, and that was your last storm chase of the season due to a tight budget and you needed good footage to sell? I bet you're not going to be very happy.

I have rambled on and on about how ludicrous it is for some one to make storm chasing their profession. However, there are a few (and I do mean just a few) persons in the U.S. that actually make a living off of it. I honestly do not know how they manage. But, I'm sure they must have another source of income during the off season, and I'm also willing to bet they don't have much money to spend freely. Realistically, it's not a good idea to try this.

There are t.v. stations all across tornado alley that hire storm chasers to chase find a tornado, report it and get good footage of it. However, they are not paid much, and as I've stated above, storm chasing is seasonal! If anyone ever finds an area where tornadoes for year-round on a regular basis, you let me know!

If you're serious about meteorology, and you absolutely love storm chasing, then get your meteorology degree. Get your masters degree, and you can be a research meteorologist at a university. In fact, if you go all the way and get your Ph.D. , you can research at the University of Oklahoma as I've mentioned above in italics. And if you're lucky you might just be able to go on a few storm chases for research purposes.

The vast majority of us chase as a hobby. Storm chasing is a passion, it's a quest to find that one isolated, magnificent classic supercell with a spectacular, long-lived tornado out in a field, harming nothing but grass and dirt. As long as I'm a student at OU, I will storm chase in the spring. After I graduate, I plan on taking a storm chasing vacation each year in May. Storms are really that awesome to me.


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