Hurricane and tornado season in the U.S. is underway, and while many steer clear of these terrifying storms, there are those who meet these beasts head on to collect pertinent scientific data and shoot unbelieveable footage, risking their lives for what they are most passionate about.
Meet the Twister Sisters, the seasoned storm chasing duo of Peggy Willenberg and Melanie Metz. They have been chasing monstrous tornados together since 2001 and have been featured on the WE TV reality TV series “Twister Sisters” with multiple appearances on shows like Good Morning America, Entertainment Tonight, Anderson Cooper and Jay Leno.
Peggy chats about the day in the life of a storm chaser and how some are beginning to push storm chasing to the brink, taking it to dangerous and deadly new heights.
C: How did you become a professional storm chaser and how long have you been doing it for?
P: I have been interested in tornadoes ever since I was a small child growing up in Indiana. However, right after graduating from college, I moved to Los Angeles where there are seldom storms of any kind! Years later we moved to Minnesota and my interest was rekindled. In 2001 I set out to learn all I could about severe weather so that I could witness it first hand. I met Melanie Metz, who had the same intense interest as I did, and we became a team. After tens of thousands of miles on the road and post-graduate study in meteorology at University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State University, we finally became “The Twister Sisters”.
C: What fuels your passion for chasing storms and describe one main goal you wish to achieve through your work.
P: To be able to understand and forecast a small-scale event such as a tornado is a tremendous challenge and one that never gets old. Every storm is different, and to recognize the components and where they will be in a place at an exact moment in time is what drives me. Also, and equally important, is the great beauty of the storms and their setting, the Great Plains.
C: When does tornado season start in the U.S.? How many storms have you chased so far for 2013?
P: In the South tornado season is January, in the Midwest it is March, and on the Plains it usually starts in early April. This year, however, the unseasonably cold spring held most tornadoes off until mid to late May. We finally ventured out the last week in May and were rewarded with three of the most intense chase days I have ever experienced.
C: What are key things a storm chaser looks to accomplish when heading out towards a tornado?
P: Well, first you have to figure out where it is going to happen! We try to forecast out at least three days using long and medium range numerical models. When we feel the possibilities are good we drive to that area (which sometimes is 1000 or so miles away) and then start focusing on actual observations. We refine our target throughout the day until convection finally initiates. Then it is up to us to pick the best location based on our awareness of environmental conditions. Beyond that, we need to maneuver around the storm so we can get a view of it while remaining in a relatively safe position.
C: What is the most dangerous part of storm chasing?
P: Storms can be unpredictable. In environments of extreme instability and wind shear, a storm may change direction or rapidly increase in size. On May 31, as you know, three of our colleagues, who were doing near-storm environment research, were killed when a tornado suddenly shifted north and expanded from one mile to 2.6 miles wide in a matter of seconds.
C: In light of the recent Oklahoma tornado that killed three storm chasers, some debates have risen over whether storm chasers are crossing the line with danger. Do you agree?
P: Yes. There are some individuals who are attempting to drive purpose-built vehicles into tornadoes in order to capture video for entertainment purposes. This is reckless in the extreme and sets a horrific example, especially when seen on television. It is ironic and sad that the chasers who died were bona fide researchers, gathering data so that we can increase warning times in the future.
C: If someone wanted to get into storm chasing, what steps and advice do you have for them?
P: Study! Don’t even think about getting into a vehicle and chasing a storm until you know how the atmosphere works. And when you do go out, operate in a safe manner and show respect for others on the road. And if you come upon victims in need of help, STOP. Your chase is over for the day.