News24's lifestyle editor Herman Eloff meets up with well-known storm chaser Dr Reed Timmer to find out what it's like to catch and ride a tornado in real life. Turns out it's a lot like in the movies.
It has been several days since my call with storm chaser and extreme meteorologist Dr Reed Timmer. We caught up via Zoom to talk about his new National Geographic docuseries Storm Rising.
He was at his apartment near Denver, Colorado and had just returned home after chasing Category 1 hurricane Nicholas which made landfall in Texas on 14 September and dissipated four days later, leaving billions of dollars of destruction in its path.
When everyone else is packing up and getting out of the way of an approaching storm, Reed and his Yorkshire Terrier Gizmo get in their van and try to get as close to the action as possible to collect as much scientific data about the hurricane as they can. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Reed lives the real-life version of the famous Helen Hunt film Twister.
While researching tornadoes and movies for this article, one of the most iconic films of all time popped up - The Wizard of Oz. Paging through the history of the film, something familiar caught my eye. A photo of a smiling Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, with her two braided pigtails, and a Cairn terrier in her arms named Toto. We all know the story. When a tornado strikes the Kansas farm where Dorothy lives, both she and Toto get whisked off to Oz. Toto and Gizmo bear a striking resemblance, and I'm disappointed that I only picked up the link after our chat.
Reed, who is one of the nicest guys you'll meet, has been taking 13-year-old Gizmo with him on all his tornado-chasing adventures, and she, of course, makes a few appearances in the show when she sounds the alarm as soon as a storm approaches. Knowing Reed's passion and longtime history with storms, the link between Toto and Gizmo is no coincidence. I'd bet my paycheck on it.
Reed invites Gizmo to join our Zoom interview, but she's in no mood for the camera. "She's seen more tornadoes than any other dog," he says, adding: "I've estimated that she's seen at least 250 tornadoes, and she's been inside a Category Five hurricane." Gizmo even joined Michael when he chased the deadly Hurricane Michael in 2018. He adds: "These last couple of years, she doesn't like the hail as much, but she loves storm chasing, and she sure doesn't want to be left behind. She wants to be out there on the road chasing storms like she's done for over a decade now."
Reed's love for storms goes way back to his childhood. "For as long as I can remember, I've been obsessed with weather and severe storms, probably going back to when I was four or five years old. I used to be scared to death of thunder and lightning when I was really little. Then it suddenly turned into an intense curiosity and passion and trying to understand weather and being excited about it.
"Every time a severe storm would come through my childhood home, I grabbed the family video camera and ran outside. I'd get pelted by hail and destroyed the family video camera lots of times. My first tornado experience was when I was really little - about four years old. My dad was pulling us in a wagon to catch fish, and there was a tornado warning. The sirens were sounding, and apparently, I saw a tornado. I don't remember it because I was too little, but I think that childhood incident may have got me even more obsessed with tornadoes."
"I was in Science Olympiad when I was little too. I collected insects, and I was really into science. But my true passion was always in severe weather and storm chasing. And as soon as I got my driver's licence, I realised that I didn't have to wait for the storms to come to me anymore. I could drive after them and see so many more when I could expand my range beyond a single point.
"When I was 18, I moved to Oklahoma to study meteorology at the University of Oklahoma and saw my first tornado on 4 October 1998 as a freshman meteorology student down there. I really didn't know what I was doing back then and nearly got myself killed a few times, once with an EF5 tornado that spring as a 19-year-old. We abandoned our vehicle and rode out an EF5 tornado underneath an overpass there in Oklahoma.
"That was also the first time that we experienced the dark side that these storms leave behind. The damage and loss of life and property. All of that was just so motivating to get up close to tornadoes to provide reports that could help save lives in the path of these storms and do research that other people can't safely do up close to the tornado.
"Eventually, we developed armoured vehicles so that we could intercept the tornadoes directly and be inside them by vehicle. And now we're launching rockets into tornadoes as well. The pandemic kind of derailed our rocket launching mission, but we're going to be back after that again in spring of 2022. We've only gotten one rocket inside of a tornado, but we need more rockets and more sensors inside the tornado. It's almost like Twister," Reed says with a smile.
A tornado is on a smaller scale compared to a hurricane, and it's also extremely powerful. I think that a tornado is probably the most powerful atmospheric phenomenon on the planet, but a hurricane is so large and powerful that it has very large impacts.
A tornado occurs from a supercell storm, which is a storm with a rotating updraft that has a mesocyclone that produces that tornado. It thrives off of the jet stream and the wind shear and temperature gradients of the mid-latitudes.
You get quite a few tornadoes in South Africa. We were considering chasing tornadoes in South Africa as part of Storm Rising, so we were watching it closely, and there were a couple of tornadoes out there last season. Your season is the opposite of our tornado season, so our fall or right now is about your prime time, I think, for tornadoes in southeastern South Africa. But those are from supercell storms of the rotating updraft.
Hurricanes, on the other hand, thrive off of the tropics. So, the same wind shear that causes a supercell storm to rotate will disrupt a hurricane, so they thrive off of the weaker wind shear of the tropics and the very warm ocean temperatures. Hurricanes act as giant heat engines of our planet, transporting heat from the ocean surface to aloft and from the equator, the tropics, to the poles.
And there are larger systems, so they're on the order of 500 kilometres to even larger than that. But some hurricanes can have a compact pinhole eye like Hurricane Wilma, for example, in 2005, which had about a two-mile-wide eye. That's really similar in diameter to a wedge tornado, so sometimes there are some overlaps and in scale.
Climate change and big storms - Reed gives insight:
"The impact of global warming is obvious with the hurricanes because the frequency is increasing so dramatically, especially over the last 10 or 20 years. The hurricanes are thriving off of the warmer ocean temperatures and intensifying as they're making landfall, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Usually there's a little bit of a ribbon of cooler water, or a lot of times those hurricanes will wrap in dry air as they're about to make landfall in the Gulf of Mexico, which will cause them to weaken a little bit. But these days, they're intensifying and ramping up. Oftentimes, they're slowing down, even when it appears that there's some cooler water offshore. They'll still intensify. And I think that that's certainly related to climate change.
"With tornadoes, it's a little bit more complicated. There's a trend for lesser and lesser tornadoes, at least that's been realised the last few years. It's hard to see if that's related to long term climate change or if it's a seasonal or annual cycle. But places like Oklahoma and Kansas this year and last year, I've only had a handful of tornadoes, and those locations usually will see 80 to 100 tornadoes.
"But tornadoes are happening in different locations outside of Tornado Alley. South Africa seems to be getting a lot more tornadoes with climate change and the Mid-South and the U.S. earlier in the spring and in the winter, we'll get more tornadoes than before because of an energised subtropical jet. So the effects of global warming are a bit more complicated with tornadoes, but with hurricanes simply warmer ocean temperatures are leading to stronger storms, and it does make for more frequent and more damaging hurricanes."