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The Seasoned Traveler: Travelers chase tornados . . . on purpose

Created date

April 27th, 2009
It s 4 p.m., and George Foulds is speeding along a highway just outside the hamlet of Manchester, S.D. The storm chasing van that he shares with eight other passengers and a pile of dry clothes struggles through a mess of driving rain and hail that hammers away at all sides of the vehicle. "I looked to my right and realized I was seeing the funnel-shaped, brown mass of an E-4 tornado with winds near 200 miles per hour," Foulds recalls. "It was shredding trees and throwing debris everywhere, and it actually wrapped a stop sign around its metal post before flattening it to the ground. It was the most exciting experience I ve had on one of these tours." Storm chasers For Foulds, a 73-year-old retired biochemist, this was the fourth vacation with Silver Lining Tours (, one of several outfits operating in the increasingly popular world of storm chasing travel. Once a pursuit reserved for hardcore storm junkies and professionals, storm chasing is, today, an arm of adventure travel that vacationers around the world are buying into for knowledge and adrenalin. According to Roger Hill, co-owner and operator of Silver Lining Tours, people from all walks of life come out for the experience. "We ve had guests from as far away as England, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia," he says. "Last year, we even had one couple who joined us on their honeymoon." Industry wide, these vacations generally cost about $3,000 and last anywhere from one to two weeks depending on the company and the tour packages it offers. Silver Lining Tours, for instance, offers both a basic and a lecture tour the latter of which includes up to two hours of daily classroom instruction on severe weather and forecasting in addition to the actual chasing. Prime season, locations The prime season for tours typically runs from early May through mid June and covers an impressive range of territory. "The season usually starts out in Oklahoma and Texas in early May and moves on to Nebraska and South Dakota as storm activity shifts north," says Charles Edwards, owner and operator of Cloud 9 Tours ( "In that time period, there s usually some type of storm going on somewhere within reach to wherever we may be." Both Edwards and Hill say that guests have about a 75% chance of seeing a tornado, the high probability in large part due to the technology available to tour leaders. Equipped with GPS navigation systems, radar, and Internet access, storm chasers vehicles are roving weather labs which can track tornados that have already touched down or pinpoint locations where they re likely to form. Front-row seat Once they catch up with a tornado, chasers have a few moments to sit back and absorb nature s fury as it churns fields and sucks up foliage, roots and all. And never without an escape route, tour leaders can reposition the group as the storm shifts, which is usually at about 20 miles per hour. "You always need to know your position and those of the nearest escape routes," Edwards says. "The radar software we use allows us to embed our position right into the map, which shows us exactly where we are in relation to the storm at a moment s glance. Because storms aren t stationary, we have to keep moving with them." "Your first time witnessing a violent tornado is a life-changing event," Foulds says. "No photograph or video will ever do it justice. You have to be there to experience the raw power."

What s an E-4 tornado?

The Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, which is named after meteorologist and severe weather researcher Dr. Ted Fujita, measures the wind speed and strength of a tornado by the amount of destruction it does.
EF # Gusts*
0 65-85
1 86-110
2 111-135
3 136-165
4 166-200
5 Over 200
*3-second gust wind speed (mph) Source: National Weather Service s Storm Prediction Center