March 13, 2016
The Beauty of Nature’s Fury
by Mathew Powers
My first encounter with a super cell occurred in the most desolate county in the United States – Loving County, Texas. The remarkable flatness of the land in western Texas could substitute as a regulation billiards table. With a population density of 0.1 people per square mile, one rarely sees another human being. However, mesquite plants fill the land from horizon to horizon and distant howling coyotes provide companionship. I spent much of the day baking in the hot Texas sun. Finally, by 4 p.m., billowing clouds quickly formed. They dashed across the sky due to the increasingly strong spring breeze. The clouds provided respite from the heat, but they were also the precursor to threatening weather. Within thirty minutes, a tremendously strong storm filled the sky as if a nearby volcano had erupted. By 5 p.m., the entire base of the super cell rotated. At 5:30, I witnessed my first tornado with utter amazement as the stout, gray, cone-shaped twister moved harmlessly across ranch land.
For a storm chaser, there is something majestic about standing amidst the vastness of the Great Plains and witnessing the terrific radiance of massive, rotating thunderstorms known as super cells. When Mother Nature maps out her awe-inspiring demonstrations of land-locked power, few, if any, phenomena can match severe thunderstorms accompanied by continuous lightning, rolling thunder, roaring winds, and tornadoes.
Thunderstorms destroy. Thunderstorms kill. Thunderstorms disrupt. Thunderstorms also placate, captivate, and exhilarate. Photographers and scientists navigate the globe to witness and study nature’s rawest forms of strength – I am one of them. I am a storm chaser. For 15 years, I traversed the U.S. and Canada and witnessed more than 100 tornadoes. I interacted with people who demonstrated a variety of reactions to storms and appreciated them differently. Thunderstorms were peaceful and beautiful to some, terrifying to others.
Similar to me, the most ardent fans of severe weather feed on the adrenaline rush provided by storms and they are captivated by its splendor. Storm enthusiasts yearn to witness nature’s wondrous mix of strength and beauty. In recent years, the popularity of storm chasing has resulted in utter gridlock on country highways. Publications such as National Geographic regularly feature stories on storms and those who chase them. TV stations – the Discovery Channel, for instance – produce documentaries or fund reality shows that follow chasers on their mission to play matador with nature’s fury. Professional storm chasing tours guide weather junkies through Tornado Alley or sell subscriptions to their webcam broadcasts. Meanwhile, colleges and an assortment of physical scientists use the Plains as a mobile classroom and outdoor thunderstorm laboratory. In the end, storm chasing provides the nourishment necessary to feed an enthusiast’s insatiable appetite for witnessing nature’s fury.
In a matter of minutes, tranquil weather transitions to a sky dominated by super cells. It is as if Thor, the ancient Norse god and ruler of the skies (and modern-day comic book superhero), arises out of out the earth with his thunder-wielding hammer and eyes of lightning to wage war against drought or the reoccurrence of another dust bowl.
The copious rain embedded within a super cell shrouds the sun and blackens the sky. Hail acts as a prism that produces an array of beautiful colors, such as turquoise, aqua green, or purple. Intense lightning bolts, five times hotter than the sun, emerge from the underbelly of the storm accompanied by clamorous thunder that rattles windows and deafens ears. Gorgeous clouds, striated like a barber pole and shaped like an upside down wedding cake, are the visual manifestation of the rotation associated with super cells. Additionally, super cells regularly produce the most violent tornadoes on Earth. For a chaser, the tornado’s distinct roar is akin to finding a lion on the Serengeti during a safari; the hunt is controlled, but the danger lurks.
Chasers are hyperaware of a super cell’s destructive power. In my years as a chaser, I witnessed the obliteration of entire communities, such as Greensburg, Kansas in 2007 and Spencer, South Dakota in 1998. In 2004, I encountered the largest and most devastating tornado of my chasing career. It measured over two miles in diameter with winds exceeding 200 mph. It plowed through the wheat fields of rural Nebraska and then through the town of Hallam. The tornado rotated with such ferocity that I couldn’t detect any discernable funnel cloud as the massive super cell descended to the ground. A black wall of dirt and debris hid the tornado’s main core, but continual power flashes emanated from shredded power lines and transformers provided a visual clue as to the whereabouts of the tornado.
Any humane chaser prefers that a storm majestically, sublimely dances across the open fields of the Plains, not tear cruelly through cities. Most chasers are defiant in that they are in love with the spectacles of nature, not the horrors associated with storms. Certainly, the death of respected scientist and storm chaser, Tim Samaras, in 2013, provided a somber reminder of the danger associated with super cells and tornadoes.
Despite their potential to harm or kill, thunderstorms also provide tranquility to a large percentage of the population. Amazon.com offers a litany of CDs (or digital downloads) that provide audio of thunderstorms as a form of relaxation, such as Echoes of Nature: Thunderstorm, by Peter Roberts Media. The cover of Echoes of Nature features a lightning bolt – a natural phenomenon responsible for the death of 300 people in the last decade, according to the National Weather Service. Nonetheless, for countless people, thunder and lightning promote relaxation and provide serenity. One product review speaks volumes:
When this CD was first released, I was still a teenager living at home. It was a very violent and abusive home life and every night I would pop this CD in, hit repeat, and go to bed. The very real-like and natural sounds of the rain and thunder was calming and provided a reassuring environment for me to sleep in.
The contrast of tranquility and terror are not the only paradox generated by thunderstorms. Storms replenish the necessary fresh water required to support all forms of life. Unfortunately, they also produce killer floods. Lightning may spark fires, but in forests, those fires usually are small and remove old underbrush that serve as fuel for wild, unmanageable forest fires. Finally, nothing is more impressive than torrential rain and tumultuous skies giving way to a brightly colored rainbow.
Tornadoes enjoy duality, as well. They have the ability to take lives and flatten towns. However, out of the rubble and sadness arise amazing examples of community and humanity. For example, the tornado that struck Washington, Illinois in November of 2013 resulted in an amazing outpouring of support. In fact, eight days after the tornado devastated the town, the Washington Chamber of Commerce announced:
Due to the high volume of calls, we will no longer be able to answer the phone, so please email. We will try and respond as quickly as we can. If we are unable to get right back to you, please know there will be lots of opportunities in the weeks to come.
Thank you again for the overwhelming love and support!
God bless Washington!
Thunderstorms are everywhere: outside our windows, on our TVs, and resonating in our earphones. They provide both life and death. They create darkness and color. Storms destroy cities, but renew the human spirit. My mom survived the Lake Zurich tornado of 1967; she trembles when she hears thunder. Thunder petrified me as a toddler, too. My mom calmed my trepidation by explaining how God’s angels were bowling. “They must be good at it,” I thought. I did not realize that my fear paled in comparison to my mother’s. She did not realize that she gave birth to a storm chaser.
The smell of humid air and the feel of a spring breeze can make the heart of chaser pound louder than thunder. During my 15 years of storm chasing, I traveled more than 250,000 miles, witnessed over 100 tornadoes in 12 states and one Canadian province, and even saw 10 tornadoes in a single day. For others, such as children, thunderstorms remind them of how small they really are. Thunderstorms are like God the Father throwing Mother Nature’s warm blanket across the sky, providing a titillating and adrenalizing escape from the sometimes cold-hearted realities of the world.
We can never avoid thunderstorms, so we might as well go after them.
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