The storm brigade

By Jessica Galliart

Weather fanatics armed with cameras capture massive tornadoes enveloping small Midwestern towns every day and plaster their footage all over the Internet. Even mainstream movies like Twister have tapped into the phenomenon of high-speed chases to catch sight of severe thunderstorms and the damage they create.

College of DuPage students in meteorology professor Paul Sirvatka’s storm chasing class travel across North America for about 10 days, learning how to track severe storms and chase them safely.

Though many are fascinated by the idea of chasing severe weather systems and tornado videos as seen in the media, students at a suburban community college are actually doing it—for college credit.

At College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., meteorology professor Paul Sirvatka trains students in his classes on how to track large storms and weather patterns, then takes them on the road for 10 days at a time all over North America to witness storms in progress, also known as storm chasing. Other groups provide similar storm chasing tours throughout the busy spring and summer storm seasons, and many participants say their experiences of chasing storms cross-country are similar to, or better than, vacations with good friends or bonding experiences with new friends.

College of DuPage meteorology professor Paul Sirvatka is a weather fanatic but said the chases portrayed in the movies aren’t realistic and don’t compare to the chases he goes on with his students.

“Most of the things in the movie ‘Twister,’ had that really been happening, they would have been dead,” Sirvatka said. “We don’t do stupid things like that.”

Meteorologists like Sirvatka have been chasing storms for decades. For 18 years, Sirvatka has driven all over North America, including Canada and Mexico, to track weather systems with the storm chasing course he teaches at the college.

“In the last 18 years, it’s amazing how much different things are, both in terms of technology and just our understanding of how severe weather goes,” Sirvatka said. “So I would consider myself pretty much an expert on severe weather forecasting and understanding how to know when tornadoes are likely.”

Growing up in Glen Ellyn, Sirvatka said he never saw a tornado but always wanted to know what the experience of chasing storms was like. After realizing what kind of interest was out there from other people about chasing storms, Sirvatka said he proposed teaching a class for college students.

“A great number of people want to see a tornado, and they’re excited by severe weather like that,” Sirvatka said. “That’s certainly how I started.”

Unlike commercial storm chasing tours, where participants often pay anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 without any training on how to track weather patterns, the storm chasing tours at DuPage earn participants college credit through the college. Though many students who enroll in the course are meteorology majors, many other participants take the class for a general education credit or don’t even attend College of DuPage.

“We have people coming in from Europe and Canada who’ve come down to chase with us,” Sirvatka said. “They’ve seen video and they go, ‘I want to experience this.’ We actually have people who have fears, and they want to come and face their fears.”

Before departing for a tour, the students are trained to know how to track storms before going on a chase and also must pass several quizzes administered by the teacher.

“We go through some of the trip preparations and talk a little bit about forecasting,” Sirvatka said. “On the trip we have televisions in our vehicles, so we do a lot of movies, video and some teaching in the vans.”

Because many of the destinations for tours are on opposite ends of the country, much of the 10-day trips are spent driving in the two vans, which are equipped with 23-inch TVs, computers and radios for communication between the two vans. Fourteen spots are usually available for each of the five trips offered throughout the year, including during the summer.

While studying journalism at College of DuPage, Kristina Zaremba signed up for the summer course offered in 2006, when the group first traveled north to Canada and then drove south to Texas. Zaremba said she had heard about the class before and was interested in learning about tracking storms.

Although Zaremba’s group didn’t catch any tornadoes on their trip, they were able to chase down storm systems with intense lightning and learn how to forecast and use maps to find storms.

“When you’re chasing, usually you’re trying to get to some place and wait for something to happen,” Zaremba said. “The first time we went into chase mode, I was really excited. We hit some hail, saw some storms and cool lightning. But we never got close to a tornado at all.”

The objective of the class is not specifically to see tornadoes, Sirvatka said, but to chase severe thunderstorms. From past classes he has taught, he said the chance of seeing a tornado on the tour is about 40 percent, but some of his best experiences chasing have been while tracking a severe thunderstorm.

“The worst experience for us is just when we go out there and nothing is going on for long periods of time,” Sirvatka said. “But one day makes up for that. They don’t have to produce a tornado; that’s just sort of the icing on the cake.”

Some of the biggest dangers in storm chasing, Sirvatka said, are lightning, debris and the traveling and driving that are part of the chase.

“I guess there’s some potential danger but that doesn’t usually scare me,” Sirvatka said. “I’ve never been afraid of being hit by a tornado. They’re not as unpredictable as people think.”

In the midst of one chase during her tour, Zaremba said she was concerned at first about how fast they were driving to catch a storm, but a part of her loves to be put in scary situations.

“Nobody wears their seatbelts, especially in chase mode,” Zaremba said. “I was bouncing all over the van from window to window while trying to take pictures. That was probably the best part of it all.”

Zaremba said she also learned a lot about misconceptions people get from movies and footage of storm chasing and storms in general. Her instructors discussed how many people seek shelter under overpasses during a storm, which is the worst thing to do in the midst of severe weather, she said.

“The two biggest rules were never chase at night and never chase alone,” Zaremba said. “Part of the reason we have two vans is you never know what’s going to happen. They talk about how people go out and do it on their own and end up in situations where they’re in a lightning storm.”

Sirvatka said the idea is not to chase after a storm, but anticipate what path the storm will take and always be ahead of it. Chasers should always stay about a half-mile away from the storm and plan an escape route in case the path of the storm turns toward them, he said.

“We’ll drive as close as we can to it as long as it’s in a place where we have an escape route and we have good visuals on it,” Sirvatka said. “It’s too dangerous when you know the path of the storm is going to cross you. You have to kind of just sit there and say, ‘I’m going to let it cross before I go after it.’”

Matt Wojtowicz, a sophomore meteorology student at College of DuPage, traveled to Canada with a class in summer 2007 and will go on another trip headed to Texas this summer. Wojtowicz said even though his experience while chasing produced a few thunderstorms but no tornadoes, he learned not to get his hopes up before leaving for a tour.

“It’s actually one of the best learning environments because you learn a bunch of stuff with the weather,” Wojtowicz said. “And when you get to see it happen in front of your face it’s incredible.”

Sirvatka’s best experience while storm chasing was when he saw 10 tornadoes in one day in Southern Kansas in 2002. Though he said catching a storm isn’t as easy as it’s portrayed in films, it’s worth it.

“It’s less exciting than you see in the movies, and it’s more exciting at the same time,” Sirvatka said. “You just don’t go around finding tornadoes all the time. But when you’re actually [following] a tornado, I think people are amazed at what it looks like and how exciting it really can be in some

circumstances.”

For Zaremba, along with the excitement of chasing a storm came a great experience of meeting new people and enjoying the sights during her trip in Canada.

“It’s kind of like being at summer camp,” Zaremba said. “I met some very interesting people, and even though you’re only together for 10 or 12 days, you’re together the entire day. You get to really know those people.”

Classes cost about $1,000, which includes tuition for college credit and some travel expenses. For more information about the class, visit Weather.COD.edu.

—Additional reporting by Meha Ahmad

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