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Storm chasers face a host of dangers beyond extreme weather

The deaths of four storm chasers in car crashes in the past two weeks have underscored the dangers of continued severe weather events as more people clog back roads and highways in search of a glimpse of a lightning bolt or tornado, according to meteorologists and hunters.

In this screen grab from a video provided by the Meteored Press Office, meteorologist Martha Llanos Rodriguez gives a weather report filmed in Mexico City. Mexico City storm-chasing meteorologist died in crash on Interstate 90 in southwest

Martha Llanos Rodriguez of Mexico City died Wednesday when a tractor-trailer rammed her vehicle from behind on Interstate 90 in southwestern Minnesota. The driver of the car, Diego Campos, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he and Rodriguez and two other weather experts chased severe weather and were hit after pulling over for downed power lines in the road.

More people are jumping in their cars and fleeing after storms, blocking roads, running stop signs and paying more attention to the sky than traffic, said Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric science program at the University of Georgia.

“Sometimes there is such a high volume of hunters during certain storms that it creates potential traffic and other hazards,” Shepherd said. “Seeing storms in their natural context has scientific and wider value, so I’m not against hunting, however, there are elements that have gone a little wild, wild in the west.”

Popularized in the 1996 film “Twister,” storm chasing involves chasing severe weather phenomena such as electrical storms and tornadoes, often by car or on foot.

Some are researchers looking to gather data, such as checking computer models that predict storm behavior. Some seek to connect with nature. Others are photographers. And still others are just looking to rush in, said Greg Tripoli, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who taught a course on storm chasing.

“Seeing a tornado is a life-changing experience,” Tripoli said. “You want to see one instead of just talking about it. It’s really just one of the thrills of life. You have to take risks and go out there and pursue your passions. It’s no different than watching it. ‘climbing or deep- diving.’

The storms themselves present dangers to inexperienced hunters who get too close. They can be hit by debris, struck by lightning, or worse. Tripoli said it decided to stop teaching its storm chasing class and taking students into the field in the early 1990s after university officials stopped providing trips.

Storm chasers face a host of dangers beyond extreme weather

FILE – In this image from video provided by Scott Smith, a fast-moving tornado is seen in the distance through a windshield just before the Burlington Bristol Bridge toll plaza, Sept. 1, 2021, in Burlington, N.J.

Nature is not the only threat. Storm chasers spend long hours on the road traveling from state to state like long-haul truckers, inviting fatigue. As they overtake the storms, they can often keep their eyes on the sky instead of the road, sometimes with deadly consequences. Tripoli said he would warn students in his storm chasing class that the most likely way they would be injured would be in a car crash.

Three University of Oklahoma students were killed April 30 after traveling to Kansas to chase a tornado. According to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the students’ car hydroplaned on the highway in Tonkawa, about 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of Oklahoma City. They slipped and got back on the highway before a tractor-trailer hit them.

The University of Oklahoma has a policy that anyone who chases storms does so at their own risk and that storm chasing is not part of the school’s meteorology curriculum.

The mother of one of the students, Gavin Short, 19, of Grayslake, Illinois, told WMAQ-TV that her son loves chasing storms.

“He loved it, and we were so happy for him,” Beth Short said. “And it’s just, it’s just the worst nightmare for us and two other sets of parents.”

Chaser traffic jams are becoming more common, said Kelton Halbert, a doctoral student in atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin. He said he’s been chasing storms since he was 16 because he wanted to feel closer to nature’s beauty and check his forecast modeling, mostly by taking video of storm behavior.

“Unless you work at one of these research institutions, storm chasers don’t have the ability to collect a lot of hard data,” he said. “For the most part…it’s the beauty, it’s the photography and then obviously the thrill seekers and the adrenaline seekers. You can have people chasing you, people in the middle of the road. If you are in Texas or Oklahoma or Kansas on a high risk day, yes you can see hundreds of them. Given the past few weeks, I have certainly felt more apprehension. This brings to the fore the fact that every time you do this, you are taking a risk.

Wednesday’s storm in the Upper Midwest left tens of thousands of homes and businesses without power through Thursday. More potentially severe weather was forecast for Thursday night that could bring hail, high winds and tornadoes from the Dakotas and Minnesota to other parts of the Midwest, the Storm Prediction Center said.

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