by Dan Voigt
In advance of the statewide observance of Severe Weather Week, Emmetsburg Middle and High School students were introduced to the world of storm chasing last week. Members of the Iowa Storm Chasing Network presented an informative program on what they do and more importantly, why they chase severe weather during a convocation Tuesday afternoon.
The ISCN team traces its roots back to 2008, when it was started by Nick Weig as the Eastern Iowa Storm Chasers organization. The second member of the team, Zach Sharpe, joined a couple of years later. Ben McMillan, Andrew Cooper, Dan Auel and Brennan Jontz round out the team, with each member bringing specific talents to the organization.
OWA?STORM?CHASING?NETWORK - The Iowa Storm Chasing Network team paid a visit to the Emmetsburg Middle and High School last Tuesday. Team members Barndon Jontz, Zach Sharpe, Ben McMillan and Dan Auel talked about the challenges of being a storm chaser and shared severe weather knowledge with students. -- Dan Voigt photo
Ben McMillan began chasing severe storms in 1999, and has seen some of the biggest recorded storms in recent history. On Tuesday, he spoke of his experience in chasing the EF-5 tornado that caused severe damage in El Reno, OK. That tornado was measured at 2.5 miles in width, the largest funnel ever recorded.
Sadly, three professional storm chasers and an amateur chaser lost their lives in the same storm.
Zach Sharpe is the team's meterologist, evaluating weather conditions and forecast information.
Dan Auel, Brenna Jontz and Andrew Cooper all fill other roles on the team. Cooper is completing training as an Emergency Medical Technician, in order to be able to render aid to those in need should a severe storm cause injuries.
The group is primarily set up to operate in today's online society, using social media Twitter and Facebook as their primary outlets to get their message out to the public. The work closely with other media as they chase. McMillan has appeared on The Weather Channel to report on storms, such as the El Reno tornado, presenting live video feeds from dash cameras in his chase vehicle.
"What we're trying to do is to issue a call to action," McMillan explained. "Our goal is to get the word out, through video streaming and social media."
"People have become used to warnings from radar-indicated tornadoes," McMillan continued. "Radar is a great tool because it can tell you where circulations are, and sometimes it pushes back warning times so people have more time to get to shelter. But, when we can stream live video as we chase, people being able to see what we're seeing often makes a stronger impression on them."
While McMillan chases the clouds as they roll across the mid-section of the country, Sharpe is trying to make more useful information from various weather forecasts and outlets. According to Sharpe, his goal is to give out the most accurate information. "People don't care where they get their information from, but they want it to be accurate."
But both men agree on one fact - Radar isn't the same as a report from someone who says they have their eyes on a tornado. "People react differently when a spotter confirms the storm," Sharpe said. "The National Weather Service even points to that fact during their storm spotter training."
But the message on Tuesday wasn't just about tornadoes. Students were warned about other forms of severe weather.
"Heat is the number one killer," McMillan said. "Flooding is second, while tornadoes are third and lightning is the fourth leading killer."
McMillan urged students to know the difference between watches and warnings, and also emphasized the importance of the 30/30 rule for lightning.
"If you see a flash of lightning and hear the thunder within 30 seconds, you need to get inside a building", McMillan emphasized.
Other weather facts imparted by the team included the factoid that the average speed of a tornado on the ground is 30 miles per hour, but they have been recorded to move up to 70 miles per hour.
Another fact is that tornadoes normally move from a southwesterly to northeasterly direction, and that the prime time for tornado activity in the Midwest is between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
"However, tornadoes have been known to strike at all hours of the day, and even in December and January, not just in April through June," McMillan added.
A myth was also debunked by the storm chasers "Don't stop to open your windows to equalize the pressure," McMillan said. "The tornado will open them for you. Having the windows open doesn't make any difference. If you need to get to shelter, get to shelter, under a sturdy object, and try to cover your head."
Chasing storms can become very hazardous especially when you're in a vehicle. That's why the team has developed a new tool for this season "Dorothy."
Named after the character in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy tips the scales at 9,000 pounds and has a highly reinforced steel frame, built on the frame of a 2005 Ford E350 truck. She has two layers of steel for a body, which is coated with a rubberized coating that can stop a 9mm bullet. With Lexan windows such as are found in jet fighters, and special flaps that can lower down to the ground to help keep winds from getting underneath the vehicle, the hope is Dorothy can get right inside a tornado on the ground.
Built by team members Auel and Jontz, Dorothy's purpose is to allow the team to get video of the inside of a tornado to allow for more in-depth scientific study. That study can show the structure of tornadoes and may answer questions on why the storms are so destructive. Dorothy also has computer and weather equipment installed inside for the crew's use as they chase severe weather.
If chasing is so dangerous, then why do it?
McMillan has a ready answer. "You see the most unique moments in Nature when you chase, and every day is truly different. Less than five percent of the population sees what we do, but the biggest reason to do this is to try and protect and warn the public of danger," McMillan explained. "But, it's also great to have the ability to share information, inspire others in the pursuit of science."
Learn more about the Iowa Storm Chasers on Facebook at: Iowa Storm Chasers Network.