Wicked Skies: Storm Chasing in Missouri – An Interview With Missouri Mesochasers [Photos + Video]
We recently asked our audience about their favorite hobbies. "Storm chasing" was not an answer we expected to receive. Ryan Olson with Missouri Mesochasers was one of the first people we heard from regarding his favorite (and unusual) hobby. The Missouri Mesochasers Facebook page and YouTube channel have some pretty interesting material on them, and we wanted to share some of those images and videos with you. We also asked Ryan some questions about chasing storms in Missouri. Please note, storm chasing is an extremely dangerous activity. It is strongly discouraged by authorities.
Your page is Missouri Mesochasers. What is a "Meso?"
Meso is short for mesocyclone. A mesocyclone is what is referred to as the rotating updraft portion, or rotating column of air, that gets pulled up into a thunderstorm. These thunderstorms that have a rotating updraft have a meteorological name...they're called supercells. Supercell t-storms are the most dangerous type of t-storm and are capable of dropping very large, damaging hail that can range from golf ball size to softball size, and in rarer occurrences, larger than that. Supercell t-storms are usually where most tornadoes come from.
Isn't this sort of a dangerous hobby? Do the authorities frown on storm chasing?
It is a dangerous hobby because of what severe thunderstorms are capable of...tornadoes, large hail, damaging winds, torrential blinding rain that can lead to flash flooding, and cloud-to-ground lightning. However, I do take storm spotter training every spring to refresh my memory before severe weather season...and to learn how to put myself in less danger. With that being said, the authorities do discourage people of being out there on the road chasing storms. However, storm chasers that actually do have storm spotter training are less likely to put themselves in dangerous situations.
What kind of training do you have to go through to be a storm spotter?
Every year, local National Weather Service offices conduct storm spotter training classes within towns and counties in their forecast area. They're usually free and open to the public and they generally last between 1.5-2 hours. Those who do attend have the chance to sign up and be a trained spotter for their NWS office, but is not mandatory. Some people just come out and learn knowledge about severe weather. The reason why we have storm spotters is because NWS office radars can detect how heavy and intense a t-storm is, but the radar can't justify the ground truth going on underneath a t-storm. The NWS rely on storm spotter reports to get better warnings and information across to the public that can better their chances of saving their life or property.
What's the scariest situation you've ever been in?
Glad you asked that question and to re-word the answer from the last question, storm chasing isn't 100% safe, even with all the knowledge you acquire about storms. It was Sunday, July 11, 2010 and I was on a chase with my girlfriend at the time - now my lovely wife of just over 2 months - following a tornado-warned storm in south Missouri. The storm I was chasing produced a tornado in the Camdenton area, but we were well east along the US 63 corridor. The storm was forecasted to move east and the heart of it was supposed to go just north of Rolla, so we positioned ourselves in Rolla to be south of the storm. However, mother nature threw us a curve ball and just before the storm reached the northern part of Rolla, it made a right-hand turn sending the tornado-warned monster right over Rolla.
We were parked at a gas station near the US 63/I-44 crossover and the sirens were blaring and the rainfall was coming down hard and was actually falling sideways. We watched the sideways rain change directions and started to think if the storm was producing a tornado, it was rain-wrapped to where we couldn't see it, so we scanned out the windshield of my car to see if any debris was being blown around...luckily there wasn't.
After a few intense minutes, I could determine that if the storm had produced another tornado, it was going off to our south and away from us. I totally wasn't even thinking about shooting film from that because I was more worried about how my girlfriend was doing...I wished I had because it was very intense. But that storm was a reminder of the risk storm chasers face when they're out there, because ultimately mother nature has the final say at what that storm will do.
What about that 'Storm Chasers' TV show? Is it pretty accurate?
I seem to think it's very accurate and I do own all 5 seasons of it on DVD...LOL. It's a shame though that the Discovery Channel pulled the plug on that show after the 5th season in 2011. Those people are trying to collect as much information they can to learn about these storms, especially why some supercells produce tornadoes and some don't. My favorite episode has to be in season 3 when they chased the storm that went through Kirksville, where I was born and raised...Reed Timmer and his TornadoVideos.Net crew collected data from inside that tornado using their armored vehicle known as "The Dominator," the first time anybody ever collected that kind of data in that way...in fact, here's a YouTube link to that video:
The Kirksville tornado was well documented by many storm chasers and you can find all kinds of video of it on YouTube. Reed Timmer is an inspiration for me, though I would never get inside a tornado...unless it (the vehicle) was armored and I knew it wouldn't lift off the ground! I do have autographed pictures from him, though, including a personalize one to me.