Storm Chasers Go Like Lightning to Get Their Fix
Of all the things you’d do during a lightning storm, chasing it might not be one of them.
Unless you’re someone like Jeff Wright.
He lives for the smell of the electricity, the roar of the clouds, and he doesn’t mind how many miles he puts on his car to score.
Wright, a 31-year-old mail clerk from Los Angeles, remembers one particular trip of abandon that took him across two states. He saw towering cumulus clouds in the distance while visiting San Diego, and they enticed with the promise of a thunderstorm.
“Let’s go find one,” the UCLA meteorology graduate remembers saying. He and two companions piled into a Buick Skylark and drove. And drove. Carrying instruments that measured humidity and wind gusts and temperatures, they streaked across the desert in hot pursuit. (And it was hot: 114 degrees outside, 118 inside the un-air-conditioned car.) Just a little farther, Wright kept thinking, and they’d be rewarded with the Holy Grail of the skies: cloud-to-ground lightning strikes like Patriot missiles in reverse and the kind of thunder you can feel boom in your chest.
They finally gave up when they passed a city--and realized it was Phoenix.
“I forgot how far you can see in the desert,” he says sheepishly.
Wright is part of a tiny subculture of storm chasers, people who yearn for their next high brought on by the sear of lightning and its thunderous crash.
“It’s a total adrenaline rush,” Wright says. “I feel like there’s an electricity running up and down my spine when I see the lightning in the distance. It feels like electricity going through my body.”
That’s the high that addicts them, that lures them to the freeway and beyond. They call themselves weather nuts. Most have meteorology training; most are men.
“I wouldn’t say any of us are macho, but I suppose we try to show our enthusiasm for rain by standing out in it,” says Daniel Landau, a Ph.D. student in atmospheric sciences at UCLA.
Some self-proclaimed weather nuts are less apt to chase but are equally enamored.
“You wake right up when it starts raining, and you start to think about it,” says Don Gales, a retired National Weather Service meteorologist in Rolling Hills. “Thunder and lightning--it fascinates you just to look at it.”
Part of the appeal lies in the dramatic show of force. Landau says typical small thunderstorms, like the ones around Los Angeles, have as much energy as an atom bomb or 10 kilotons of TNT.
Milder aficionados, those who heave the bedclothes aside and shuffle to the bedroom window to look, might be taken with the novelty of a storm if they did not grow up in thunder-and-mosquito country, or taken with nostalgia if they did.
But they, unlike the truly hooked, won’t be able to boast of any record highs.
“It’s sort of hard to find weather nuts,” says Wright. “Lots of people just sit there and shake their heads (at us).”
Wright may chase four or five storms during a summer. He routinely pursues storms from Los Angeles to as far as Needles or the mountains east of Barstow. He once planned a two-week trip to Colorado to see thunderstorms (but saw none). A recent storm drew him to Palm Springs and beyond--and put 400 miles on his car--but the clouds dissipated like a mirage as he got closer.
His personal best was a storm in Indiana: “I was awed with how intense it was, how strong it was, how frequent the lightning was,” he says.
“It wasn’t the wimpy, straggly bolts you get in California. It was a monster, with the thunder crackling. It gets so dark and they develop so fast out there.”
Southern California isn’t exactly a body electric. The Tampa, Fla., area leads the country in lightning and thunder storms, with about 80 a year, followed by New Orleans with 70, according to Gales. Los Angeles averages fewer than five.
The Rolls-Royces of thunderstorms--as Gales calls the churning, bruise-green violent ones that belch tornadoes--are most common in the Tornado belt that snakes through states around Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.
“Hail just makes it that much better,” says Wright, who admits that the largest hail he’s had the privilege to be thwacked by was only the size of a pea. He also admits that his urge to get close to tornadoes or lightning might fade with proximity. Lightning kills 100 to 300 Americans each year; recently, a spectator at the PGA Championship in Indiana and another spectator at the U.S. Open in Minnesota were killed by strikes. Lightning also cracked the windshield of a chartered airliner near Denver last week.
Landau once was about 50 feet from a lightning strike (but safely indoors). He recalls rustling and crackling and a sound like something violently hitting a tin can, then thunder, then residual orange sparks.
“It put me right to bed,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘It can’t get any better than this.’ ”
A storm chaser’s life is as unreliable as a long-range weather forecast. “The problem is that when you chase thunderstorms, you can’t go to where they are,” Wright says. “You have to predict where they’re going to be.” So he checks the weather maps at UCLA to see if conditions are right, checks satellite pictures to see where storms have been forming and hits the road.
Ideally, he says, he would have his car equipped with a satellite picture receiver, a Doppler radar screen and a portable fax machine to receive weather maps so he could road-trip for days at a time.
“Then I could really have some fun.”