Iowa State University Students and Instructors Pursue Storms Across Tornado Alley

Ensure a clear escape route is always available. Whenever possible, stick to paved roads and maintain a safe distance.

This spring, Iowa State University students and instructors engaged in storm chasing adhered to these fundamental safety guidelines while reflecting on their own storm-chasing experiences and assimilating the lessons taught over the preceding eight weeks. Recalling their encounter with the EF-3 tornado that wreaked havoc on Carbon, Iowa, on May 21, some members of the team admitted to venturing too close to the storm.

According to recent ISU graduate and storm chaser Hunter Fowkes, debris began falling around the three-car caravan from approximately one mile away from the tornado, with twigs and tree limbs swirling in a surreal spectacle as the students became aware that they were directly in its path. Despite Fowkes signaling to depart, ISU’s co-instructor for “Field Observations of Thunderstorms,” Bill Gallus, confessed that he was captivated by the scene and reluctant to leave.

“The true power of these systems and tornadoes becomes unmistakable when you are present and witnessing them firsthand,” stated co-instructor Dave Flory. “Our proximity to the Carbon tornado was too close, and the experience was truly remarkable.”

A team comprising three Iowa State University instructors and 13 students embarked on an eight-day journey across the Midwest in late May to chase storms, visit weather centers, and iconic landmarks as part of a storm observation course.

While discussing the idea of incorporating storm chasing into their class, Gallus and Flory had contemplated it for a considerable period, noted Flory, citing the challenges in logistical planning, scheduling coordination, and selecting a suitable time for a storm-chasing trip that would not disrupt the academic calendar.

Expressing his insights, Gallus mentioned that students had been expressing interest in a storm chasing course nearly every year during his 29-year tenure at ISU. Realizing that numerous students in Fowkes’ class had prior storm chasing experience, they, along with co-instructor Lindsay Maudlin, decided to seize the opportunity and organize the course.

Having pursued storm chasing since the age of 12 and harboring a lifelong fascination with severe weather, Fowkes shared his journey from witnessing dust devils and desert thunderstorms in Arizona to experiencing all four seasons in Colorado. His first encounter with a tornado occurred shortly after relocating to Cedar Falls, recalled Fowkes, describing the pivotal moment that sparked his fascination with storm chasing.

Although open to all students, the class initially had all seniors enrolled when it commenced in early March. Throughout the semester, students received comprehensive instruction on storm formation, safety protocols, instrumentation, among other topics, along with a presentation from a guest lecturer from the National Weather Service. Engaging in a simulated storm chase, the students utilized hourly information to guide their decisions on storm observation locations.

Highlighting that most, if not all, students boasted prior storm chasing experience before enrolling in the class, Maudlin emphasized that the trip still presented novel encounters. Equipped with three cars filled with essential supplies and weather monitoring equipment, the group embarked on their journey without precise knowledge of the storm activity’s trajectory.

Referring to a prevalent notion within the meteorology field, Gallus remarked on the unpredictable nature of Mother Nature when preparing for weather observations, emphasizing the unforeseen challenges and learning opportunities encountered during their tumultuous eight-day venture.

Exploring Distant Storms and Local Perils

The expedition commenced on a promising note as the caravan headed towards Kansas, intercepting a line of thunderstorms that spawned two tornadoes. Despite the initially low likelihood of tornadoes, Gallus noted substantial weather fluctuations within a brief period that culminated in an ideal storm scenario.

Commenting on the eventful first day, Fowkes expressed relief in witnessing a tornado early on the trip, alleviating the pressure to continually chase tornado sightings. Subsequently opting to journey towards Colorado despite impending return commitments, the group launched weather balloons ahead of incoming storms before initiating their travel back. However, following their departure from Yuma, severe weather struck the town with damaging wind speeds and sizable hailstones.

Lindsay Maudlin/Iowa State University

Subsequent days were dominated by storm surges across Iowa, with the caravan witnessing both the Greenfield and Carbon tornadoes. The National Weather Service benefited from data collected through the launch of two weather balloons ahead of the storms hitting southwestern Iowa, as the Omaha station faced limitations in conducting balloon launches amid adverse weather conditions.

Despite experiencing close proximity to the Carbon tornado, limited visibility hindered distant observers from comprehending the magnitude of the situation. Navigating through debris-littered terrains blocked by fallen trees, the team braved the aftermath while marveling at the destruction inflicted by the tornado.

Reflecting on the unique encounter, Fowkes shared his excitement at witnessing a wind turbine’s destruction by the tornado, marking a first in his personal storm-chasing experiences.

Considering the personal connections to affected regions, the group decided to spend the remainder of the day recuperating in their respective homes or in Ames following damage sustained in Greenfield and the close encounter near Ames that impacted Gallus’ son.

Transitioning from active storm chasing, the subsequent days encompassed visits to the national Storm Prediction Center and Twistex Memorial in Oklahoma. Paying homage to storm chasers who lost their lives during the 2013 El Reno tornado, the crew also made a stop in the renowned town of Wakita, immortalized by the movie “Twister,” launching weather balloons at the recommendation of the storm prediction center.

While attempting to resume storm chasing later in the day, the team redirected their course towards Joplin, embarking on a memorable journey complete with supercell storms and tornado sightings that disrupted their planned routes and communication. The crew had a strict rule against nocturnal storm chasing, yet encountered numerous storm activities on their arduous drive to Missouri, eventually reaching their hotel close to 4 a.m.

Reflecting on the Aftermath

Culminating an intense and exhausting week, the group opted to conclude their journey in Joplin, visiting a memorial dedicated to the EF-5 tornado that claimed over 150 lives in 2011. For Gallus, revisiting the town after the devastating tornado brought a sense of closure and reflection.

Describing the emotional impact on the students, Maudlin emphasized the instructors’ vital role in guiding them through the intense experiences witnessed throughout the journey.

Citing her personal journey, Maudlin revealed a hiatus from storm chasing after the El Reno tornado and subsequent tragic events, highlighting the internal struggle between the allure of storm phenomena and the devastations caused. Resuming storm chasing a few years ago, Maudlin acknowledged the complexity of managing emotions and processing profound experiences alongside student education.

Anticipating future editions of the class, the instructors intend to incorporate these emotive and enlightening memorial visits into the group’s expedition agenda.

The extensive trip provided both students and instructors with newfound insights, ranging from weather balloon launches to multi-vehicle storm chasing expeditions and impromptu accommodation solutions. Despite witnessing numerous tornadoes before and planning to continue storm chasing, Fowkes emphasized the humbling effect of each tornado encounter, fueling the collective need for further exploration and understanding of these extraordinary weather phenomena.

“Each tornado encounter reinforces the necessity for dedicated research and relentless efforts to comprehend the complexities of these natural phenomena,” affirmed Fowkes.

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