Mar. 29, 2005 – They dodge twisters in Dodge City, witness big storms in Big D and follow hailstorms to Hale Center. Talk about your great field trip – this is it.
Texas A&M University’s student storm chaser team is the only one of its kind in the state. The group numbers about 100, although about 10 usually meet in several cars to go storm chasing, says the group’s co-president Shane Motley of Sacramento, Calif. He and Jen Salato of Dallas head the unit, known as TAMMSSDA (Texas A&M Mobile Severe Storms Data Acquisition) team.
When skies get black and threatening and civil defense sirens start sounding, the team is usually long gone by then – and right in the middle of nasty weather.
Motley and others go over information provided by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., and use this information along with their own analysis to project where bad weather may hit in the next 3-5 days. If their projections are still on track, they tell the other team members that the green light is given and they will be storm chasing within 24 hours.
“That’s when the fun begins,” Motley says.
“We head out in our own cars to spots we think are prime areas for weather development and hopefully, we’ll spot some tornadoes. Spotting a tornado is the ultimate goal of the chase.”
Now in its seventh year, the TAMMSSDA team has blanketed the Southwest during springtime and has seen its share of severe weather.
Motley has witnessed 18 tornadoes himself – the most in the group – since joining the team three years ago. The team goes all over Tornado Alley -- which extends from Texas to the Dakotas -- chasing storms, though often the best are right in Texas, but trips can still be over 600 miles round trip.
The chance of seeing a tornado – the holy grail of storm chasers – is not that great. Motley says the odds are only about 1 in 10 that they will see a tornado, but the odds of seeing severe weather are much higher.
“We almost always see heavy rain and high winds, and sometimes hail,” Motley explains.
“We divide up in teams and each team has plenty of video equipment and cameras. It’s important that we document what we’re seeing.”
Two years ago, the team shot footage of heavy storms that did record-setting damage in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and that film was used by several TV stations.
When they do spot severe weather, the team notifies the National Weather Service and the timely TAMMSSDA information has directly resulted in several weather statements issued by the agency. On May 4, 2003 the team reported an F-4 tornado – only an F-5 is more severe – near Leavenworth, Kan.
“That was a record setting day. Over 90 tornadoes were reported that weekend in the area,” he recalls.
All members must complete a safety training course about the hazards of severe storm environments. From now until the end of May is the peak time for severe weather in Texas.
The group is self-funding, paying for its own gas and meals. So far, Motley is glad to report, no cars have suffered hail damage, “but that’s because when we think hail is near, we try to go around it, and we’ve been lucky so far.
“People ask us why we do this, and the answer is that we all have a passion for the weather,” he adds. “Most of us are meteorology majors and we love this. And it’s the best possible learning experience. From the time we plot our own forecast of where the severe weather might be to the time we’re filming a tornado or severe weather, it’s all a great time of learning. The thrill of the chase is exciting beyond words.”
For more about the team, check its website at http://www.met.tamu.edu/TAMSCAMS/TAMMSSDA.
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