Saturday, February 12, 2011

Spinning for science - and the rush

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, weather phenomena, tornadoes, storm chasers, memoirs

You don't have to be crazy to chase storms with Reed Timmer, but it sure helps. He exemplifies the X generation's emphasis on the X in eXtreme—just ask him—as he recounts in his new book Into the Storm: Violent Tornadoes, Killer Hurricanes, and Death-defying Adventures in Extreme Weather. Andrew Tilin is cited as co-author.

By my count, from 1998 onward, Timmer's storm chasing buddies have lost four autos, destroyed by hail or flood, and he has lost at least one and perhaps two of his own. His truck-based armored vehicle "Dominator" is probably next on the list, because he plans to drive it right into a tornado vortex. I haven't yet heard whether he's done so.

Reed Timmer appears in the Storm Chasers show on Discovery Channel. The ups and downs of his life that led to this gig are the subject of the book, which begins with his arrival in Norman, Oklahoma in 1998, where he studied Meteorology. He obtained Bachelors' and Masters' degrees there, and has begun PhD Studies, but is apparently still at work on that.

The book is his memoir of involvement with tornadoes, and a couple hurricanes, and of his career as a publicity hound, once he found that his videos were a salable commodity. His web site TornadoVideos sells plenty of videos. He is not much into still pictures, so I got this image from one of his rivals, who kindly supplies her copyright notice in the image; see Green Sky Chaser.

For geographic reasons, the United States great plains are Tornado Central, the location of Tornado Alley, where more than half of all the world's tornadoes occur (some sources claim 80%, but I think that is high). During the years I lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, while I didn't see a tornado, I almost drove into one that was wrapped in rain. I believe that was in 1990, when one tore through the middle of town and caused a bit of havoc. The road leading north from Stillwater to Ponca City crosses the buckle of the tornado belt.

Four years later, on a family vacation, we saw one that looked a lot like this image, as we approached Goodland, Kansas from the southeast. It crossed the road about ten miles ahead of us, and the storm dissipated by the time we got there. I like to see a tornado over there, just close enough to see well, but that's it. Storm chasers like a more up-close-and-personal experience.

This "up close" element sets Timmer apart. He's managed to get himself inside a couple of F0 twisters (In yesterday's post I wrote that an F0 has wind speeds less than 73 mph or 117 kph or 33 m/s. That is almost enough to knock you off your feet, but not enough to pick you up. Anything stronger, you're not likely to survive). He thrives on getting close enough so the storm fills his video camera's viewfinder. As a result, he's obtained many dramatic videos.

The "up close" element makes more conservative storm chasers uneasy, even angry. Timmer is a maverick, and revels in it. While he frequently writes of his desire to improve the science, it is the adrenaline rush that drives him. Let's be clear, he is a scientist all right. He's simply one of the more colorful ones. I'd compare him with Robert Bakker, the paleontologist who did the most to popularize the more active, intelligent side of dinosaurs. If Timmer's swashbuckling style gets more people's attention, and particularly helps the denizens of Tornado Alley save their own lives, I'm all for it. I don't have cable TV, or I'd mark my calendar to watch the next episode of Storm Chasers.

No comments: