Special Assignment

Inside the dangerous world of storm spotting

CREATED Jun 18, 2014

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MILWAUKEE - Storm chasing has exploded in the past 25 years.  It's become so popular that when there is a risk for storm, roads in the Plains states look like rush hour in major cities.

Cars line the roads packed with three types of chasers:  Researchers, spotters, and thrill seekers looking for that amazing video.  Chasing is heading in a dangerous direction, not just with the number of untrained chasers on the road, but how close everyone wants to get.

Matt Malaicki knows how bad it can get.  He's been chasing storms for the past 5 years at a safe distance.  He admits, "I don't want to be anywhere near, I don't want to be close.... but you are going to have people no matter what that will try to outrun it, or run into it to get a good picture."

Tim Samaras was not in it for the pictures.  Samaras and his team are renowned researchers and storm chasers who know the danger of tornadoes along with their unpredictable behavior.  So no one expected Samaras would be the one to lose his life chasing last May just west of Oklahoma City.  The tornado with 300 mile per hour winds took a sudden turn into the path of several chasers, killing Tim, his son and their photographer.  It proves that even the most experienced and knowledgeable can still be caught off guard, and chasing is not a thrill ride.  

So Aaron Tobin made sure he took the Skywarn basic training class and Spotter Network test before he began chasing.  

"If you are just someone with a camera looking for a cool picture to sell to a magazine, don't do it if you haven't been properly trained," he warns.

Spotters know how to observe, evaluate and identify storms and know where to be to stay safe.  Most importantly, trained spotters are needed to help meteorologists verify what the storms are producing, whether that is a tornado, hail, wind damage or flooding.  Tobin explains, "You only see circulation on the radar, but you don't know for sure if there is a funnel, or anything on the ground.  You need these trained spotters out there to tell you.  I'm here, I'm looking at it, its going east on this road.  You need those eyes on the ground to tell you what and where."

The trees and hills of Wisconsin make it incredibly difficult and dangerous to chase in the state, so chasers have to be careful and responsible since they may be putting their lives at risk.

"Mother Nature doesn't let you do whatever you want without her permission.... yes, she is in charge," Malaicki says.

If you have a passion for storms and want to become a trained spotter, go to the Milwaukee area Skywarn website, Twitter or Facebook page for more information.  Also, it's a good idea to become first aid and CPR certified since you are often the first on the scene.