The United States sees the most tornado action in the world, with three out of four tornadoes touching down on American soil. With more than 800 of these swirling funnel clouds reported in the United States each year, it's no wonder that the U.S. leads the world in another offshoot of these violent storms — chasing them. Storm chasers tend to stay about a mile away from the funnel, unless they happen to be driving a tornado intercept vehicle (TIV), in which case, they can be a part of the action.
IMAX cinematographer Sean Casey designed and built, along with some help, the first TIV in 2003, at a cost of roughly $80,000. The car underneath is actually a truck — a Ford F-150 pickup. What separates this pickup from other pickup trucks is just about everything else about the vehicle. The main purpose of this heavily armored truck is to drive it into the path of a tornado so the IMAX camera can film what's going on.
In other words, it's the most expensive tripod ever built.
Stripped down to the engine and chassis, the TIV I was then rebuilt using a skeleton of steel tubing and I-beams, one-fourth of an inch steel plate floors and one-eighth of an inch steel plating over the frame. The side windows were replaced with Lexan, an incredibly strong plastic, and a front windshield was swapped for a tempered glass and Lexan laminate.
The enormous IMAX camera that Casey uses to shoot these storms up close is housed in a military-style turret. Three-inch steel bearings allow the camera to spin 360 degrees, so Casey and his storm chasing crew can shoot in any direction in an instant. There are two more hatches built for additional, smaller format cameras. All this extra reinforcement and equipment makes the TIV weigh in at a hefty 14,000 pounds. Despite this, TIV I can still hit top speeds of about 90 miles per hour. If you're wondering why Casey didn't simply outfit a military tank with a camera, it's mainly because of the speed issue. Storms change direction and come and go in a matter of seconds, so speed is key when chasing a storm. Besides that, you need special training to operate a tank — not so for the TIV I.
After realizing some shortcomings with the TIV I, Casey and company set out to build the improved TIV II. They addressed issues with ground clearance, top speed and the fact that the TIV I wasn't based on a four-wheel drive model truck. This time, a Dodge truck was used, an extra axle was added to make it a whopping six-wheel drive vehicle, and an extra engine boost was achieved thanks to a massive turbo diesel engine with propane water injection. Unfortunately, the TIV II never got to max out at 100 miles per hour as it was dogged by mechanical glitches. Work continues on the TIV II as the TIV I regained the crown as the ultimate storm chase vehicle.
In the Eye of a Tornado
Tornadoes are one of the most feared weather events on Earth. Aside from the massive amount of damage these funnel clouds can cause, the notion of getting swept into one has driven fear into the hearts of tornado alley residents since before Dorothy was off to see the wizard.
So what would it be like inside the eye of a tornado? While it's not verified, there are two men who claim to have been on the inside looking out — and lived to tell about it.
Will Keller's Story
On June 22, 1928, a farmer from Greensburg, Kansas named Will Keller had a once in a lifetime experience. His was the first of only two incidences on record in which a person has claimed to have stood in the belly of a tornado and survived.
His story went as follows: A massive hail storm had just passed over his property, and he and his family went outside to get a better look at the damage. Keller spotted an umbrella-shaped cloud in the distance and knew that this could mean a tornado was about to form. Turns out he was right, as three funnel clouds simultaneously formed and started to come his way. He did what any father would do next — got his wife and children inside and into the storm cellar. He was headed that way as well, but decided to take one last look at the impending twister.
Keller maintained that he was transfixed by the tornado. So much so that he stood his ground until it was directly overhead, placing him square in the eye of the violent storm. He's been quoted as saying that once he was inside, it was "as still as death." He smelled a strong, gassy odor and had trouble breathing. When he looked up he reported seeing an opening at the top about 50 to 100 feet in diameter, 2,500 feet above his head. The inside of the funnel was lit up by a constant barrage of lightning going from one side to the other. He also noticed several smaller twisters breaking free from the inside walls. Luckily, the tornado passed, leaving him alive and his home in tact.
Roy Hall's Story
A soybean farmer in McKinnet, Texas, Roy Hall had an experience in 1951 much like Will Keller's.
As a dangerous storm approached, Hall shepherded his family into the basement before going outside to get a better look. Baseball-sized hail began to rain down, leaving Hall with no choice but to head in himself for protection. Before he could make his way into the basement, a loud rumble erupted and much to his surprise, his roof was ripped from his home, leaving him staring straight up into the eye of a tornado.
Like Keller, Hall described the inside as a smooth wall with smaller twisters breaking free and dancing around inside. He also reported non-stop bluish lightning, making everything clearly visible. The same storm that killed 100 others spared Hall and his family.
Is Your Dog a Meteorologist?
We've all heard stories about or witnessed animals seemingly predicting the weather. Just stop by any farm and hang around before a storm hits. You'll see lots of activity — some nervous chickens and maybe even some animals heading for cover. You may have heard tales about animals heading for high ground shortly before a tsunami or hurricane hits. This is evidenced by the fact that few wild animals perished in the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 — even though more than 200,000 people lost their lives.
So can animals predict the weather? Not exactly, but they can sense certain changes that accompany weather systems.
Most researchers agree that animals don't have an additional sense in place that allows them to sense dangerous weather systems. They also agree that animals may use their five existing senses better than humans do, giving them a leg up when it comes to taking cover. Take hearing, for example. Some animals are known to hear things humans can't. And when you're talking low, it's all about infrasonic sound. These low-pitched vibrations fall below 20 Hz on the hertz frequency scale. Elephants and cattle are just a couple of examples of animals that can hear below the 20 Hz range that eludes humans. Because thunder and hurricanes can produce sound waves in the infrasonic range, some animals may get an early warning for an incoming storm that humans don't.
Barometric and Hydrostatic Pressure
Barometric and hydrostatic are just fancy names for air and water pressure, both of which fluctuate slightly. Anything more than these normal fluctuations can cause your pets to pick up on it, long before you do. Why or how they do so is a mystery, but animal behavior has indicated that it occurs. A rapid drop in air and water pressure that precedes a hurricane can send animals into survival mode. This means they'll seek higher ground or shelter.
And this isn't just limited to land animals. Researchers studying sharks during Tropical Storm Gabrielle and Hurricane Charlie found that they swam to deeper waters when the barometric pressure dropped only a few millibars. Birds and bees also appear to sense these pressure changes and seek shelter in their nests and hives.
Sense the Season
While a groundhog's shadow definitely has no bearing on how long the winter will last, there is some anecdotal evidence that certain animal behaviors predict the severity of the pending season. Native Americans used to study where bears traveled to hibernate for a clue on how harsh the winter might be. They also gathered clues based on how deep into a cave a bear made its den. Another clue was to look at the bear's paws for heavier fur, which meant a snowy winter to come.