There are storm chasers, and then there are storm chasers. The term is often used to refer to contractors who follow in the wake of hailstorms repairing damaged roofs, but there’s another brand of storm chaser, made famous by the movie “Twister” and the Discovery Channel show “Storm Chasers”: scientists who follow severe weather events to secure data on storms, often risking their lives in the process.
If you’ve ever seen the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers,” you’re probably familiar with Reed Timmer, the leader of a team of meteorologists who track tornadoes and other extreme weather events in a tank-like vehicle named the Dominator. What you might not know is that he’s formed a company that provides data on hailstorms and the majority of his clients are roofing contractors.
Timmer has been obsessed with extreme weather for as long as he can remember. “When I was really little I know I used to be deathly afraid of thunder and lightning,” he recalled. “I think that fear turned into intense curiosity as I grew older, and whenever a severe thunderstorm warning would get issued I’d get fired up and run all around the house and grab the family video camera and run out into the front yard. My first storm chasing experience was actually when I was 14. I grabbed the family video camera and headed out into the front yard for a severe thunderstorm and got pelted by quarter-size hail that destroyed the video camera.”
The experience didn’t dim Timmer’s passion for documenting severe weather events. “As soon as I got my driver’s license I’d drive around in a 1985 Plymouth Reliant with a blown-out muffler and chase storms and lake-effect snow squalls in Michigan,” he said. “Then I decided to follow my passion and study meteorology at the University of Oklahoma in ’98. And I’ve been going to school ever since.”
Timmer is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in meteorology. He plans to finish up this semester, before storm season cranks up again.
Joining "Storm Chasers"After moving to Oklahoma to attend school, Timmer continued to chase storms as a hobby with his friend, Joel Taylor, finding time to do his homework in the back seat. Timmer and Taylor started selling storm video clips to various TV shows and websites. In 2007, the Discovery Channel used some of their clips in the pilot season of “Storm Chasers” and then asked them to join the show for its second season.
“Discovery Channel approached us in January of 2008 and asked if we wanted to be a part of the show and gave us the opportunity to do what we love for a living,” Timmer said. “And they’ve helped us out with building the Dominator and some of our other research tools, like the radar that’s mounted on the roof that measures the vertical winds inside tornadoes and our cannon system. A lot of that has been made possible by Discovery, so it’s a great partnership.”
At the heart of their mission is pure science, and with its radar system, anemometer and an air cannon system that shoots parachute probes into tornadoes, the Dominator is a rolling laboratory. “We’re basically trying to get a 3-D MRI of the tornado using all this research equipment on the Dominator,” said Timmer.
The base vehicle for the Dominator is a Chevy Tahoe. “It’s protected with a shell of armor that’s designed to keep us protected from flying projectiles inside tornadoes,” said Timmer. “That shell is made of 16-gauge steel with Rhino Lining Extreme sprayed on the outside, which is a polyethylene-Kevlar composite. You can hit it with a sledgehammer and not even make a dent. In fact, in the first episode of this season of ‘Storm Chasers’ I hit it with a baseball bat and it came bouncing back and hit me in the forehead and almost knocked me out.”
The Dominator is equipped with a hydraulic system that drops it flush to the ground, preventing wind from going underneath the vehicle. It also has bulletproof Lexan-polycarbonate windows, which have been modified to rise at the push of a button. “There was a tornado back in Nebraska in 2009 that blew our window out, and that’s because the Lexan outer protective glass was stuck,” Timmer explained. “I had to roll up just the regular glass Tahoe window, and inside the tornado we got hit by the suction vortex and it blew the window into my face.”
Storm WarningsTimmer noted storm chasers perform a key public service, as they are often the first to spot tornadoes and notify the National Weather Service. “Storm chasers play a key role in the warning process,” he said. “The great news now is that there are more storm chasers. In the 70s and 80s there were a handful of storm chasers, but now there are hundreds of them probably, and even weekend warriors who go out and storm chase, and I think that it’s difficult for a tornado to go unseen these days, unless it’s at night or in forested areas. Storm chasers will relay reports of these tornadoes and also large hail and severe wind to the National Weather Service and local media, and they relay that to the people through tornado sirens and television warning statements. We also encourage everybody to get a NOAA weather radio with an alarm system so that if tornado warnings are issued in your area at night, that weather radio will wake you up, hopefully.”
The team has witnessed firsthand the wrath of Mother Nature, but they obviously prefer to track storms in unpopulated areas. “We’ve been lucky to not encounter too much loss of life and property over the 12 years we’ve storm chased,” said Timmer.
That was not the case on April 24, 2010, when a tornado struck Yazoo City, Mississippi. “We were chasing the tornado, and that one was about a mile wide and up to nearly two miles wide at times. It was moving about 70 miles per hour and was really strong - almost too strong for us to drive into. We were right on its heels as it came into the town of Yazoo City, Mississippi. We hit the damage path and soon we saw all of the homes leveled and trees down. We were there before the emergency personnel were, so we got out of our car - we had a Discovery medic with us - and we ran into the damage path and pulled people out of their houses and found people with serious injuries. We started directing the emergency personnel that were just arriving on the scene to where these injured people were.”
They also encountered a man with a severe spinal injury. The medic called in air support from a Jackson hospital, stabilized him on a body board, and gave him IVs. They carried him on a stretcher through the damage to an area where the helicopter could land.
Timmer’s team has had its share of close calls as well, including an EF4 tornado in Wadena, Minnesota, that went right over the Dominator. “The vehicle started sliding across the ground and we were hearing weird noises and a piece of debris hit our anemometer and we saw it get ripped off and sucked into the tornado. I think that’s about the max wind speed that we want to handle.”
Timmer’s experiences have only made him more fascinated with extreme weather. “Even though tornadoes are beautiful, their power still needs to be respected because the wind speeds inside can cause deadly destruction sometimes,” he said. “It’s crazy -when you’re intercepting a tornado, and you’re watching it, you’re almost mesmerized by its beauty. You don’t think it can be that strong, but then you feel the first wind gust and it shakes the vehicle back and forth and your ears are popping, it can be pretty scary.”
LiveHailMap.comAbout three years ago Timmer and some other grad students at the University of Oklahoma formed a consulting company named Weather Fusion LLC. “It was something that combined our passion for meteorology and collecting data and also severe weather,” Timmer said. “It just seemed like a perfect match.”
Weather Fusion got its start doing custom weather forensic reports. Then the team figured out a way to automatically generate accurate hail maps with radar in near real time, and as a result the website LiveHailMap.com was born. Seventy percent of its clients are roofing contractors.
The inspiration for the company was simple enough, said Timmer. “A couple of years ago our house was impacted by hail and the roof was damaged, so we had to repair it,” he said. “One of the companies came to our door, and we realized that they went door to door, looking for where hail has fallen.”
The meteorologists knew the path of a hailstorm could be narrow and tricky, so they figured that a detailed map of a hailstorm could help contractors pinpoint damaged areas. “Our number one goal is to help our roofing contractors make more money and increase their ROI,” said Timmer. “Our maps help them do that by pointing them directly to where the hail most likely caused damage as quickly as possible.”
“Our maps offer several unique features and advantages,” said meteorologist Matt Van Every, the National Sales Manager for LiveHailMap.com. “The most important is that they are generated by our computer servers in real time, eliminating human error and decreasing the time to availability to near zero. Another benefit of computer automation is the ability to cross-reference the estimated hail size with demographic information such as population density, allowing us to produce damage probability maps showing where the hail was most intense over populated areas and had the best chance of causing damage.”
LiveHailMap.com’s maps and data are fully integrated with Bing Maps, Google Earth, and GeoEstimator’s aerial measurement service, and they can be purchased individually or through a subscription. Van Every also announced that the company would be introducing two products at the 2011 International Roofing Expo in Las Vegas: PointData™, a proprietary hail history database, and SmartAlerts™, a condensed text representation of the hail path.
“At any location, you can type in an address or a latitude-longitude and it will give you a full hail history of every single date that that exact location has been impacted by hail,” said Van Every. “It gives you an estimated maximum size at that location and then within a one-, three- and 10-mile radius. That’s something that’s very powerful to contractors and insurance adjusters alike.”
SmartAlerts were designed to be more precise that public storm reports, which often overestimate hail size and can be off by as much as 10 or 15 miles, according to Van Every. “With SmartAlerts, what we’ve done is we’ve generated a system that updates all of our customers on exactly where the hail hit. It’s got a product in there called SmartReports™, and that’s basically the bull’s-eye of the hail path, so you know exactly where the hailstorm is, what the maximum size is, and it even includes a small sample map. That way the customer can see if it’s worth further investigation. Roofing contractors love it, as well as insurance catastrophic teams.”
Changing Weather PatternsThe evidence is clear that the planet is getting warmer, said Timmer. He believes it’s likely spring will start earlier and fall will end later, and that those transitional seasons could last longer as well. That could mean increased demand for hail maps in the future.
“I think that it’s possible we could see an increase in the frequency of damaging hail events, and I also think the locations of those events could change,” he said. “With summers becoming warmer and longer, you might see more hail in northern areas like the Midwest, the Northern Plains, even extending into the Northeast.”
“While you can’t attribute single events to global warming, with the general trend towards extreme climate, I think you’re going to get a lot more of these wintertime tornado outbreaks where you’ll also get large, damaging hail,” Timmer concluded. “The climate is definitely changing. There’s going to be more storms, and we’ll be there to drive into them and collect data.”
For more information, please call 888-929-4245 or visit www.livehailmap.com.
Sidebar: Taking IRE by StormReed Timmer is scheduled to be at the International Roofing Expo in Las Vegas, and he plans to be on hand to sign copies of his book, “Into the Storm,” Feb. 16 from 12-4 p.m. at the Product Showcase at the IRE.
The book describes how Timmer became interested in meteorology and details his experiences documenting extreme weather. “It combines action-packed stories with a little bit of science and gives a rundown of severe weather forecasting,” he said. “It talks about how I first became interested in storm chasing in my 1985 Plymouth Reliant with paper maps and the pages would rip out and blow out the window. And now I’m in a tank designed to drive into tornadoes with all this crazy technology.”